His name was Alfred and he was 21 years old, just like me.
He was married with one child, just like me.
Unlike me, though, Alfred was a high school drop-out. His father had abandoned the family years ago and his mother died some time after that.
And, unlike me, Alfred would die young from complications stemming from chronic high blood pressure – well before his 40th birthday. He would leave an estranged wife and four more children.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. On that bright sunny day in April of 1970, dying was the last thing on Alfred’s mind. Or on mine.
Alfred worked for my husband’s father as a truck driver. He was a solidly built young African American man with sparkling eyes, macho mannerisms and a sexy swagger. Alfred knew he had “people appeal.” It’s probably what got him the job in the first place.
Alfred and I were thrown together that spring afternoon by casual circumstances and I didn’t know then that it would be a day indelibly impressed in my memory
Alfred was driving a truckload of fabric to a piece goods store in Daytona Beach, Florida which my husband was preparing to open that week-end. I was tagging along for the ride – planning to join my husband for a week-end of grand opening festivities.
About 30 miles outside of Tampa, our truck broke down. Alfred, as mechanically savvy as he was resourceful, couldn’t get the truck to start. As the minutes mounted, he seemed to be sweating more heavily, wiping his brow more often while continuously and nervously glancing around.
After awhile, a “friendly” trucker pulled his rig up behind us on the apron.
“Son,” he called to Alfred after surveying the situation, “you’ve got a big problem here and you need some help.”
I felt Alfred’s terror, but I knew not from where it came.
“Hop on in – both of you,” he said generously. “I’ll run you up to the next exit. You know what to do, boy.”
“Yes, sir,” Alfred, nodded dully. “I know what to do.”
I glanced uneasily over at Alfred. He looked grim. Fearful.
Subdued. All signs of his sparkle and his swagger were gone.
His head hung slightly forward, suggesting deference. His
swagger was looking more like a shuffle.
I sat meekly between both men on the high seat of the cab and as we bumped down the highway, I tried to figure out what was going on. I knew some essential message had been transmitted, but what it was eluded me.
When we got to the next exit, Alfred jumped down and bee-lined it to the phone booth. I prepared to follow.
Not so fast, miss,” the trucker admonished. And that’s when I saw the gun. “You best not follow your friend. People down here don’t take to niggers with white women.”
Blind terror stilled my tongue.
“Now I don’t know what your situation is, missy,” the big, burly trucker continued, “but if you want your pal to get to where you two are headed in one piece, you best be disappearing. So go check yourself into that motel up there. And don’t you come out til your help comes.”
I did as I was told. And I spent the fading hours of that late afternoon uneasily watching TV and cautiously peering out the window to look at Alfred. Most of the time he sat on the curb of the parking lot, staring at the ground, fiddling with a stick.
Towards dusk, another company truck and driver arrived. Alfred and the new guy went back to the immobile truck to transfer the inventory to the new one. My husband picked me up about the same time and together he and I drove to Daytona.
I didn’t see Alfred for many weeks. And when I did, I thought I discerned a hesitancy in his manner toward me – an imperceptible stiffness, an embarrassment bred of shared humiliation and defeat. Our old, easy camaraderie had dissipated. It was never re-kindled.
After my divorce, I moved away from Tampa. And a few years later, I heard Alfred had died.
The above incident happened in 1971. Still, the prejudice continues. And the violence and the mayhem escalates. Church bombings. School shootings. Violent ouster of paying passengers from planes. Chemical warfare against innocent civilians.
Having just participated in a Passover Seder commemorating Jewish people’s release from slavery and bondage, I’m not so sure there is truly much to commemorate in our modern day world. The Alfreds of the world certainly wouldn’t think so.