Emmylou Harris and the KKK
As I got closer, I saw the horses had riders. Closer still, I could make out the riders' white outfits. Then I saw the white hoods.
I come from a long line of campers. It was only when I became an adult that I realized my parents couldn’t afford road trips to Florida and the like. I found our yearly jaunts to City Lake in Crossville, Tennessee to be everything a vacation should be: relaxing, carefree, and, in my eyes, somewhat extravagant. Living in a tent, cooking over a Coleman stove, and being gloriously left to my own devices while my parents fished all day was a great way to spend two weeks. My father only had a week of vacation, so one of the weeks, he actually got up every morning and drove 90 minutes one way to his job with the Southern Railway in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then back to the campsite again in the evenings. My mother, a fierce housecleaner at home, brought that attention to the campsite, as well. The tent was spotless, and, adopting some Asian philosophy, she demanded that we remove our shoes before entering our tent to keep the debris to a minimum. She cooked simple but filling meals in such quantities that we were never hungry, and snacks abounded. Dishes were washed immediately after use and food was properly stored in coolers. Relaxing was only permissible after Momma’s campsite veritably shone.
The camping facility was run by Mr. and Mrs. John Freeman, an entirely pleasant couple with a combination restaurant/store/bait shop on the hill that bordered one side of City Lake. The building was big and rustic with a full covered porch that ran along two sides. Part of the building was actually the Freeman’s home, but when you passed through the main entrance, the screen door banging happily behind you, you entered a cool world of overhead fans, spinning red upholstered soda fountain stools, racks of candies and chips, and deep electric coolers filled with glass bottles of soft drinks standing neck-deep in frigid water that rippled with the constant throb of the unit’s cooling apparatus. My father kept a “tab” there, so, within reason, I could get a Coke and a snack pretty much any time I wanted. I told you it was an extravagant vacation.
Such was my summer vacation for years, the only variation being the number of family members who camped in adjoining sites. Uncle Ernest (my namesake) and Aunt Ena were always there, but some years my sister Carolyn would be there with husband Bob and their kids, Bill, Cathy, and Jimmy. My oldest sister Audrey would occasionally camp with us, her daughters Rhonda and Jean Anne in tow. My youngest sister (and nine years my senior) Frankie was often there, too, though not always. She was bona fide boy crazy, and after she got her own car and after-school job, her dating life determined whether she came to Crossville or stayed back in Chattanooga.
Even after we kids had grown up, my parents continued to camp at Crossville, and the rotating cast of campers grew to include our friends, lovers, and new mates. But when my father passed away in the winter of 1979, it looked like our camping days would come to an end. Momma and Daddy had made it an institution, and I couldn’t imagine such a vacation without him.
Momma surprised us the summer of 1980 by wanting to return to Crossville. She and Daddy had owned a little camper for a number of years, so my brother-in-law Bob agreed to tow it to City Lake and set it up. Momma, Carolyn, and I stayed in the camper, and Frankie and her brood pitched tents nearby. Audrey, Bob, and other family members came on the weekends. We wanted Momma to have a good vacation, her first without Daddy, so everyone stood ready to pitch in.
I had just purchased my very first new car, a grey Chevette stick shift with a factory cassette player in it, and I was looking for any reason whatsoever to drive, so I volunteered to shuttle back and forth to Chattanooga every two days or so to do laundry, pick up mail, and generally run errands for my family. The trips back to Crossville were always the best because night would fall before I arrived, and I thoroughly enjoyed tooling up the mountain to the Cumberland Plateau with the cool blue lights of my dash illuminating the interior of the car, the fragrant summer night air whipping through the open windows, and my stereo blasting. I was enamored with Emmylou Harris’s all-acoustic album Roses in the Snow; it was the album I had purchased right before my father died and I will always associate it with him. With guest pickers and singers Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Ricky Scaggs, Johnny Cash, and others, Ms. Harris sang haunting and plaintive songs such as “The Boxer,” “Learnin’,” “Gold Watch and Chain,” “Roses in the Snow,” and my personal favorite, “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before the Dawn.” This set just fine next to my cherished David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Elvis Costello, and seemed the perfect country and gospel soundtrack for our attempt to reestablish our family summer vacation.
It wasn’t dark yet the Saturday evening I was driving back to Crossville from Chattanooga. I was outside of Spring City, Tennessee and Emmylou and I were singing when ahead I saw a couple of horses in the middle of the highway. The road was flat, long, and straight, so I had plenty of time to slow down and investigate the matter, and as I got closer, I saw the horses had riders. Closer still, I could make out the riders’ white outfits. Then I saw the white hoods.
Now, I’ve lived in Tennessee all of my life, and I’ve experienced my share of racism, from the casual to the blatant, but never in my life had I encountered the Ku Klux Klan. I was absolutely fascinated with this surreal experience unfolding right in front of me. Off to the left of the main road was a red clay area that served as a flea market on weekends. I could see several cars parked there and a flatbed 18-wheeler with a sound system on the makeshift stage. I pulled in and parked. I got out of my new Chevette, locked it, and wandered over to the small audience that stood around the flatbed--a few middle aged women in lawn chairs. A man in camouflage stalked the stage with a microphone, and I was so shocked and amazed that not only was this happening on the side of a main state road, but also that I had stopped to investigate it, that I couldn’t even process what he was saying. When the audience started encouraging the speaker with shouts of, “That’s right!” and “Say it, brother!” I began to get nervous. I stood there no longer than ten minutes, and when I thought I’d casually turn and just unobtrusively saunter away and to my car, I was stunned to see that the crowd had filled in considerably behind me. I was on the front row of a full-fledged rally! I imagined all eyes on me as I sidled away, hoping no one would challenge why I was leaving when the show had obviously just begun. The crowd didn’t look crazed, either. It consisted of grannies and grandpas, children and teens, and working class folk, much as you’d find at a weekend flea market in these parts.
The gravel crunched under by tires as I slowly backed away from the scene and jockeyed my Chevette back onto the main highway and past the hooded horsemen. It was then that I noticed my heart was hurting and my head was light. Still, I drove slowly and, in my mind, unobtrusively, until I got far enough away that it didn’t look like I was escaping into the gathering dark. I didn’t want to be followed. I didn’t want a Deliverance-like scene where some Bubba accosted me with, “Where ya goin’, boy?” I wanted to be with my family, sitting at a picnic table where laughter would accompany the ubiquitous hissing of the Coleman lanterns that bathed my loved ones’ faces in pure light.