In END OF THE RACE, the polarization caused by the Vietnam War is almost fifty years old; the racial split is, of course much older, but Ezra Klein, in WHY WE’RE POLARIZED, sees a radical shift in political attitudes caused by the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties. Living through those times in a college town, gave me a jarring, painful view of that shift, so deeply moving I sat down and wrote my first published novel, NOWHERE ELSE TO GO. Because I think it vital that we get out of our locked down attitudes—our extreme toxic polarization, as Klein would put it—I’m giving a taste of the opening here.
Labor Day weekend, 1968
Cassie Daniels stood at the door of Norton Bluffs School Board room taking in the semi-circle of board members and principals gathered for yet again another last minute meeting. Energized by her summer’s work, she was ready to go and in no mood for another dose of the town’s anxieties.
The rest of the principals, heads bowed over some report, looked as irritated as she felt, but the high school principal, Simon Peabody, stood whispering nervously into the Superintendent’s ear. They kept looking out the window, as though to assure themselves that the town still sat solid on the bluffs above the Blackwater where Josiah Norton had placed it a century ago.
Cassie’s breath escaped in a huff. It was like walking back into the spring. War protests had spread from the college across the river, raising Peabody’s voice several decibels. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. The explosions of rage from “The Flats,” the muddy land beneath the cliffs shared by the railroad and the blacks, joined the college uproar, reducing him to panic and his high school to a war zone. It didn’t look as though the summer break had calmed him much—more like they’d all been called together today because Simon Peabody didn’t want to reopen his doors.”
The same moment in many voices
Diane Adams sat on the old log they called ‘Devil’s Walk,’ swung her skinny legs, freckled more than ever from the summer sun, and tried not to think about school.
Charlie Johnson woke, as usual, to the barking of the Stevens’ dog and lay listening to the plop of newspapers on the porches along the street and to other dogs taking up where Pinto had left off. The world making believe it was just another day.
Nancy Lampton adjusted the plant for better light and watched the slight blonde figure of her daughter come down the street. Alone as usual. She wasn’t ready for junior high, no matter what Bob said.
High on the hill opposite the college bluffs, Louisa Norton watched the candlelight flicker over her mother’s fine-boned face and wondered anew at the childlike quality of her gaze. … They spoke to her mother of her garden, of the condition of the streets downtown, and of the quiet of Norton Bluffs compared to the hustle of New York, from which Louisa had, thankfully, returned. They didn’t speak of the war, of the cause of Louisa’s absence, of campus protests, or of the troubles in the schools.
Delta Elementary’s newest envoys into the world across the bridge, tired of their ball game, rode their bikes around their long-suffering elementary school to jeer into her windows, mock conjured-up teachers who would plague them no more, and torment the younger children who strayed onto the playground. Then, finding nothing more to do to fill the evening hours, they circled around each other under the old maple on the edge of the schoolyard.
“Hey, what’s the matter with that bike this time?” Jim asked. The squawks of Diane’s chain had been rending the evening air.
“Don’t know.” Diane rode over to him. “Someone dumped the garden tools on top of it, I think.”
She [Diane] left the bike to Jim and Johnny, and went to sit beside a deflated and sullen Carla who slumped against the tree trunk, her finery of the afternoon replaced by tattered jeans.
“What’s wrong with you?” Diane queried.
Carla shrugged. “Had a fight with my mom, is all.”
Diane sighed. Carla was always fighting with her mom. … “What about, this time?”
“I was just horsing around with Jesse. Big deal!”
“Your ma, she’s really afraid you’re going to make out with some boy, huh?” Johnny chuckled. “Man, what she don’t know! Maybe I oughta go tell her about you and …” He dodged Carla’s arm.
“You don’t go anywhere near my house!”
“That right? No boys around, huh?” he grinned.
… “Whee!” shrieked Jane, bouncing up and down on her bike seat as she rode circles around the tree. …“I’m taking the bus! Carla, Di, are you going on the bus?”
“Sure!” Carla’s response was offhand. Di only nodded. She hadn’t wanted to take the bus, but she was ashamed to ask to be taken by car.
“Some kids are going by carpool,” sneered Jane.
“My mom wouldn’t take me,” Dorothy moaned, softly.
“Why should she?” her twin brother, Johnny, retorted. “You’re going with me.”
… “You guys all going on the bus, too?” Diane cheered up.
“Are there any other black kids there, Carla? Besides us? Besides kids from Delta?” Jim asked.
Carla’s frowned, puzzled. “I don’t know. I guess so, aren’t there, Jesse?”
“Sure. Kids from Carter. More kids from Carter this year, ’cause they changed the boundaries.”
“I heard they don’t want the kids from Carter. I heard they don’t like black kids there,” Dorothy mumbled.
“Yeah,” Jane agreed. “I heard that, too. That it’s all rich white kids. Bertha says they’re real mean to black kids over there, and you better learn to fight. If you don’t fight, the other black kids’ll get on your case.”
“Bertha!” scoffed Jesse. “She’s got a big mouth. If you don’t bother no one, no one’ll bother you.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Dorothy persisted. “I heard they wait for you in the bathrooms.”
“Aw, there’re always a few dudes looking for trouble,” Jesse scoffed. “But that’s only in the boys’ bathroom, Dorothy. You’ll be okay if you don’t go around with your chin stuck out. Like Jim.”
“Hey, why you picking on me? I’m not looking for trouble. Not me.” Jim’s voice was heavy with decision. “If trouble just don’t find me.” The muttered addition sounded like a prayer.
“Bertha says she’s going to fight,” Jane insisted. “She says she’s going to set that school on its ear if they try an’ mess with her. Says her brother’s got friends …”
“Bertha, Bertha. Big talk Bertha.” Jesse turned away.
“Where is Bertha, anyway?” Jane asked.
“Home washing the dishes and minding her sisters and brothers.”
“Yeah. Her mom won’t let her out after dinner,” Carla agreed.
“Or any other time, hardly,” Di muttered.
“Yeah,” Jesse agreed, softly. “Talkin’s about the only fun Bertha gets. Robert home, Di?” he asked.
Diane nodded, and Jesse biked off toward the Adams’, dismissing them all.
“Is he right, Johnny?” Dorothy asked.
Johnny shrugged. “Jesse doesn’t have any trouble there. Come on, Jim, I’ll race you home.”
Jim brought Diane’s bike over to her. “Bring it over to Johnny’s,” he reminded her and took off.
“Hey, wait up!” cried Jane, but just then a far-away bell clanged. “Aw, nuts, got to go.”
“Is it all rich white kids, Carla, does your mom say?” asked Di, as she watched the street lights flicker on. Carla shook her head.
“Dunno. Doesn’t sound much like Delta from the way she talks. She likes it fine. Keeps saying I have to behave like a Red River girl now.”
“What does that mean?”
“Dunno.” Carla got up as her mother’s voice sounded its shrill summons. “She thinks Delta kids are too rough.” Carla made a face and rode off.
Diane, walking her crippled, half-dismantled bike, was the last to leave the dim recesses of the lonely old tree.
So as Cassie Daniels opens the doors of Red River Junior High, the smell of fear, private and public, normal and not so normal, is everywhere.
*Though NOWHERE ELSE TO GO is out of print, it is still available as an e-book, and paperback copies are available from me for $10. E-mail me at email@example.com with your address, and you will receive a PayPal invoice. When that is complete, I will mail you the book.