Thrill Hollow

Dwight awakened this Wednesday morning with a low-grade sense of

dread.  He had just graduated from high school the previous Friday and by all

rights should have still been feeling on top of the world.  He had been

accepted at the college of his first choice and a week ago had been hired at a

job that promised good money for the summer.  Even after working and

saving for college and personal expenses since his first job at age 10 back in

the mid-1930s, money continued to be an essentiality in the mid-1940s.  He

was not yet quite 18, so there was at least a chance he would not be drafted.

At this point it looked like World War II was winding down and he might just

get lucky and avoid the whole mess.  In case the war went on, there was, of

course, also the chance he would have time to volunteer for a better branch

than the Army and its foot-soldiering draftees.  A deferment was out of the


So what could be bothering a decent, hard-working adolescent at this

time of personal accomplishment?  In addition to considerations of his life

work, whatever that might turn out to be, and a few ongoing concerns of

social relations with his family and friends, plus an occasional nod to racial

problems, it was the absolute nuisance and bother of having to attend a

mid-week church function and take home a fat girl afterward whom he

scarcely knew and was being forced to escort.

It was his mother’s idea because she knew the girl’s grandparents and

was sure Annie was “a nice girl in every way.”  At 16 she was, after all, “the

right age” for him. Dwight’s mother begged and cajoled and promised never

again to ask such a favor and then practically ordered her son to do her this

good deed.  She explained how sorry she felt for the girl because the kid never

had any dates, yet she and her family were “so nice.”  Most guys—Dwight

among them—had no taste for fatsos—boys or girls—and “nice girls” were low

on their list, although most of these same guys were inexperienced and

reasonably moral.  Oh, they bragged a lot but actually did little in the way of

sexual adventuring.  The parents of most girls had little or nothing to worry

about.  He had finally agreed to do his mother this kindness and was dreading

carrying out his end of the bargain.  With a smirk on his face, his father let it

be known whose side he was on—after all, he didn’t have to take the girl

out—and offered the use of his car for the evening, provided Dwight would put

gas in it.  It was running very low, his father warned.

The dutiful son wasn’t all that happy, either, about going to a church

service in the middle of the week, but he heard it was at least geared to young

people, most of whom he knew.  But that in itself was a stickler because it was

not good for his image to be seen escorting a heavyweight, and one that

everybody knew couldn’t get a date.  His reputation was at stake.  Lastly,

though not anti-religion, yet also not a particular aficionado of churchly

things, he could think of better ways to spend a Wednesday evening—or any

other evening for that matter.  To top matters off, he and his regular girlfriend

of two years’ standing had just broken up.  He was certain that if people saw

him with Annie, they would think he had been jilted and this cow was the best

replacement he could find.  He recalled the one other time his mother had

conned him into picking up Annie, the girl was filling her face in the middle of

the afternoon with pork chops and huge mounds of potatoes covered in a

river of brown gravy with chunks of bread for sopping on the side.  He must

have surprised her because she jumped up from the table spouting excuses

and went for her coat.  In reality, Dwight was the instigator of the break-up

with the former girlfriend, but being a gentleman he didn’t want to blurt that

out to just any nosy person inquiring, though he secretly reserved that

privilege if the going got rough and he had to protect his rep.  He was really

not a bad sort;  in fact,  he was industrious, studious, kind, and well-meaning,

but, like everybody else, he reasoned, he had to protect his persona.

By late afternoon Dwight’s apprehensiveness had reached a point where

he was becoming cross.  His parents noticed his edginess at dinner and told

him how good he would feel, and how appreciative his mother would be, once

he had done her this tiny favor.  Dwight was certain he discerned the same

earlier smirk on his father’s face as the old man handed over the keys to the

car.  His eight-year-old sister sat impassively through this insignificant family

scene and fiddled over her dessert.  His mother admonished her son to “get

Annie home no later than 10:00,” that that was “the Robertsons’ unbending

household rule.”  When his mother added that she hoped Dwight would enjoy

the service and not forget to thank Annie for a nice evening—everything had

to be “nice,” he thought—he felt a fleeting pain in the gut.  Discerning as he

thought he was, he failed to recognize that, however advanced he was socially

or intellectually, he was showing a rather typical teenager’s resistance to his

parents and a reluctance to exhibit a soft side and willingly acquiesce to his

mother’s wishes.  Only rarely, and in quieter and more distant moments, did

he acknowledge to himself that he owed his parents a lot.  Altruism is slow to


As he made his intentionally slow way to Annie’s house, his pace

precipitated by the prospect of having to go to church in the middle of the

week, he cursorily reflected on his religious feelings.  He was no religious

fanatic, certainly no likely candidate for the ministry, yet he was imbued with

an underlying respect for faith and for human justice.  Never overtly resistant

to religion and church-going, Dwight nevertheless had to confess to himself

that he did not quite understand Protestantism and its liturgically plain ways.

