Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

Jacksonville Memories

A while back I posted here a brief reminiscence of my early childhood in the racially segregated South. The national upheaval this summer after a white policeman murdered a black man in Minnesota has prompted not only street protests and on-going “twitter storms” but a lot of navel-gazing about race relations. I don’t do street protest. Have never joined (and hope never to join) the “twittering class.” For a writer, navel-gazing is an everyday exercise. This is my second deep look into a segregated past from 1954 forward. The year of the Supreme Court desegregation decision about schools. The year my grandfather retired and we moved to a Florida beach town east of Jacksonville. Need I add white beach town, both sand and residents?

I live far away, near another ocean, now. Jacksonville comes to mind because it has been in political, pandemic, and protest news lately. The year I graduated high school, 1961, I went to work at the Jacksonville Journal as copy boy. If the city was newsworthy then I would have known. I handled all inbound news “copy” on wire-service teletype machines, and carbon copy outbound from local news desks to wire-service correspondents stationed behind the wire-room. The city itself never featured.

Imagine my surprise all these years later to read about Ax Handle Saturday in Jacksonville, August of 1960. The summer I worked at a Jacksonville Beach dairy drive-thru attached to a Dairy Queen, selling milk, eggs, and cheese to drivers never having to leave their car. Had plenty of time to read the entire city paper down to comics and classifieds. Recalled no stories about white men with ax handles attacking blacks who tried to stage “sit-ins” at lunch counters. A downtown park, Hemming, was one battle site.

Google gave me a New York Times story from 1960, credited to United Press International. Mac, a rotund cynical Yankee who shared office space with the gentlemanly avuncular AP man behind my wire room in 1961, had been local UPI man a long time. So he moved the story on the UPI regional split. Never mentioned it; why would he? Old news died faster then than old news now. He got paid whether the Journal published his stuff or not.

I found a story by a Jacksonville writer published on an anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday. She said she lived on the Beaches then — totally oblivious to city violence, as was everyone else not right downtown. Because the newspapers didn’t cover it. Other than a police-blotter brief about some arrests for fighting.

One place where sit-ins were attempted was downtown Morrison’s, a cafeteria where, when you got your burdened tray to the end of the line, a white-coated Negro server deftly whisked it to your table, then brought iced-tea refills when needed. Twentieth-century assembly-line eating, but with an elegant whisper of Tara. My favorite place for lunch, which I enjoyed tension-free and oblivious all 1961 and later. As if Ax Handle Saturday never happened.

From Wikipedia: August 27, 1960, a group of 200 middle aged and older white men (allegedly some were also members of the Ku Klux Klan) gathered in Hemming Park…The violence spread, and the white mob started attacking all African-Americans in sight. Rumors were rampant on both sides that the unrest was spreading…in reality the violence stayed in relatively the same location….A black street gang called the “Boomerangs” attempted to protect the demonstrators. Although police had not intervened when the protesters were attacked, they became involved, arresting members of the Boomerangs and other black residents who attempted to stop the beatings….

Ironical to me, I found an account of a black man, later a two-term Sheriff of consolidated city-county government, who worked in my Morrison’s that day. Told to go home early for his safety, he was surrounded and ran to a city cop for protection. Was told, not unsympathetically, get out of the city fast or risk death. There had to be a lot of subterranean tension, fear, and anger in the city my copy-boy years. I never saw it. My head was elsewhere, as I once wrote:

Going Deaf in the Wire Room. It took me about a year to get my routine as a newspaper copy boy down to perfection. Pull copy off all the hammering wire-service teleprinters in the deafening wire room. Slice the rolls of paper to story-size with a zinc straight-edge. Spike them on various desks. Take page-proofs of the day’s syndicated comics to the mat room so they could compare inked-mat proofs before etching the page into metal for the press run. Hustle several blocks to pick up over-the-counter quotes from a financial office. Lug stacks of the day’s editions through the newsroom, deposit one at each desk with verve a juggler might envy.

The wire room was a womb of solid, heavy noise. Intelligible conversation was virtually impossible. Which should have protected me from newspaper idlers. Oftentimes they wandered over to the teletypes to pull up and read whatever stories hadn’t been cleared, as an excuse for their presence. But really they just wanted to gossip. I didn’t want to gossip. I wanted sit behind the old typewriter left in the wire room for copy-boy use, and work on my novel. I was teaching myself to write, trying to write every day.

I hit upon the strategy of appearing to listen, and nodding. To break the nodding rhythm, I would purse my lips and wrinkle my brow thoughtfully, watching their faces rather than try to hear them in the boiler-room racket. I’m pretty sure I started going deaf in that room. Pretty soon they would leave, satisfied that communication had occurred, and I could go back to writing.

The unanticipated consequence of my charade was that a lot of people began to decide I was a pretty promising young man, because I clearly saw and understood and even agreed perfectly with all the salient points they made. They found it increasingly necessary to share their latest ruminations with such an appreciative audience.

I didn’t have a writer’s ego in place to run them off. I developed a superstition about writing: if you had to run somebody off who wanted to gossip to protect your writing, the writing wasn’t worth doing. You had to be able to leave your hero in mid-leap, with a hundred alien warriors in pursuit, pretend to listen, then come back and catch him as he landed on the balls of his feet, cut down the nearest bad guy with a sweeping butt-stroke of his rifle…and be right back into it, the vision of the thing burning like bright flame.

