“All these places have their moments with lovers and friends I still recall
Some are dead and some are living. In my life I’ve loved them all.”
Race has a big face and voice now. Race is the new opera of our time. It’s loud, and it seems that everyone has a song about it to sing. Personally I have never had any real stories in my life that had anything to do with race. Oh yes, there was that one, that tiny one.
It was the late summer of 1951 at a small college in Louisiana, where, for six months, I was posted to a special Air Force training group.
There was this girl. Her name and the college are of no importance. It was a long time ago but she may, as I am, still be alive. I’ll call her Laura Jo.That’s very close, close enough.
I came to this oasis in the heartland of Louisiana from the suffocating heat of the Texas desert, and it was a gift.
It was my first experience with college life and the sweet magnolia cologne of Southern belles.
I had just spent the summer with 25 fellow patriots, 10 of whom were black. With the exception of myself and one other Chicago boy, the white guys were all southerners, but there was never an incident. We were too hot and tired.
In my white Irish childhood, I never really knew a lot of black people. Thus I came to this mixed fraternity with no agenda and with sweet naivete. Here, in this Texan Sahara-scape, I bonded with my first ever black friend.
I can use his real name because it was a great one, not to be wasted, and he would like that. Hasma De Pass was a bright and funny guy, movie star handsome with a blinding set of teeth, a blend of Creole and Louisiana black, raised in Chicago.
We hit it off right away. For eight weeks, we suffered good days and bad. We ate together and laughed a lot, and but for fate, we might have grown old together as ex-service buddies. At training’s end, we got different postings and exchanged addresses.
Laura Jo, just starting her senior year, came from a wealthy Louisiana family. She was warm and funny, with lots of friends and admirers. She was a movie cliche of a rich Southern college girl. She drove her daddy’s white convertible with red leather seats and an obnoxious sounding horn. I was, of course, as I remember, a handsome, dashing Yankee. We overlooked our heritages and the painful memories of the Civil War, and fell crashingly in love.
One September day as we were sitting on the veranda of the sorority house, looking at pictures in her childhood album, a cab pulled up to the curb at lawn’s edge. It was Hasma, who was on his way to a posting, and had been visiting family in nearby Monroe. I ran down, and we gave each other a hug and a few punches, a few laughs. He knew I was there and took the opportunity to say goodbye. And then he was gone.
Back on the veranda, Laura Jo was silent for the longest time, and then she said, “Is that boy y’all friend J.P.?”
It was the expression I remember, those lovely lavender eyes narrowed a bit, her lips tightened. I said, yes and then it was over. But I knew my Laura Jo was a delta flower that would not have flourished back in my home city of St. Louis.
Six months later, I met up with Hasma in San Francisco, where we were both set to ship out for Korea. With a day to waste, he took me over to Oakland to meet his sister, a lovely Louisiana woman, who made dinner for us. In her living room, I noticed a framed picture on the mantle of a little girl standing beside a big shiny black car.
“I know this place,” I said. “ I know that little girl.”
“You do?” she said. “That’s little Laura Jo Benneman. I was her nanny.”
And there I was, eating a chicken dinner and sipping lemonade with Laura Jo’s nanny, the big sister of the young black man whose friendship with me so upset my southern belle. And that is the end of that story.
They say that in every man’s life, there is a summer, a story, and a girl. In this story, there is also a boy, and it is my story.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.