Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Growing up in Apartheid Texas; Coming to terms with race growing up in the fifties and sixties in Texas

Growing up in Apartheid Texas; Coming to terms with race growing up in the fifties and sixties in Texas

by Dicky Neely, 25 June 2008

My mother used to tell me never to talk about religion or politics in polite company. She might have added race to the mix. Race and how to deal with it is the elephant in the living room. Everybody knows it's there but they just pretend they don't see it. But sooner or later all of us have to deal with it. I was born behind what has been euphemistically called "The Pine Curtain," in North East Texas. The place has another nickname, "The Buckle of the Bible Belt." In place at the time was a code of behavior that amounted to institutionalized apartheid. These were the last years of the Jim Crow South. Soon the civil rights movement would begin to tear down the barriers to equal citizenship and the country would go through a sea change. As a young baby boomer, my feet had been planted firmly in the Southern Baptist Church. Tolerance of other religions was not a big part of Sunday school. This absolutism ran over into other areas of life and was nowhere more delineated than in the way the races interacted. Then there were two main racial groups in that part of the country, black and white. Hispanics had not yet settled there in any numbers. Blacks rode in the back of the bus, could not enter most public, white owned establishments, had separate restrooms and drinking fountains in the dime store and sat in the balcony at the movie house. There was more to segregation than this, darker and sinister, but I was too young to realize much of that until I got a little older. Whites and blacks got along just fine and everything rocked along as long as the blacks "stayed in their place." I could hear the fear and distrust expressed when whites talked about blacks. Blacks were often dehumanized so whites wouldn't feel so guilty when they dutifully contributed to the ugly oppression of a considerable part of the community. Whites called blacks "niggers" in private and sometimes openly. When races mixed, usually it was either blacks working for whites or it was business of some kind. In these situations whites used the term "coloreds" most of the time. Some whites had trouble going that far. "Nigras" was the most polite term my maternal grandmother could ever come up with. I don't know what blacks referred to whites as for sure. I heard "whitey" and "honky" rarely. I heard these from whites though. No black ever called a white by those terms in my presence as far I remember. To each other, white folks were usually as polite and nice to each other as polite society would expect. Strangers were often offered extreme hospitality, as long as they were W.A.S.P.s. Most whites I knew were practicing Christians, protestants, and they took the bible and its teachings very seriously. But the principles of Christian love didn't extend beyond the core group. For me, cracks in the system began to appear when my mom went to work in the family business, a restaurant on our property outside of town and adjacent to our home. I had not yet started school when a black maid came into the household to take care of me and do the household chores. I called her "Retha" which I would find out was short for Aretha. She brought her two young children; Elgie and Ethel Ruth and they became my playmates. I was a little nervous at first, I recall. I had never been so intimately connected with black people before and I was a little afraid. But 'Retha was a fine woman and she knew how to take care of kids and she was a fabulous cook. Her kids and I got along great. In age I was in the middle, Ethel Ruth was the oldest. We spent the day playing. There were woods behind our house and mostly open fields around the rest of it. Eventually I would get a brother and two sisters and we grew up with 'Retha's kids and she watched after us. She genuinely cared about us and we loved her. This began to put some chinks into my ideas about race. Those chinks would grow when I started going with my Grandfather to work in his "chair factory," as he called it, where he made chairs and porch swings to sell from the back of his flat bed. His factory was on the "wrong" side of town and I was aware of young black faces watching us from windows. Soon kids emerged from the houses and we would turn sawhorses and old pallets into airplanes and pass the time pretending we were pilots or sea captains. We got along fine, a bunch of kids playing. I had to ask my mom why blacks couldn't eat in our restaurant and she would say, "They are not like us and the races shouldn't mix anyway. They're not clean either." This confused me thoroughly since I spent my time each day with my black family and blacks worked in the kitchen in our business. I knew nothing about Hispanics. That word had not come into use anyway. I had heard about Spanish explorers and conquistadors and of course about Queen Isabella and Columbus. I knew vaguely that Mexico was a land to the south; I didn't even think we lived in Texas because where we lived didn't look like the Texas I had seen on TV and in movies. Mexicans were best known as the perpetrators of massacres at the Alamo and Goliad, which I also knew of mostly from TV and movies, and from whom we had been liberated at San Jacinto. My maternal grandmother's family had come to Texas in the 1820's and it was said that she was related to Ben Milam and that we had an ancestor at San Jacinto. When I was around eight or nine a new restaurant was built across the highway from our home. It was a Mexican restaurant. This was a real novelty and created quite a stir. Of course my family went over to meet the owners and to try out the food, which was something totally unknown and exotic. A Mr. Cavasos was the owner and he and his family couldn't have been more gracious and friendly. The staff was courteous and provided a level of service I had never seen in a restaurant. The food smells were different and delicious. The thing that made the strongest impression on me, and is still implanted firmly to this day, was the first time I had corn tortillas. They came served on a silver serving dish with a dome like lid covering them tightly. When you lifted the lid steam rolled out in a little cloud. They were hot and Mr. Cavasos told me to spread butter on them and I did. The butter melted almost instantly and soaked into the corn tortilla. They were fresh and wonderful. I knew then that people that made such food and conducted themselves with such dignity and courtesy were people every bit as good and deserving as any others. A few years later our family restaurant failed and my family moved to West Texas to operate the second in what would become a series of restaurants my dad would open and eventually close and then move on. In West Texas the racial demographics were different than in East Texas. Here there were few black families and a lot of Hispanics and lots of Mexican food restaurants! By now I was in the seventh grade and to my delight, I began to study Spanish. I made new friends here and my best friends were two boys, Elias Nava and Paul Aguirre. I continued taking Spanish through junior high and for two years in high school. In 1962, at the age of 15, I made my first trip to Mexico with my dad's best friend and the youth director from our church and his wife. We traveled to Monterrey, Mexico and spent five days there and two in Saltillo. I loved it and greatly enjoyed using my newly acquired Spanish. In the day we visited a local Baptist church that was affiliated with our church. We toured their facilities and met the pastor and others. Then we took in the sights, rode horses and took a long elevated cable ride to a mountaintop. At night the youth director and his wife would turn in early and my dad's buddy and I would hit a few nightclubs. That was pretty exciting for me! In subsequent years I have made many trips to Mexico and covered much of its territory. I love the country and its people and I am grateful for their hospitality and generosity. South Texas and Corpus Christi have been my home for 30 years. In this time there have been profound changes for the better in racial relations and sexual attitudes here and Hispanics, blacks and women of all races have made gains, big gains, in the way they are perceived and treated in society. But we are still a long way from universal harmony and equality. Old prejudices die hard and people have to want to change. Sometimes I hear Anglos put down Hispanics who lack English proficiency or question why we should have signs and ballots in Spanish. Often they will say, "This is America! If they don't want to learn English they should go back to Mexico!" Other times I hear it said, "My parents came here from Greece and they had to learn English." To some I just shake my head because I think nothing I can say will penetrate but to others I try to get them to look at another viewpoint. "Look, only 160 years ago this was Mexico. Spanish was the official language here for over 300 years. We have a long and checkered history with Mexico. Mexico is just across the border, lots of people came here from there and many still have families and ties there. You can't ignore that or wonder why there is a strong Hispanic presence here." I also point out that immigrants to Texas often did settle in communities dominated by a certain group. Texas is dotted with German, Czech, Polish, Irish and other communities. Cuero has a Czech language radio station. But these enclaves are isolated from their homelands. None of them are here in the kind of numbers that are represented by Hispanics with ties in Mexico. They do celebrate their mother cultures and languages but less and less of their young people learn those languages or traditions. The main thing I have learned in my path through life is that people fear what they don't know. They convince themselves that their "tribe" or group is the "chosen" one and the "others" are at the least infidels and at the worst, enemies. Segregation just fuels hatred and should not be returned to. It should be replaced by respect and tolerance for others. By living closely with other cultures and by keeping my mind and eyes open I realize that we all have far more in common than what is different, and for that, I say "Vive la difference!"

