Crossing the Lines
- 2009 21 Jul
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following excerpt is taken from Richard Doster's novel, Crossing the Lines. ©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands
(1 Thessalonians 4:11)
There was a time when I aspired to only three things in life: to enjoy my work, to love and care for my family, and to take pleasure in the company of a few good friends.
I never coveted fame nor craved fortune. My proper place, I knew, was adjacent to the fray, but never in it. As a reporter I gathered facts and presented them well. With nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives I ushered readers to a ringside seat; I put them front-and-center where they could—without obstruction—witness the drama of life in the world around them.
I prowled at the fringes, hovering where I could keep an eye on the men who moved the world. Like a hummingbird, I flitted from one story to the next, extracting what I needed and then quickly moving on in search of more.
In a perfect world, I thought, I’d do my job and then go home. And there I’d savor the last hours of each day with my wife, Rose Marie, and our son, Chris.
But it’s been some time since the world was perfect.
Our ambition, the Bible says, is to live a quiet life, but none of us will ever know one. If we’re awake in this world, if we breathe in and out, if we put one foot in front of the other, or so much as encounter one other human in the course of a given day—then there’s not much hope for more than a few hours rest.
God has set this goal before us, and then placed it beyond our reach. And that’s a mystery that tangles up my mind. If He is good (and I believe He is), then why does His world conspire against us? And if He loves us (and I’ll grant that He does), then why does everything get stirred up into one mess after the other, depriving us, every day it seems, of the peace we are meant to have?
I suspect that you’ve had doubts, too; that you’ve seen the evidence as clearly as I have. And that we’ve all, in the midst of grief or confusion, built a case against Him, that we’ve proved, at least in our own minds—and way beyond a reasonable doubt—that God has lost control of this world. Even the dullest among us can point to war and communism, or to hurricanes and tornadoes. And God Himself surely knows we’ve had our fill of polio and cancer and tuberculosis.
But the testimony that’s even more disturbing is what we see two feet in front of our own faces. It’s what I have seen up and down Peachtree Street; in Montgomery and Little Rock and Nashville; and even in the hearts of the people I love.
There was a time when I rarely yearned for more than a peaceful life, when I was content with a backyard barbeque, a good ballgame, cuddling with Rose Marie while we watched Ed Sullivan.… And for years the world spun my way. Month after month, life provided more than I asked—until the summer of 1954, until the night my home was bombed, until the lives of my wife and son were threatened, until—in the pitch-black hours of a brand-new morning—our comfortable existence was shattered, and every good thing that I had taken for granted was—in the flash of that single explosion—gone.
Ever since, I’ve been nagged by the thought that God Himself has been plotting against me; that He has—for reasons He hasn’t deigned to share—mined my path with the worst of the world’s problems. There’ve been days that I even thought He hovered above, just waiting for the pieces of my life to come “this close together,” and then Wham! He dusts off some favorite calamity, hurls it my way, and watches as life peels off into some new wreckage, forcing me to sort out some mess I never made.
It’s ridiculous, I know, to think that the God of the universe would trifle with the likes of me, Jack Hall. And trust me, I’ve spent the opening hours of a thousand mornings wondering, Why me Lord? Why, when there are so many deserving creeps in the world, me?
To date, God’s felt no obligation to answer. And by His silence He sets before me the same question He posed to Job: “And exactly who are you, pip-squeak, to question Me?”
Fair enough, I suppose. But like Job I’ve been wounded and forever scarred. An event like that lingers—it’s always there, lurking, and I’m not sure I’ve known a sound night’s sleep in the past six years.
What is it, exactly, that drives a fellow human to so much malice? By what logic does one conclude that a bomb—thrown through the window of a quaint, three-bedroom home—is the wise and sensible course of action?
The answer to questions like these is rarely simple, but I’ll do my best to explain: We lived in Whitney, once the world’s most beautiful town, and a place that felt more like home than anything ever built by human hands. But in 1954 we tore the place in two. With bitterness and violence we slashed it along the seam where black met white—and I bore a share of the blame.
I’d been the sportswriter for the Whitney Herald, and I had, in an effort to salvage the town’s struggling baseball team, engineered the signing of a Negro player, the now famous Percy Jackson. But white fans and most of the city’s leaders shuddered at the thought of mixing races, anywhere or for any reason. And night after night Jackson felt, and heard, a full measure of the town’s wrath.
