On the way downtown we stopped to get gas, my friend Matt and I. The gas station was the mecca for getting beer, lake night snacks, or for meeting up when you had nothing better to do. We referred to this gas station as The Gas Station, as everyone knew about it.
This night was nothing special for a Friday, busy with college students and a lot of people coming back from the bars. Most of the pumps were full, and we had to wait a while before finally we started to fill ours. A huge white truck pulled up, and a little white guy got out of it listening to country music. He opened the door and jumped down to the pavement, walking right up to us, shouting loud,
“Do you know John Johnson?”
We shook our heads.
“He a nigger!”
We just ignored him, Matt and I exchanging glances, but didn’t want to start anything. The kid went up to the next car waiting in line and the same thing,
“Do you know John Johnson?”
Again, the people ignored him.
“He’s a nigger!”
And so the soap opera played out, the guy going from car to car, people rolling up their windows or on their way back from paying for gas, until finally a black girl jumped out her car, angry, and started yelling at the kid. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old.
“You don’t just go around saying nigger to people! There’s a lot of baggage that comes with that word and you being real disrespectful!” At that moment, her boyfriend, also black, jumped out of the same car, and started hammering the kid with his fists, who didn’t have a chance to even defend himself. He got thrown against our car, his adversary giving him a couple punches. Matt, never letting go of the gas nozzle, also threw in a couple punches to the kid’s arm while he was pinned against the car, engaged with the black man, just to be in on it. Finally, crying, the girl said, “No Mike, please, let’s go.” She pulled her boyfriend back into the car.
Just at that moment, before they had even gotten back in their car, the real John Johnson pulled up in a van, squealing tires, jumping out of his car, and proceeded to beat down on that white guy even more. There wasn’t much left of him at this point, who was now no more than a crumpled heap on the ground. The kid never got a chance to even insult him. It was like the instant replay of a perfect shot in a basketball game.
John Johnson drove off quickly. We went in and paid for the gas. As we were getting ready to leave the guy, a little battered but nothing that wouldn’t heal, came up to Matt, still too much pride to back down from anything.
“Were you hitting me in the arm?”
“No,” lied Matt, who like me doesn’t like to fight. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That was good enough for his pride, and he got back in his big truck to drive offs. Maybe he didn’t remember that a hundred years ago three innocent black men had gotten hung in the main square in downtown Springfield, a fifteen minute walk from The Gas Station, by an angry white mob. Maybe he didn’t hear about how they burned the bodies afterwards, still hanging, and that people came up afterwards to get souvenirs out of the ashes. Maybe he didn’t know that that Springfield used to have a lot of blacks before that.
We get all our prejudices, bigotry and stereotypes from what we learn growing up, from our family, friends, or society. And once people are adults, sometimes the most obvious truths are like beating into a brick wall.