Monday, August 26, 2013

A pic of my sister Melinda, me, sister Jan and brother Blake at the 1974 (I think) Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. Great fun!

Eternal Waves

Photo: Clark Little/Gerry Lopez

Dicky Neely
  August 3
Waves Eternal Waves, by Dicky Neely

Still they come, rolling to the shore,...
Mighty ocean waves as they did before
The eyes of mortals saw them inspiring awe.
Created by forces according to nature's law.
When I was a young man I was drawn to the coast,
Easy life, sun tanned girls but what I craved most
Was to leave the land and skirt the water's edge
To ride those moving peaks, to drop down a liquid ledge.
Paddling out into the sea to await the swells arrival
The mind is cleared, time to act but still insure survival.
As long lines roll reaching high, blotting out the sun
The board is put in motion and the ride has just begun.
Dropping down the rising wave, beneath a snow white plume
The wall grows steep and hollows out while belching spume.
Faster goes the motion as the surfboard begins to race
Down into the trough then back across the face.
With tremendous speed sensation climbing to the top
Off the lip, flashing spray, once again begins the drop.
Down the line, going fast the lip curls down and over
Drawing the surfer deep inside its depths like a lover.
Once encased inside the tube time seems standing still
Now nothing else will compare to such a natural thrill.
A combination of energy and motion and gravity as well
To be a part of creation, to ride upon the swell.
Years go by, a lifetime passes, but little time at all,
Many waves were ridden and many times I did fall.
Now my hair is white and much of my energy is gone
But I still see those waves as they roll on and on.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

In the grip of the hurricane; Memories of Celia, Aug. 3-4, 1970

Pic: Me and my girl friend's dad and their dog. He was a detective in the Corpus Christi Police Department

Today is the 43rd year since hurricane Celia. Celia was the last major hurricane to hit Corpus Christi, Tx. There have been some near misses since and a number of tropical storms but the city has been very fortunate since this storm. Here is a piece I wrote a number of years ago about my experiences during the storm.

