Friday, May 19, 1967. Outside Monroe Louisiana
I jumped up, psyched for the new day. Surely the mysterious bayous were nearby. I began trekking along State Route 165, ever deeper into Dixieland. Trees shrouded the bends of the Ouachita River, off to my right. A railroad embankment ran along my left. According to a sign it was eighteen miles to Logtown, then another eight miles to a town called Bosco.
Bosco? Surely it wasn’t named after the chocolate syrup. That was the brand my grandmother used to buy me. It had a re-usable clown’s head dispenser that screwed on the jar. You took off the red hat to pour chocolate syrup out of his pointy head. Thinking of my grandparents sent a wave of sadness through me. I knew they were probably worried sick. That was not my intention, but it couldn’t be helped. When I was settled, employed, I would write them and let them know I was alright.
Looking for the bayous, I veered off on a gravel road that ran parallel to the main drag. After a mile or two it crossed back to the highway. Expansive white fields spread out to either side of me. Was this cotton?
Groups of black men and women, boys and girls, gathered in front of dilapidated shacks. They looked like ragamuffins, shabbily dressed in patched and mismatched clothing. It was a scene out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Birth of a Nation. They appeared to be laborers awaiting rides to jobs in the fields. A pick-up truck full of similarly dressed youths drove by. They waved and jeered at the others waiting their turn.
A sign announced the hamlet of Logtown. I saw a large general store facing the road. It was dilapidated, unpainted wood with a tarpaper roof. A short line of similarly unkempt small houses stretched along the side of the road. The black boys gathered by the store began catcalling, mocking me.
“Hey white boy, where ya’all go-en?”
“Y’all from the Nawth, white boy?”
“Oh, he’s a runnen away. Yankee boy, yo runnen?”
“Yooohooo! White boy’s runnen away! Come back heea white boy!”
They burst out laughing as I hurried along. These hecklers might blow my cover. How did they know I was a Yankee? I tried to appear calm. If they knew they were getting to me they would keep it up. It must not be the most ordinary thing for a lone white boy to be ambling along this rural road in the land of cotton.
If I asked one of these kids, would he help me? To them I was just a strange white boy. I had been crazy to get off in Monroe, looking for mythical swamps.
A big Continental Trailways bus whooshed by. I needed to be back on board a bus to New Orleans. Could I catch the bus in the next town? I counted the mile markers along the road. There was a lonely church by number 72. Beyond that a large sign announced the town of Bosco. It was nothing like Logtown.
The neat, white painted general store sat on my right. It was a much larger, better kept and a more substantial store than Logtown boasted. This hamlet seemed to be composed of just this one large building. Some tin roofs glimmered in the sun farther away across the green fields towards the river.
All the faces I saw there were white and seemed securely middle class. There was no row of dilapidated shacks.
An old white man was sitting on the veranda of the store with his chair propped back against the wall. It looked just like Mayberry USA. He hailed me with a kindly voice.
“Ya’all just missed the bus, son, won’t be ‘nothan by he-ah fo ‘anotha ouah.”
I stepped up on the porch. “Does the bus go all the way to New Orleans?”
“That there bus goen ta Nawlens.” He drawled his intonation evenly, leaving me unsure if he meant “New Orleans” or some place actually called “Nawlens.”
I asked again. What I got was more of the same. His accent was stronger than movie actor’s drawls I’d heard.
“Where ya’all from, boy?”
This old man’s affable face and manner were so open. He seemed to be just making conversation, however I was wary. I could never fool him into thinking I was a local, so I admitted to being from the “Nawth.” I made up a story about traveling down to see an aunt in New Orleans.
“Well, I’ll be,” he drawled. “What ya’all doing traipsing through this backcountry?”
A good question. I stretched for a logical explanation.
“I got tired of riding the bus and thought I’d save some money if I hiked a few miles.
“Yeah, really!” I stuck to my story. Then I admitted that I’d walked all the way from Monroe.
“Mon-row?” He echoed incredulously. “Did’ja walk all the way down he-ah from Mon-row?”
I broke off our conversation to step into the store. A pretty, dark haired woman in her mid twenties worked behind the counter. I bought some oatmeal cookies and a pint of milk. After stepping back outside, I poured one of my instant breakfasts in the carton and shook it up. The loquacious old man informed me that the owner of the store was also the sheriff.
“Thas him thea now,” the old man announced as a white station wagon pulled up.
I swallowed a wave of panic. I wondered whether he would turn me in to the sheriff. There was nowhere to run.
The sheriff got out of the car and I did a double-take. He was the spitting image of Andy Griffith of Mayberry, right down to his full head of wavy hair. His demeanor was just as cheerfully relaxed and non-threatening as that TV icon. My fear vanished in relief. Andy Griffith was too humane to fear. He waved and exchanged a few pleasantries with the old man before stepping inside to chat with the pretty woman. The old man told me she was the sheriff’s wife.
Feeling braver I stepped back inside to do a little people watching. No doubt about it, I was in a mini Mayberry USA. It appeared to be a place where people gave each other respect and acceptance. I didn’t press my luck, however, and kept a discrete distance.
Some of the black kids who’d jeered me earlier came riding up in the back of pick up trucks. Two of the younger kids stopped in for a coke. My circumstances didn’t permit me to pry deeply into the relationships of black and white. It seemed a segregated society beyond economic interactions. Back on the porch the old man nudged me.
“That bus be comen pretty soon, ya’all betta get up by the road.”
It came, barreling along, not slowing down as I faced it. The old man yelled out.
“Ya’all betta raise yer hand or sump-tin, show ya want that ride or he gone!”
The bus was almost abreast of me when I jumped up and down, arms flailing. It took the length of a football field for the bus to screech to a halt and I ran for it.