I was at a sprawling beach dance somewhere near Ft. Lauderdale when President Lynden Baines Johnson pulled himself out of the campaign, in April of 1968. One of the guys from the band yelled out the news and fists and peace signs reigned, I remember. I'm not sure I danced with anyone that night. We were four college boys from an incredibly provincial little college in the farthest corner of a obscure state much of America doesn't know from Ohio or Idaho--we couldn't have been more strange on the Ft. Lauderdale beach. Shoot, we could have been kicked out of school back then for dancing.
Just a night before, when we'd looked for a place to stay, we ended up in the front-room office of third-rate, antique boarding house, a place I remember only because it was such a wreck. No ceilings above us, just rafters. People smoked back then--lots of them, most of them; it's incredible the place didn't go up while we were there. Anyway, when we walked in--late at night, I remember--there were three groups of students ahead of us. We're talking cut-rate here, that kind of bad. But what did we care? We didn't have a ton of money.
The couple in front of us got to the front of the line, and the night manager--I don't remember much about his face even though I thought him just as seedy as the place--the night manager simply told this couple that he'd just assigned the last room. Sorry. When they left, we turned around--these four white guys from Iowa. We were just about to follow them out the door, when this redneck manager stopped us. "Hold on--I got one room left," he said.
Made no sense to us.
Then he pointed at the door. "We don't take their kind." That young man and woman in front of us were black.
That summer, the summer of 1968, the streets burned in all kinds of major cities. When I think back on that moment right now, I can understand why. The college we attended prided itself on being Christian, but we sure as anything took that last room. I don't believe it ever dawned on us to take some kind of righteous stand. But then, I'm sure, lots of the holy powers-that-be that incredible year were fully enlisted on the side of the enfranchised--and not the other way around. Anything else was "counter-cultural," to old-line Calvinist veterans of WWII was simply another way of saying sin.
Later, on our way to New Orleans, we drove all night long on the very night Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. I remember listening in to the car radio, hearing news about riots and mayhem all over the country. The next morning, as the sun rose, we stumbled into a cafe just before dawn, a place somewhere on the bayou where a bunch of Southern not-so-gentlemen had been drinking all night long in celebration. We ate pancakes, as I remember, never said a word as I remember, the sun just then arising.
New Orleans felt like a carnival. I remember being shocked to discover that some of the bars on Bourbon Street didn't even open until nine or ten or eleven.
We were a long, long way from home.
There's more, but I've probably gone on long enough. If you ask me to remember my classes that semester--my sophomore year in college--I probably couldn't. But episodes on that Spring Break will stay with me for the rest of my life.
As a teacher, that realization is somewhat discouraging. But today, when the classrooms empty and my own students leave for parts unknown, I simply wish them well. Active and passive verbs will be awaiting them when they return, as will dangling modifiers and the final drafts of their term papers.
I wish my students well on Spring Break. May they learn as much about life as I did, forty years ago, during my first real road trip. Am I proud of everything? No. But there are moments on that trip that have become featured attractions of the museum that stores all my memories.
And that's just one reason why, this morning, I'm thankful for Spring Break. Starts today.