IN THE GRIP OF THE HURRICANE Memories of Celia, Aug. 3-4, 1970 By Dicky Neely As July faded into August in Corpus Christi people went about their business as usual. Few paid much attention when a tropical depression formed in the Caribbean. The system moved quickly and entered the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 31. The next day it was a tropical storm and became a hurricane by the afternoon. In those days hurricane tracking technology was far behind what we enjoy today. Nevertheless, satellite pictures clearly showed great shots of cyclonic storms and all those living along the Gulf began to pay attention. As the storm moved across the Gulf it headed straight for Corpus Christi. Still, few seemed worried because it was a small storm with winds reported less than 100 mph. Weather forecasters also indicated the storm would turn to the north and threaten Galveston. But that turn never came. It moved west-northwest directly towards Corpus Christi, moving inland on the 3rd. Though caught somewhat flat footed, Corpus Christi residents quickly swung into action protecting windows and battening down for a storm. I was living at the time in the Galaxy Apartments on SPID and Kosarek. They are still there, looking just as they did then. I worked just down the road at what was then Jerry Asher Auto Parts, now the Car Quest parts store. On the morning of the third, the day the storm was to come ashore, I got up early and threw my surfboard atop my ’69 black and white Karmann-Ghia. I quickly buzzed out to Padre-Island. Fortunately the tide wasn’t too high and the swing bridges were operable. A three foot difference in the tide, high or low, and the bridges couldn’t work. Soon I was in the parking lot at Bob Hall Pier. There was a handful of surfers out already. The waves were about six to eight feet and moving fast, closing out as they swept towards the beach. I watched awhile and saw one wipe out after another. I decided to leave to take care of business. At this time winds were light and there had been a few showers, but ominous clouds were building as they swept in from the Gulf. All of the store employees were ordered to come in that morning to prepare for the storm. So we taped windows, sand bagged doors and walls. Once we had taken care of the store we were free to go and tend to our own affairs. I drove to my apartment and loaded a few things, clothes, water and canned food. My girlfriend Marsha met me there. I had promised to help her work on her car so I hurriedly broke out my tools and replaced the cracked exhaust manifold on her 1964 Falcon. I then followed her over to her house in the Cullen area behind Alameda and Airline. Marsha’s family were all there, her dad, mom and little brother, and they were in the last legs of their preparations. It was now late in the afternoon and the winds had been picking up steadily and it began to rain. Marsha’s dad was a police detective and he had to report for duty. Their home was a late 50’s era ranch house, with a low, hipped roof. The exterior was done in brick. It would prove to be a sturdy house. We all gathered around the table in the kitchen and talked, a bit nervously. We played some cards and fervently watched TV for the latest reports. By now the wind was howling like nothing I had ever seen before.The noise was tremendous, a dull roar which rose and fell but always seemed to be building. The house made noises, creaks and groans and it made you wonder if it was going to come apart. I recall looking out the front door and checking on my car. I was parked with the nose of the car pointed towards the house, the rear of the car to the street. The angle of the driveway was very steep and the street was flooding and rising close to the engine compartment in my rear engined car. I went outside and felt the brunt of the wind. It was extremely difficult to resist and walking was near impossible but I made it to the car and turned it around and went back in the house right away. In the brief time I was outside I got a glimpse of the debris that was everywhere. There were downed trees and limbs, fences blown down and roof damage on some houses. We still had a long time to go. I was soaking wet, but I had brought a change of clothes. We ate some sandwiches and chips but no one seemed to have much appetite. As the sun went down we lost electricity. They were well prepared with Coleman lamps, flash lights and a powerful battery operated radio. We tuned in to an emergency station and followed what news we could get. The weather reports said wind gusts as high as 190 mph had been recorded until the anemometer had blown away! The night seemed to crawl by and we just felt so helpless, at the mercy of the storm. Gusts were still shaking the house and you could hear them coming, even over the constant roar. Of course we were afraid. But you couldn’t tell it. Everybody stayed calm; it was amazing to witness the cool courage my companions displayed. The storm raged on. I managed to get some sleep—in those days I could sleep through anything! Finally, you could tell the wind was subsiding. The rain had stopped. The street flooding hadn’t gotten much higher. As the wind continued to fall off we peeked outside. It was dark. I wanted to go to my apartment and check it out but I turned back quickly as I discovered the streets were filled with debris, and there were downed power lines showering sparks as they brushed the ground. Back inside we turned in. I slept on a couch and got some winks. Still no electricity. In the morning I did make my way