When We Are All The Same

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
Vinyl should be judged not by color of the album cover, but by the content of its music.

Submitted: July 06, 2015

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Submitted: July 06, 2015

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Alright, listen up, white people.  Just because a few of you have been nice to me doesn’t let you off the hook for all the shitty things you’ve done to my people.  Now that we’ve got that out of the way, this is my story.

My name is Percival Alston.  I was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1951.  I am a black man.  I don’t play basketball or bass guitar, and I don’t dance.  I can fix anything that is broken, that is what I did for 20 years in the Navy.

Southern American history was not one of my strong points, however, back in 1987.  I was two years away from retirement and the inevitable return to civilian life.  On leave, visiting a friend in Memphis, Tennessee.  I was to report for duty in Chattanooga, on the other end of the state, by 0800 the next day.  I should have stayed on the interstate.

When the two lane highway I thought was a shortcut took me to a tiny town called Pulaski, I didn’t know I was in the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.  My brain must have been on pause when I saw the pool hall sign and decided to stop for a beer.

But it all came clear to me when I walked inside.

Nothing like being the only African American in a bar full of drunk crackers.  Turns out a black guy wearing a white uniform stands out even in a poorly lit pool room.

Just when I was thinking about who to fight first, I heard a voice from the bar.  “Hey sailor, come over here.  We got something to say to you.”

That was when the two biggest, meanest looking dudes in the bar shook my hand and insisted on buying me a drink.  They were Navy veterans.

I didn’t get in a fight that day.  Or if I did, I don’t remember.  I do remember emptying pitchers and running out of money.  And lots of Navy stories.

When I woke up it was obviously the next day.  I could tell I was in a bed.  Through a window, I could see a neon sign with the word “Vacancy” flashing.  The rest of the sign said “Heart Of Dixie Motel”.  The irony of that would not be obvious to me until years later.

I was in my skivvies but my uniform was neatly folded in the chair.  My wallet, watch and car keys were on the table, along with a note.

“Hey dumbass, you passed out so we poured you into bed.  You owe us for the hotel room and beer.  The next time you are in Pulaski you’re buying.”  They signed their names and listed their addresses and phone numbers.

That was all warm and fuzzy but I remembered I was an employee of the U.S. Navy.  A glance at my watch and I realized it was 1100.  I should have reported for duty three hours ago.  I was AWOL.

After several connections and a half hour on hold, I was explaining myself to my new commanding officer.  I told him the truth, I was way too hung over to come up with anything else.  When I finished, there was a pause, then a long laugh.  Captain Jenkins said, “Son, you just made my day.  Since we aren’t currently gearing up for war and the mechanical shop isn’t backlogged, I’m going to overlook your error in judgment.  Take a shower, get some coffee and breakfast, then get on the road.  Report for duty at 0600 tomorrow.  That will give me enough time to tell your story to everyone on the base.”

Anyone with 18 years under their belt knows the only thing to do at that point is say “Yes, Sir.”

The last two years of my Navy career passed quietly.  I spent my free time thinking about what was next.  After half of a lifetime in the military, that transition is a big one.  Everyone has heard the stories about guys who never adjusted to the civilian world.

I was determined to be different.  I had been saving my pennies for years.  It’s not that hard to do when you spend months at a time in the middle of an ocean.  I had a plan.  I was going back to Cleveland to open a music store.  Percy’s Records.

Except something didn’t feel right about my plan.  Couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Until the day I was packing and I found the note from my pals in Pulaski.  That was when it hit me.  I was going to open my record store in the same town that spawned the Klan.  Go figure.

Maybe it was because I had gotten spoiled with warm southern winters.  Maybe it was the small town atmosphere, with no traffic and little crime.  Maybe it was the kindness of strangers.  It didn’t matter why.  It was my plan and I didn’t have to explain it to anyone or even completely understand it myself.

And that is how a black man from Cleveland, Ohio came to open a record store in Pulaski, Tennessee, all the way back in 1989.  Adjusting to life in a rural, southern town was a real hoot.  I learned how to say “ain’t”.  I learned that iced tea doesn’t necessarily involve ice.

I never quite got used to the Confederate flag.  But after a few heated discussions, I realized the people who displayed it were handing me their money along with everyone else.  After a while, all dollars begin to look alike.

Not to gloss anything over.  I did have a number of encounters with people who clearly did not want me to be there.  They didn’t have any problem expressing their feelings to me.  I returned the favor.  Yet, I never had any real trouble with any of them.  They stayed out of my way, I stayed out of theirs.

And nothing lasts forever.  The economies of small towns in America tend to be fragile.  In my case, Percy’s Records was doomed when the nearby Goodyear plant closed.  I had a lot of loyal customers, but you can’t heat your house or feed your children with vinyl discs.

All I have to remind me of those days is the letter from the pool hall incident, a box of leftover records, and photographs from the party when we closed the store.  It’s not hard to tell which one is me.  Whenever I hugged anyone I did my best to put my big black hands over those dang flags they had stitched on the back of their denim jackets.


© Copyright 2017 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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