A Not So Good Friday
It was spring of ’58 in Montgomery, Alabama. Good Friday morning, the day before my 12th birthday on April 5th, found three small burning crosses in front of William R. Harrison Elementary School. Why? Three black children were rumored to be enrolling in summer school, just summer school. They were service brats whose education been subjected to their father’s transfer to Gunter Air Force Base, home of Air Force Office of Special Investigations. His assignment had not even been confirmed yet. Even though they were military brats like me, they had no doubt experienced discrimination in their short lives. Of course, they were not enrolled yet and did not have the “begeebers” scared out of them that fine day.
The burning crosses had parents coming in “droves” to get their kids. My family had only one car and that day it was at Maxwell Air Force Base, not at home; so my mother frantically called the mother of one of my friends and asked that her husband pick me up when he picked up their son, Eugene. Eugene’s dad was a “tough guy”. He had actually been a double agent, a spy, during WWII. Among his war memorabilia were pictures of him standing in the same room with Adolph Hitler, along with other high ranking German officers. He had apparently been a “plant” and part of a plot to assassinate the “Little Corporal”. He had a lot of WWII German artifacts, including photos, pistols and other weapons, medals, uniforms…even an Iron Cross with his “German” name inscribed on the back. Now, he was with the CIA and “attached” to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He was a “no shit” kind of guy, big and strong and very experienced. Like Horton the Elephant (Dr. Seuss), he said what he meant and meant what he said.
When Eugene’s father arrived at the school, kids and parents were milling all around, trying to find each other. I spotted him first and told Eugene. We walked our bicycles over to his pickup truck and told him we could just ride home. He didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the bikes and, none too gently, threw them into the bed of the truck. He broke my headlight. He told us to get in and be quiet. Eugene sat in the middle and I sat “shotgun”. He drove about a half mile to the entry of the housing addition where they lived. As he turned the corner, we could see what seemed like a small army, 40 or so, of segregationists coming down the street. Some were in their Ku Klux Klan robes, most were not. They were screaming things like “nigger lover”, “white trash” and such. Eugene’s father was forced to stop the truck to keep from running over someone. They started rocking his truck while screaming obscenities. He pushed us to the floorboard , screaming, “Stay there! Don’t get up!”. Eugene was almost under me and I could see his father reach to the gun rack in his back window. According to Eugene, the rack always carried a 12 gauge riot gun, a 30.06 lever action and a fishing rod. He grabbed the shotgun; and, in a smooth motion chambered a round. Suddenly, there was glass everywhere. The windshield had been shattered, as was his driver’s door window.
For the first time in my life I heard an adult use the “F” word. Wielding his shotgun, he screamed, “Let me pass or I’ll blow your f#ckin’ head off! ” The truck continued to rock wildly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone reach into the cab and attempt to grab Eugene’s father. Almost magically, Eugene’s father had a large knife in his hand and sliced someone badly. They screamed. I looked away, scared to death. Eugene had never looked up and was quietly sobbing beneath me. Then, I heard someone scream, “Get him!” Immediately, there were two loud reports of the shotgun. I heard screams. I was suddenly covered in blood splatters. Eugene had been protected from most of the splattering, since he was under me. I had blood on my shirt, my arms and face, and in my eyes. The rioters must have “parted like the Red Sea”, because now we were speeding down the street. I remember feeling a couple of large bumps as we escaped, like bouncing over a curb. I believe we ran over a couple of people.
We wound around the addition for three or four minutes. I believe Eugene’s father was attempting to make sure he wasn’t followed directly to his home. When we did arrive at Eugene’s house, I saw all the blood all over his father, even in his hair. He had been cut in two places on his left arm had a shallow slit across his chest. It appeared he had been stabbed in the shoulder as well. He quickly took the bikes out of the bed. He looked at me very sternly while holding my shoulders and barked his orders: “Go the back way. Ride fast. Wash the blood off in the creek. Don’t tell your Momma what’s happened. You can tell your Daddy when he gets home, but don’t tell your Momma. Don’t tell your Momma.” He meant it. Then, he kissed me on the cheek and softly whispered, “Be a good boy. Do what I said.”