home, through the wreckage of what had been Corpus Christi! It was incredible. It looked as if we had been attacked by an unknown enemy. Others were out looking also. There were no traffic lights working or any sign of electricity. Every where you looked there was just destruction! Many buildings were just piles of rubble! More houses seemed to be missing roofs than had them. Trees and branches and all kinds of debris filled the streets and yards and lots. My apartment was a wreck. The roof had come off my building. I had a roommate who had gone to Houston; he didn’t come back. My place was flooded and everything was soaked. I lived on the bottom floor and the ceiling was sagging down about foot. I poked a hole in the sheetrock and water just poured out and down onto my floor! The windows were shattered, the place was full of mud and debris blown into the rooms. My stereo was wrecked and all my records were soaked and some broken—all the covers fell apart. I spent a couple of nights at my girlfriend’s house until I got my place halfway clean so I could stay there, with no electricity or AC. At work there was another disaster. The building had lost its roof and everything inside was in disarray and wet. We spent weeks cleaning it up and salvaging what we could as hurried construction went on to get the building into shape. It was like this all over town as people dug out their stuff and tried to carry on as close to a normal life as possible. There was some looting reported. One friend and some of his fellow workers camped out at their place of employment and protected the property and inventory with firearms. Occasional shots were heard but I don’t know of any one shot for looting. Some didn’t live through the storm and there were many injuries. I have heard varying estimates of fatalities from 17-20. It was disheartening but the will to survive and carry on was evident everywhere. In many cases people met their neighbors for the first time as they checked on each other. For the next several days the air was full of BBQ smoke as folks grilled the meat that had been in their refrigerators and freezers. There was no electricity so all that meat had to be cooked, and shared. People got to know each other. One commodity soon proved to be the most sought after, ice! It was August and it was hot! Electricity was coming on slowly but many didn’t get it for over two weeks. I was one of these. With no AC ice was an irresistible treat. Soon trucks were coming down from San Antonio and other places loaded with ice. They would sell it on the roadside but their prices soon hit ridiculous levels. Mayor Jack Blackmon confiscated the ice and gave it away and set a fixed price until the emergency was over, thus foiling the ice pirates! Around town and the area there were many strange sights in the aftermath of the storm. The old drive-in theater was wrecked. Only the marquee remained. On it were the words “Gone With the Wind!” Some of the other area towns were hit even harder. Aransas Pass was a scene of unbelievable wreckage. Port Aransas suffered too. On Padre Island there wasn’t much there to hurt. There was a lot of beach erosion and cuts through the island. While waiting for the stores to be stocked with food and electricity to be turned on many had nothing to eat. The Army and the National Guard set up field kitchens and served food three times a day. It was really good and well appreciated. With no electricity for a while traffic signals and street lights didn’t work. So everybody had to treat every street as a four-way stop. It was hard at first but amazingly people soon got the hang of it and it wasn’t so bad. There was a curfew and martial law imposed in the first days following the storm. Curfew was at dusk and that made it tricky to eat supper at the field kitchen and get home before dark. The curfew was enforced by the many military personnel here as well as the other law enforcement agencies. It was not uncommon to see Jeeps with .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the back. I was stopped once for curfew violation and they weren’t friendly, but they did let us go. It took a long time to recover and at times I wanted to just go somewhere else but over time things came back to being even better than before. But those who stayed here then will never forget Hurricane Celia!

Friday, August 2, 2013

What would Jesus do?

Today's right wing politics is filled with people who claim to be supporting the Constitution but whose ideas and policy proposals seem directly in contravention to the Bill of Rights. Similarly much is made of "the religious right" and the so-called "evangelicals" in their ranks. When these folks are so vehemently opposed to food stamps, welfare, un-employment and most programs designed to help those who are out of work or poverty stricken one wonders if they ever read the Bible they profess to venerate. It was once in vogue to ask "What would Jesus do?" Well, the Bible provides us with many answers. Here are just a few to consider: Luke 6:20-21 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Matthew 19:24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus was concerned about poor people. He cared for the sick and ran the money changers from the temple when he was a young man. He was not impressed by wealth and position. He fed the multitudes that came to hear him speak. He proceeded to perform miracles to feed these large crowds of hungry people. Note, these acts of compassion were called miracles then. Today such acts would be derided as socialism!