Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Big Black Man Who Scared Us Out of Southern California

In view of this summer's news stories...this scrap of a memory is hardly even a story, but it seems to need to be shared. Maybe more non-Black children need to grow up hearing stories in which "a big Black man" doesn't mean "something to fear." Here's mine, for what it's worth, told as true:

Mother’s relatives, most of whom were Methodists, used to “testify” by telling stories of things they believed to be miraculous interventions in their lives. Dad’s relatives, most of whom were Baptists, were more modest about these things. Nevertheless, Dad used to say that this story was as close as he’d come to a “miracle.”

They had found a fabulous deal on a house in Waterman Canyon. (Near the scene of last winter's murders, yes.) And why was the lease price for such a big house in such splendid condition so low? Because the road, at least in the early 1960s, was a death trap. There was a real canyon and, when Mother drove out to work in the morning, she had to make a turn around a big rock that cut off vision from either sides. A driver on the main road couldn’t see her car—her all-time favorite car, a Plymouth Fury—nor could she see the other driver. More than one driver ran off the main road into the yard, at night, because it was hard to see the road.

One morning, as Mother set off to work, Dad and I heard the dreaded sound of another car approaching that blind turn, moving fast. Dad yelled to warn Mother, but she didn’t hear him; the Plymouth was not one of your new-style, quiet-running cars.

Before it roared around that rock Dad could see the other car, an early 1960s Cadillac. The Fury was not a small car but, to Dad, the Cadillac looked twice its size. It was coasting down a long hill in high gear. It looked to Dad as if nothing could stop a head-on collision.

The driver of the Cadillac saw Mother about the time Dad saw him. Dad thought he might have been the biggest, blackest man in California. He apparently saw or heard something coming around the rock. He stood up in his seat, stomping the brake pedal into the floor as he threw the hand brake. Dad was 6’2” and he reckoned, by the way the driver’s head bumped the ceiling in the Cadillac, that the driver must have been at least 6’6”. Dad always wondered whether the driver's size had anything to do with his "miraculous" ability even to slow down his car.

Mother might have heard the Cadillac’s brakes screech first, before she leaned on her brakes too. The brakes screamed; the cars slowed down and finally stopped, about a yard apart.

In those days all cars had “wait time”; after the cars stopped we could see them sitting still for several seconds before they started again.

“We’re going to find another house,” Dad told me. I suppose I was whining, the way little children do before they’ve learned how to pray or even how to swear. “Nobody’s driving out around that rock any more.”


And that was how a big Black man scared us out of southern California…for good. My parents never went back there, and for that I was always thankful.