We might have survived that. We might have outlived those first bursts of outrage, just as the Dodgers had with Jackie Robinson. And who knows, we may have flourished. But, in the midst of our experiment, the Supreme Court fielded one of its own. Nine black-robed justices outlawed “separate but equal” schools, and Whitney’s mothers and fathers came unglued. Our bankers, lawyers, and merchants panicked. Our city councilmen scurried for cover, shielding themselves behind a chorus of defiant proclamations. Our pastors joined the battle, too; white and colored both, they stormed to their pulpits and exhausted every ounce of the moral authority they had, urging their congregations to either comply or resist, deepening the wound that had gashed us.
The presence of Percy Jackson, living and playing in the midst of white teammates, was more stress than Whitney could bear. In a Negro ballplayer, my friends saw the looming threat of racial integration. When they watched him play they faced the unbearable truth that a Negro was better than the white men around him; it was a chilling glimpse into a dreadful future, and the threads that had held us together frayed.
As colored folks inched forward, as they crept—ever so scarcely—into the fabric of everyday life, their white neighbors scurried to block the path. And we all, in pursuit of the one thing we most treasured, ran ourselves right out of Eden.
Percy Jackson and I became the flesh-and-blood faces of one town’s trouble. He and I— a colored kid and a white reporter—personified every last drop of Whitney’s strain. And on a summer night in 1954 my home, and then his, became the bull’s-eye of our neighbors’ rage.
As I faced the aftermath an old college professor had called. And it is there that this story begins.
He had heard from the sports editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Furman Bisher. “I knew him when were both at the Charlotte News,” my teacher explained. “He’s looking for somebody who knows baseball, for a guy who’s just itching to cover the Atlanta Crackers and the Southern Association. You’d be perfect,” he said. Then he chuckled—a little too sadly I thought—“and besides, Ralph McGill, the editor down there, he’s probably the one guy who won’t hold all that Percy Jackson crap against you.”
My heart thumped audibly at the sound of the words “Atlanta Crackers,” and my salivary glands oozed. The Crackers were the New York Yankees of minor league baseball, the best team ever assembled in a Southern city—and that made this the best sports job south of Baltimore. “Who else is Bisher talking to?” I asked. “How long’s he been looking? When he’s going to decide?”
My friend chuckled. “I think I was his first call,” he said. “So if I were you, I’d hang up on me and call him. He’s expecting to hear from you.”
Furman Bisher had been in Atlanta for three or four years. I’d seen his work and I knew he possessed a first-rate talent. I remembered him from a few years before—it might have been 1949 or ’50—when he’d snagged an interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson. There wasn’t a sportswriter alive who wouldn’t have killed to swap places. It’d been thirty years since the Black Sox scandal, and the world had yet to hear from its fallen hero. An explanation was overdue, and when the time had finally come, it was Bisher who got the story.
The man wrote sports like Thomas Wolfe wrote novels—vividly and with elegance. He took his readers where they most longed to go—to the sixteenth green at the Augusta National, where the air was thick with just-bloomed azaleas; to Churchill Downs where the ground shook under the pounding hooves of Native Dancer; to Ponce De Leon Park where, as they read Bisher’s words they would, within the expanse of their own imaginations, crane their necks to follow the path of a long fly ball drifting back, back, back … and just clearing the left-field wall.
There wasn’t a game he didn’t love: baseball, basketball, football—he devoured them all. And he looked the part, too; a sportswriter straight out of central casting: curly black hair combed straight back, a boxer’s nose, thick, dark brows that arched above playful black eyes. He was rough and old school, but his words were always refined and perfectly mannered. And every time I read his work, I envied the talent he’d been given.
I lingered outside his office. It was 9:51 the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 1955. A reporter leaned over the desk, both hands planted squarely on top, waiting. Bisher read; he tapped a pencil, his eyes racing left to right and down the page. A moment passed, and then another.
And then I heard the dreaded sigh. “What the—? What is this, Bill? The lead’s hobbling around like it’s crippled; there’s no drama, it might be nice to see a verb somewhere.…” There came another words-fail-me huff, then a crumpling sound, and then a ping into a distant trashcan. “Do it again,” Bisher snarled. “I need something in a half hour.”
Bill turned and stomped away. He was hunched low like a middle linebacker who’d tear your head off and know nothing but glee for the effort. He trudged fifteen feet down the corridor and punched the wall. At twenty feet he muttered furiously and unintelligibly. “Son,” “cram,” and “stick” were the only words I actually heard, but everyone within fifty feet got the gist of what was on Bill’s mind. Ten feet farther and he disappeared around the corner, still grumbling, the back of his neck now tinged with bright red rage.
Swell timing I thought. I took a deep breath, poked my head into the office, and rapped on the door. “Look, maybe it’s not a good time,” I said. “But—”
“Yeah. We had a ten o’clock appointment, but really if it’s not a good time—”
He glanced at his watch, scowling. “Good a time as any,” he muttered.