I rode fast to the creek and rinsed the blood off my face and arms. I took off my shirt and rinsed it in the clear, cool stream until there were no stains. I even rubbed a rock on one particularly stubborn stain. The wind dried my shirt as I rode home. I was cold without it, but it had to be dried. I said nothing to my mother about the confrontation. She was just glad I made it home. Later, while my Dad was mowing the back yard and my Mom was busy sewing, I told him what happened. He must have believed me; because he said, “For God’s sake, don’t tell your Momma. She’ll never let you out to play again.” I don’t think he ever told her what had happened.
The next morning, my Dad and I looked in the newspaper for anything about the incident. We combed every page, column by column. Nothing. I was shocked and surprised. I was sure Eugene’s father had killed someone, but not a word appeared in the paper. I listened to the radio and watched the TV news with my Dad. Nothing. Later, I asked my Dad if he had heard anything from anyone at the base. He had made some calls. Nothing. Later, I asked him if I could ride over to Eugene’s house and see if everything was okay. He said, ”We’ll drive the back way.” I showed him where I cleaned up as we drove there. When we arrived at Eugene’s, the garage door was open. The garage was completely empty except for some trash and litter laying about the floor. We looked through a window. The house was empty…no furniture, just trash from packing. The front door was unlocked. We went in and looked around. Quite a few belongings had been left in the kitchen and in the bedrooms. It was apparent they had moved out very quickly. We then drove to the spot where it all happened, near the entry to the addition. There was still quite a bit of blood on the pavement. My father and I suspected he had, in fact, killed a couple of people the day before and had called “the company” to get him out of there in a hurry. The family had disappeared over night. All my father said on the way home was, “I told you he was a tough guy. Wow.” He shook his head in disbelief and quietly drove home. Years later, in ‘1987, he told me that he had not revealed what had actually happened to anyone he had contacted or spoke to at work later. He just asked about Eugene’s father’s status. He said no one seemed to know anything at the time, there was not a word about any incident. So it was only my father and I and Eugene's family....and the "company"...that knew what happened.
Eugene had a closer friend than I, someone who had lived in some of the same places and at the same times. His name was Bill Cummins. I saw Bill two years later in Wiesbaden, Germany. When I asked about the incident, he said he had received a postcard from Eugene a year or so after the incident. It was postmarked Phoenix, Arizona. Eugene explained that his father had killed three people that day, called the CIA for an “emergency evacuation” and that they had been quietly moved to Phoenix for a very short time, then to somewhere else. Eugene told Bill he would write again soon, but never did…at least in the time I knew Bill.
Strangely enough, in early September of 1982, twenty-four years later, I was invited to a football tailgate party on the East side of Owen Field in Norman, Oklahoma (the home of the Oklahoma Sooners). As the group of fans sat around drinking beer and discussing the prospects of the season, one of the guys kept looking over at me. It was a silent inquiry and it made me a little uncomfortable. Suddenly, he arose and asked, “Is your name Buzz? Did you ever live in Montgomery, Alabama?” I said, “Yes. Why?” He smiled and said, “I’m Eugene.” We talked about the incident in some detail. His family was essentially in a CIA witness protection program for some time. New names and all. We talked about some of the times we had experienced since. He was also an OU fan. We got a little stoned and a little drunk and went to the game. OU lost badly at home to West Virginia and went on to a four loss season. I never saw or heard from Eugene again.
I attempted to find some verification of the incident in old Montgomery newspapers. I even contacted a retired editor in 1993, after a good bit of research in the OU library. He was the news editor at the time of the incident, but claimed no knowledge of any killings during that incident. He did remember the burning crosses in front of the school, but nothing else. He was very old when I contacted him, so that was understandable; but, still, no verification.
I’ve since tried to find Eugene or Bill on Facebook….to no avail. Guess it is a lost event. Guess “the company” can be very efficient.