I never imagined there could be so much desert in the United States—California’s Mojave stretched into an unending blur—heat mirages rising like cool pools of water only to disappear when approached. Then came Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and not much change of scenery in the monotonous stretch of Texas.
Other changes occurred though. Most notably, all the colored people moved to the back of the bus when we crossed over into Texas. When the Greyhound stopped for food or a break, signs like “Whites Only” began to appear at drinking fountains and bathrooms. Having grown up in Northern California I had never experienced segregation or blatant racial prejudice before. The truth is, our town boasted very few African Americans, but several Chinese and Japanese families, and across the river in Yuba City, a good many Mexicans due to the Bracero program. The huge influx of Punjabi from India had not yet begun. But, racism did not enter my mind in those early days, whether due to ignorance or lack of exposure, I don’t know. My perception of the world began to change.
Millington, Tennessee, a sleepy little southern town, relied on the Naval Air Station for its livelihood. The tiny octogonal-shaped house my husband rented sat tucked back on a narrow dirt road connecting the downtown area with the main highway that ran to the base. It showed many signs of abuse and neglect in the filthy scarred walls and floor. It took a week of scrubbing to make that little house livable.
We had no car but at least the location was convenient for Tom to hitch a ride to and from the base each day and for me to walk to the Piggly Wiggly where I wandered dumbstruck through the aisles staring at the conglomeration of unfamiliar food items like chicken feet, chitlins (chitterlings), pigs feet, hog maw and poke greens. We also had no money. Rent consumed fifty of Tom’s ninety-one dollar paycheck. My husband smoked at that time but couldn’t afford cigarettes, even as cheap as they were then, so he persuaded me to go to the neighbors and bum some. I humiliated myself one time only by asking strangers for cigarettes and knew I needed to bring home some money because I never wanted to do that again.
The Handy Andy Shoppette situated on the highway leading to the military base was within easy walking distance. It carried a variety of overpriced items and gave credit to its mostly black customers. I stocked shelves, worked the cash register, swept, dusted and mopped, and got scolded for being too friendly with the “negroes”, an admonition I didn’t understand. Sometimes I babysat for the owner and his wife, anything to supplement our meager income. We didn’t live in Millington for long, but with my job we survived and were even able to indulge in an occasional movie.