I eased into a coffee-stained, lopsided, and threadbare chair. Bisher tossed his pencil onto the desk, sat back, and opened with the only cliché I’d ever hear him use: “So tell me a little about yourself.”
Our conversation began, and I have loved Furman Bisher from that day to this one. I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, and on the day we first met he’d been kind enough to say some nice things about mine. We talked about the Atlanta Crackers and the Georgia Bulldogs. He described what it was like to follow Bobby Jones at the Masters. And I rendered a picture of what life was like covering minor league baseball. I told him how it felt to trail a flock of ugly duckling farm boys who dreamed of waking up one day—transformed—and standing at the plate in Yankee stadium … honest-to-goodness ballplayers.
We talked about coaches and athletes and the writers we most loved to read. We talked about the most thrilling sporting events we had ever, actually seen. We talked about why we loved the newspaper business. And we had talked for the better part of two hours when Bisher caught sight of the time.
“Geez, it’s nearly noon,” he growled. He stared up at the ceiling. Then he popped up from his chair and grabbed a wrinkled blue blazer. “You hungry?” he asked.
“Sure,” I told him. “I could eat.”
There’s a little cafeteria down near Tech.…” Bisher motioned for me to follow him. “Skillet-fried chicken’s terrific down there.”
We rode down Marietta to Highway 41, to where it changed to Hemphill Road, and then just a little further to Spring Street. The Pickrick restaurant was white with black trim. Four large windows sandwiched a pair of glass doors, and two small billboards—one advertising Dr Pepper, the other 7UP—were posted along the fence at the far side of the building. Inside, the placed swarmed with businessmen, carpenters, plumbers, and college kids—everybody shoving trays down the line, choosing from sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, chicken, and pork. From the back side of the counter Negro servers heaped mountains of food onto glistening white china—all of it cheaper than anything you’d ever find in Whitney. From the moment I crossed the threshold, my mouth watered at the blended scents of the fresh-cooked foods.
The owner was easy to spot. He was a sunny, bald, round-faced man wearing thick black-framed glasses. He skimmed from customer to customer like a bee in a flower garden, calling his friends by name, asking about their kids and their work and their wives—working the room like a small-town mayor—smiling, backslapping, and joking with every human who had a heartbeat.
This guy would’ve been a perfect fit in Whitney, I thought. Homespun and natural, a man in his element, presiding over a room that was filled with friends, all sharing delicious conversation, and where everyone felt at home.
Bisher and I huddled over a tiny Formica-topped table, and we dreamed out loud about the future of Atlanta sports. It wouldn’t be long, Bisher thought, before Atlanta lured a big-league team to town. “This place is booming,” he told me. “There’s so dad-gum much money pouring in here.…” His eyes filled with thought of it. “Town makes Fort Knox look like a welfare case.” Bisher devoured the scene, savoring our rustic surroundings. “Take a good look,” he said, grinning. “This right here … this is the capital of the New South.”
He shoveled a forkful of fried chicken into his mouth. “I’m not kidding,” he went on. “You take this job and it won’t be long before you get a shot at the big leagues. There’s already talk about a new stadium; won’t be long after that.”
I held out my glass for a refill. “Sounds promising,” I said. “But can I tell you something?”
Bisher glanced up.
“I’m real partial to the stadium you got.”
A smile rippled across his face. “You’ve been to Ponce De Leon?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Once or twice.”
“Nothing like it in the world,” Bisher replied. “That old magnolia up on the terrace …” he tipped his glass toward me. “If that old boy could talk, now there’d be some stories to tell.”
“Somebody told me that Eddie Matthews hit a ball into the tree. That true?”
“It is a fact,” Bisher proclaimed. “And he was just a kid at the time; nineteen maybe?” Bisher stabbed at a mound of green beans. “Story goes round that Babe Ruth put one out there too.” He tossed back a who-knows smile. “I can’t confirm that one.”
“It’s a great place to watch a game,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to cover the big leagues—that’d be a dream come true. But there’s a piece of me that’ll hate to see Ponce De Leon go.”
Bisher’s head bobbed. “I know what you mean,” he replied, his voice lilting to the wistful side. “Place has got more memories than my wedding album.”
We joined the line at the cash register. Bisher fished for a couple of bucks, and I had just reached for a toothpick when a neighborly clap slammed down on my shoulder. “Hadn’t seen you in here before.” The owner of the Pickrick reached for my hand and shook as if we were distant cousins at a family reunion. “Lester Maddox,” he beamed, “the proprietor.”
“Jack Hall,” I replied. “Food was great.”