Neither did he understand the Methodist and Baptist preachers’ loud

declaiming and strict morality.  In fact, he was more drawn to the

intellectualism of Episcopalian clergy and the quiet pulpit delivery of

Presbyterian ministers while at the same time being fascinated by the

mystery of Catholicism and its smells and bells.  Furthermore, there seemed

to be a severe contradiction between the moral code of Protestantism, where

much was tolerated that was condemned by Catholics, while he recognized

that the opposite was also occasionally true.

Most of all, though, he was troubled that all faiths seemed to exercise a

double standard when it came to treatment meted out to Negroes.  States and

municipalities were no different.  Not that he especially liked colored

people—oh, no—he was, after all, a product of a small Southern city and its

segregation policies—but that a few things struck him as basically unfair.  For

example, since all people have to eat and sleep, and Negroes were publicly

denied those privileges in the South except in certain restaurants and hotels

run by colored people, he occasionally felt guilty when he looked around

himself and never saw a colored person at an adjoining table or even at a

dime store counter.  Segregated schools did not bother him.  Coloreds were

required by law to sit in the back of the bus or streetcar, but he admitted to

himself he didn’t worry too much about that.  Hey, if the colored people

didn’t like it here, they could, theoretically at least, move up North, where

everything was permitted.  When crimes were reported in the

newspaper—duly noted each time next to the black offender’s name with the

tag “negro”— he would scarcely ever fret about it.  “Just further information

for identification purposes,” he rationalized.  “What’s wrong with that; it helps

the police, doesn’t it?”

Now that military service was breathing down his neck, he felt he might

be happier in the Navy, where Negroes were not allowed.  He saw himself as

constantly on the horns of a dilemma.  He liked the Southern way of life with

its exclusion of “undesirable elements” from his orbit, and yet he sometimes

felt guilty.  He had a passable respect for religion in general, and he thought

he knew, more or less from the start, what he believed and what he didn’t.  He

had to fight the temptation to condemn what did not gladden him.  He saw

that there were contradictions everywhere, in the church as well as the

secular sphere.  Negroes were tolerated in this town but distrusted generally

as having a tendency to steal, drink too much, to be unclean and downright

trifling, though many people employed them as maids, cooks, and child-

sitters, even as wet-nurses.  He remembered an uncle’s assertion that “they

never walk briskly or run anywhere—unless they have just stolen

something—but rather ‘shuffle along’.”  Another uncle used to say, “If you

have never smelled a Georgia nigger, you have an experience coming.”  These

matters—in less unflattering terms—were recently touched on in a high

school debate, and the faculty representative and debate adviser urged him

to set such aside for the present, that once he was older and wiser he would

know how to act in accordance with his beliefs.  Yet, the teacher added that a

young person should not put off indefinitely an analysis of his feelings, for “as

a person ages, his attitudes have a tendency to solidify.”  Dwight saw this

advice as interesting, demonstrably often true, and not all bad; but he

reserved to himself the opinion that just because an attitude had “solidified”

it did not mean the attitude was invalid.  Maybe the important thing was that

one’s response should always be open to nuancing.

Catching sight of Annie’s house, he filed his ruminations away for a later

time and pulled up at the curb.  He knew better than simply to honk for

her—for one thing, he didn’t know her that well, and besides, he had been

raised to show better manners—and strode purposefully up the walkway and

rang the bell.  Annie, an only child, had lived with her maternal grandparents

and an old maid aunt since her mother died three years before.  Her father

had remained in their old home in a seacoast city some 200 miles distant,

where he worked in the shipyard, and visited his daughter only sporadically.

The grandparents saw themselves as utterly responsible for Annie.  The old

maid aunt especially relished her role as family top sergeant and kept an eagle

eye on the young girl.  Annie reported to her friends that “the old crank” was

constantly handing out snippets of aphoristic advice, such as, “never forget

that your body is God’s temple, so don’t defile the temple,” “associate with

people of your own race and religion,” and “if you let a boy take one step, he’ll

take a mile.”  Annie had once said to her only girlfriend, “At my house it’s like

living in a convent.”  Yet, “nice girl” that she was, she faithfully adhered to the


Annie’s grandfather’s role was essentially that which he imagined the

absent father’s would be, including his constant warnings about associations

with Negroes.  No one challenged the old gentleman’s assertions about the

outright dangers of relations with colored people.  If they “stayed in their

place,” all was well.  Therefore, his ruling was firm, and bluntly stated, with

regard to his granddaughter:  “I’d better not catch you associating with

niggers.  They aren’t like us.”  He had hit the ceiling once when the church

threw a feel-good dinner for a whole bunch of colored people and requested

that a number of the church’s white girls act as servers.  He flatly prohibited

his granddaughter from participating.  Dwight knew nothing about these

family rules and regulations but might well not have disagreed with them.

Probably his parents wouldn’t have either.