A stern duty and terrible responsibility. My paper people more real to me than flesh-and-blood denizens of the newspaper. But flesh-and-blood was more beguiling. Like bright neon lights outside a bar on a rainy night. Flesh people — and neon — pulse and glisten and promise a throbbing glimpse into some private universe. But if you sit drinking in bars talking to the beguiling people, you will wake up and find the world gone by in shadows. People in bars are shadows, and you have become a shadow. The real people you are writing into life will never break through to the light of day. Going deaf in the wire room was the best defense I could offer living people waiting to come to life in that old cast-off typewriter….

Morris was different. Morris was the first man I encountered start of my shift at 6 a.m. Almost every teletype had gone quiet as graveyard shifts ended and we could talk about hunting as we eased into our separate rituals. Morris was a Negro handyman, first black person I worked with daily. Hunting was our common denominator. His first daily chore was in the teletype room, stripping carbon copies from overnight strips winding off Associated Press and United Press International “A” Wires. He taught me to use a zinc straight-edge to trim copy by story. We sat side-by-side while he cut carbon copies and I did the same with the top roll. Mine went to the news room. He took his to the editorial writers’ sanctum, where they would frown knowingly over the meaning of it all.

In the morning quiet we had plenty of time to talk as we sorted the overnight news. Morris was primarily a squirrel and rabbit hunter. I seem to recall he had a “feist” dog to help him hunt. He said the mutt would run barking past a treed squirrel, and the squirrel would circle the trunk away from the racket — into his .22 sights. (I tried it — using my brother to run yelling past the tree. It worked.) I’m not sure Morris owned a shotgun, he had never hunted ducks. But he told me someone gave him a “mess” of coots, they were good as fried chicken “does yuh know howter cook ‘em.” (I never found out; my grandmother drew the line at baking my ducks, and disliked that.)

Cold winter mornings, the unattended teletype machines built up static electricity overnight as stories moved. When we cleared the long curling rolls, painful sparks would jump to our hands. Morris had installed Christmas tinsel strips beneath the Plexiglas view plates to ground the charge, but carbon rolls defeated the homemade fix. He would jerk, and curse, and laugh when the static bit him. And delivered advice to a virginal copy boy I never forgot: “Gets you a woman to sleep you warm these cold mawnin’s.”

Morris wasn’t the only black man I worked with in Jacksonville. Blacks did a lot of the maintenance and heavy lifting a daily newspaper required. I recall a muscular forklift artist who wheeled tons of newsprint rolls through dim basements with elan. And the surly keeper of the “morgue,” the stuffy resting place of old editions where reporters sent me to do their research. And a semi-pro boxer who always reeked of rum sweat that never slowed his hands in impromptu backstairs exhibits. I was unquestioningly accepted as one of them, not one of the shirt-and-tie whites, due to a seldom-mentioned American phenomenon: class. Upstairs I was seen as a mere high school graduate from a working-class family, my ambition for promotion to reporter absurd. Anyone denying there are iron unspoken rules of class distinction never worked where I worked. (At home, my retired grandfather likened my sitting in the corner typing all the time to retarded children fitting round pegs in square holes he observed responding to a three-alarm fire at a mental hospital. You might say my writing obsession made me a minority of one, focused only on my own alienation.)

Morris was the one who showed me a first-floor corridor in the building with a separate entrance on Adams Street. I heard typewriters banging and smelled cheap cigars, and found an entirely different newsroom than the one upstairs. Black men in suits — or coat-less, with garters on their sleeves and ties askew, typing away. Editions with a front page I’d never seen, the photos showing black faces. As a science-fiction fan, it was akin to visiting an alternate universe. So improbable in memory I searched the internet for evidence it had existed. Evidence was scant, but the Jacksonville Star did publish the same years I worked there. Owned by the same company I worked for, in turn owned by a railroad conglomerate.

When I delivered a daily edition to individual editorial writer’s offices, I occasionally caught Morris sitting in with Joe, a retired lieutenant-colonel, quietly talking. He would start to jump up when the door opened. Joe would stop him: “It’s just Bill.” I sort of understood whites would object to Morris sitting with a member of their class. I didn’t count.

I more or less bootstrapped my way out of the lower class by publishing a novel before I was twenty. Something no one else there had done. Joe was working on a novel of his own. We became friends. He had been a callow lieutenant in Korea, bayoneted and barely surviving the night the Red Chinese swept over and wiped out his platoon. He said Morris had been a sergeant on the infamous retreat from Chosin Reservoir.

I barely settled into my new privileged class as author before Uncle Sam got me. The draft board ignored my plea I had a new book contract and couldn’t possibly stop to be a soldier. The idea of drill sergeants terrified me. Joe patiently counseled me about how to survive this new under-class of buck private without ending up in the brig. Which helped a lot. But never alleviated my hatred of “lifers,” career soldiers who looked down their noses at mere draftees from their own privileged class, whether officer or non-com.

Think a white man cannot know discrimination or being treated as a non-human? Think again. Black fury at smug whiteness chimes perfectly with remembered “lifer” slights that rankle still. My personal Underground Railroad was magical ETS that restored me civilian. I was rude to my last commanding officer when he said I should stay in, since I made it to E-5 in two years. Like telling a field hand he’d achieved manse-servant status.

My rambling, checkered career resumed. Race relations figured here and there in stories covered as time went by. In the seventies I wound up working for the labor union Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support when he was murdered, and more cities burned than recently. I even visited the main Watts newspaper personally to place a full-page ad honoring his memory one anniversary. If Watts reminded me of the Jacksonville Star I don’t recall.

I do recall what happened to the first black man I worked with. I was in Hollywood (Florida) for the labor union when Joe the retired colonel was bureau chief for the Miami Herald. We had lunch, and he broke sad news. Morris was dead. Knifed in a bar fight over a woman. I always hoped it wasn’t the woman who slept him warm those long-ago cold mornings in Jacksonville.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.