“That’s what we like to hear,” Maddox said, still pumping my hand warmly. “We want to see you back here real soon, and bring your family next time, you hear?”
I raised the toothpick into the air. “I’ll be sure to do that,” I promised.
He angled his head toward Bisher. “Now this man right here,” he said. “He puts out the best sports section in United States of America.” I heard the wink in his tone.
“Yeah,” Bisher growled—he handed the cashier a five—“but tell me something Lester: Which is better, my sports section or your fried chicken?”
Maddox tossed me a sly nod; he slapped me on the back and said, “Well listen, you boys hurry back, you hear?”
Bisher laughed and the two of us ambled outside, visoring our eyes against the midday sun. “Seems like a nice guy,” I said.
“Yeah …” Bisher stretched one syllable into four. “He is a nice guy. But he’s got this weird love-hate thing going on with the paper.” Bisher reached for his keys. Over the roof of the car he said, “And he and McGill—let’s just say they’re not on each other’s Christmas card list.”
I twirled the toothpick between my lips. “Why’s that?”
Bisher climbed into the car; he leaned over to unlock the door. “No need to get into the details,” he said, “but Lester’s been running these cockamamie ads for years; runs ’em on Saturdays when the rate’s cheaper, and he runs ’em in the Journal; he won’t put anything in our paper.” He shot me a quick glance. “And I don’t believe we’d take ’em anyway.”
“Because they’re ‘cockamamie’?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Bisher said. “He’s turned them into these bite-size editorials. He carries on about politics mostly; hardly ever says much about the food. But it’s funny, the ads actually work, and the truth is old Lester’s got a following that most columnists envy.” Bisher cut his eyes at me again. “He’s actually given their Saturday circulation a pretty good bump; people go out and buy the paper just to keep up with what ‘Pickrick Says.’”
“McGill can’t be jealous,” I insisted.
“No,” Bisher chuckled, “let’s just say that Lester’s politics don’t jibe too well with Mac’s.” He swung the car onto Forsythe Street. “We can probably leave it there for now.”
I began to gather my things, wondering in earnest what it’d be like to work here. My eyes toured the room, watching people scurry from point A to point B. Phones rang. Typewriters clacked. Copyboys raced from reporter to editor to composer. This was a different world than the one I’d known. The place surged with energy. People rushed with purpose. They were driven by deadlines and competition—by a hounding need to have their words read and admired.
Being there, standing in the midst of the clatter and chaos, I felt like a drunk in a Budweiser brewery. The sights and sounds stirred something inside, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d have to have at it.
Bisher tossed his coat onto the rack. “You mind hanging out for another minute?” he asked. “I think Mac wants to say hello.”
I snapped out of the trance. “McGill?”
“Yeah, if he’s got time. Just sit tight for a second, I’ll be right back”
I grabbed a copy of yesterday’s paper, wondering why Ralph McGill would even bother. This was low-level stuff, and Bisher could make the hire. But I was happy to have the chance to meet him. McGill was famous; I’d read his articles in the Saturday Evening Post and Atlantic Monthly. He was quoted in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. He had even been on national television, dubbed by the northern media as “the moderate voice of the New South.”
McGill was one of those guys you either loved or hated. And Joe Anderson, my old boss at the Whitney Herald, groused about him fifty-two times a year. “Pompous ass,” Joe’d complain, shaking his head and making this tsking sound every time McGill’s name was mentioned. “Ain’t his job to get people all riled up, that’s what the politicians do; good newspaperman just gives ’em the facts,” Joe’d mutter. “People want to get riled up about ’em, that’s their business.”
Five minutes later Bisher ushered me into Ralph McGill’s office. He sat behind a humble and cluttered wooden desk. To his right, on a gray metal stand, sat an Underwood typewriter, a page cranked halfway down and paused in mid-sentence. A roll-top desk was behind him, nicked and scarred and worn with age. Piles of papers were littered across the top of it. In the back corner a coffee mug was crammed full of dull-edged pencils. Manuals and reports were stuffed in the overhead slots, and across the top a dozen books and binders slumped to the right in sloppy formation.
McGill stood and waved me in. “Make yourself at home,” he said. He looked at Bisher, “I’ll send him back as soon as we’re done.”
McGill was shorter than I’d imagined, paunchier too. But there was an air about him—an aura I’d guess you’d say—of grand ideas and purpose.
He reached for my hand. “I’ve read your work,” he said. “It’s good.”
He motioned for me to sit, and then dropped into his chair. He threw his legs over a corner of the desk, and then, as if he’d read my earlier thoughts, he explained: “The Sports page has always been important to me. When I started in the business Sports was the battleground. It was where a paper won or lost the circulation war. When I came here.…”
©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.