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Breakfast in Ocilla

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One of the great things about the NYT edition emailed to me every morning is the 'On this Day' feature, which includes front pages from their archives. Today's is from February 1, 1960. Beyond reading the other headlines (which for the most part are depressingly familiar: budget crises, Arab-Israeli problems, political fights) the featured stories give readers a glimpse into real time history and how it is reported.

This day in 1960 was the beginning of the attempts to desegregate lunch counters in the South.

I was in my father's hometown of Ocilla over the weekend. A small town in Georgia, the site of a horrendous lynching in the thirties, and, when I was a child, a totally segregated society. After a career in the Army, and then with the space program, my father went back home and was elected Mayor of Ocilla. By all reports he was a great Mayor. He organized the first integrated church choir to sing as the Olympic torch went through town on the way to Atlanta. When he died a color guard came down from Ft. Benning to bury him. Led by an African American lieutenant.

At Peck's, the local breakfast hangout, the tables were crowded with whites and blacks, all talking (on the morning after the State of the Union speech) not of budgets and health care, but high school football. Hated rival Fitzgerald High's entire football coaching staff had resigned and moved en masse to Wayne County High.

Fitzgerald, ten miles up the road, is a town founded by ex-Union soldiers with land grants after the Civil War. When we would visit Ocilla from whatever Army post my father was stationed at, my Irish Catholic mother would take us to Mass in Fitzgerald. It was the only Catholic Church for fifty miles.

"Hell of a day, biggest since Georgia became a state," proclaimed Terry Tucker, a first or second cousin to just about everyone in town, "the head coach took that damned quarterback that beat us like we had stole their favorite mule the last two years with him...it's like we won the lotto."

The crowd, who, according to my cousin, Walter Hudson, is there from six in the morning till late at night, was 80/20 white and black. The mood natural, jovial, familiar, friendly.

The friendliness in the South is palpable. Everyone, white and black, wanted to know who I was, who I was related to, where I was from. I sat among second cousins who I had never met, third and fourth cousins I had never heard of. Young and old African American farmers whose daddies had sharecropped for my grandfather or knew my grandmother Matilda Faulkner stopped at the table to say, hi. Everyone asked me if I had come to see my Aunt Hazel and how was she? Many told me they still prayed on my wonderful Aunt Estelle, buried five years ago.

While we ate there was an ongoing discussion of the concept of living up north: "Why would anyone with the sense of a squirrel do that?" "Who would live in a place where people don't know you?"

Up north seemed as far away as Mars and populated by extraterrestrials.

"I went there once. It was so cold that people had to drink anti-freeze to get any pulse at all. Up north people put coats on dogs. On dogs! Booties too! And, cats live inside. Can you imagine?"

"So what do you do when it's cold? Just stay in bed and shiver?"

And, finally: "You seem a smart fella, Mike, you aren't going back are you? You can stay right here with us, as long as you want."

Three African American women came in to the dining room carrying Styrofoam plates piled high with biscuits and gravy. There was immediate genial banter about whether any of them would marry the recently divorced Scots-Irish Terry.

My cousin pointed to a tall girl filling her glass with sweet tea and said, Terry's real sweet on Geena.

"Geena," he called out, "you gonna make an honest man out of Terry?"

"Terry Tucker?", she cried, "Terry's all right, but I can't date him, I went to high school with his daughter!"

Terry, hearing this, pushed his grits and eggs to the side and called out, "Hell, Geena we won't double date with her. I won't even invite her to the wedding. Come on, let me take you to Hahira, we'll go dancing up at the VFW hall."

With that, Terry jumped up and got his rather large beer belly swaying this way and that, arms swinging above his head. The girl put down her plate and started dancing with him. A black guy sitting across the table looked at me, smiled, and asked, Michael, do white men make fools of themselves like this up north?

Written on February 1, 2010. Things have changed in the South.