It was Dwight’s fortune to draw the old maid aunt as greeter.  They had

not met before, and it was instantly obvious to Dwight that the old biddy

didn’t take to him.  Her withering glance alone said quite enough, but when,

instead of politely inviting Dwight into the front hallway, she loudly vocalized

back into the house, “Annie, that guy you were expecting is finally here,” as if

Dwight were late, which he wasn’t, he winced.  Annie was ready and popped

out of nowhere at her Aunt Sophie’s overheard rude welcome.  Her

grandfather, another obese specimen, was lumbering along not far behind

and stated categorically, and over loudly, so as to be sure he was heard, that

Annie had to be “in the house” by 10 o’clock.  His beady eyes, nearly hidden

by heavy eyebrows and fat folds underneath, and exuding a substance that

looked like the runny part of a poached egg, were trained on Dwight.  Dwight

could not recall that anyone had said “good evening” or “how are you, young

man” to him upon his arrival.  Neither did anyone venture a wish that the

young people might have “a nice time.”  Displeased as he was with his luck so

far that evening, he couldn’t help comparing his household—pest that his

mother could be—with Annie’s.  He was surprised that his family won hands

down even though it was his own mother who had introduced today’s irritant

into his life.

They rode in relative silence the short distance to the church—after all,

what was there to say?—where Dwight stopped the car at the lower entrance

to the church hall and gallantly scooted out and over to open the rider’s door

for Annie.  Apparently unused to any mannered treatment by boys, she was

halfway out the door before her escort could reach her side of the vehicle.

“Oh, thank you,” she muttered as if suddenly remembering her manners.

“You’re welcome,” he politely replied, and together they entered the

building.  Walking slightly to the rear of her, he observed her gait—her

waddle—and sighed inwardly.  She looked like an upright loaf of bread.  This

was going to be a tedious evening, that was for sure.

The service, a kind of prayer meeting, began on time, and Dwight felt

himself being drawn into it immediately when he heard the preacher extol the

virtues of peace but expelled from it almost as quickly when he heard him

criticize the “warmongers on both sides of this engagement.”  What baloney,

he thought.  Pearl Harbor had been sneakily bombed nearly out of existence,

and Britain was suffering greatly.  He recognized that the Axis powers were

also taking their losses, but, he insisted to himself, they had started the war.

He shot a glance at Annie seated next to him, but she registered no exterior

reaction.  However, when somebody from the congregation rose to “pray for

all those in battle that they might remain safe,” he noticed that she wiped an

eye.  Maybe something penetrated her mind and heart that missed his,

thought Dwight, who was still smarting at having to give up an evening to this

kind of vacuous activity.  Even though that last prayer satisfied his

humanitarian side, it left him again on the horns of a dilemma:  If everybody

remained safe, who then would win the war?

Somehow Dwight weathered the experience in church without piling on

any more cynicism, and he and Annie exited the place earlier than expected.

What to do with a fat, unpopular girl after dark, that was the question.  He was

not of a mind to test the long-held theory that all cats are gray in the dark or

the cruder one that women are all the same if you put a sack over their head.

If he took her home too soon, his mother would berate him the next day, and

he neither wished nor dared to be late getting her back, both because he was

not exactly having the time of his life and he had no desire to face the Grand

Inquisitors at her house.

Where could they drive for a short while?  He plumbed his boyish and

mischievous mind.  To a park?  Down by the river?  But no, it suddenly

occurred to Dwight that he could take Annie through the red light district!

Not for any such purpose, mind you, but to give her the thrill ride of her life.

If there were two places well known to the youth of the city, it was the red

light district on 4th Street—even servicemen he encountered later overseas

had heard of it—and Thrill Hollow, a dangerously steep, swooping street that

commenced at the corner of 4th and Monroe and that he once dared to take

his visiting aunt from Georgia down.  At one point, Dwight wondered if she

was having a heart attack.  As long as ten minutes after the ride she still had

the shakes.  Talk about catching it at home.

He began this way.  “Say, Annie, we have a little extra time before you have

to be home.  How would you like to take a spin down Thrill Hollow?”

“Where’s that?  What’s that?” she asked.

“You mean you’ve never heard of Thrill Hollow?”  This was going to be


“No, I haven’t.  Does it take long?  Do you think I would like it? “

“I can tell you now that you have never experienced anything like it,”

reported the now prankishly scheming Dwight.  “I’d be delighted to show

you.  Let’s go!”

“Well, I don’t know if we should.  It’s not going to make us late, is it?

Grandpa gets very worked up when I’m late getting home .”

“No, indeed, we won’t be late.  It’ll only take us about 10 minutes to reach

the street and then less than a minute or so down and up the other side.  You’ll

be telling your grandchildren about it.  Sort of a roller coaster.”

“Gee, I’m not too fond of roller coasters.  One made me sick once.”

“This one won’t because it doesn’t last but a minute.  You’ll never forget the

ride.”  Dwight looked intently at his date and wondered if he dared pull this

stunt.  It was too dark in the car to be sure, but he would have bet she was

turning pale.

“Well, all right.  Just one ride.”

And off they went, to the edge of downtown, up 5th to Park and a right turn

and up a hill.  Even Dwight had to admit this town had hills like no other.

Monster hills, one after the other.  So numerous were they that the driving

examiners made student drivers prove their motoring skills by deliberately

stopping, and restarting, at stop signs and traffic lights on some of the most

precipitous hills in town.  The examiner wouldn’t let you use the emergency

brake but watched to see that you could deftly slip your right foot off the

brake pedal and onto the accelerator at just the moment you had let the

clutch out to the catching point.  If you stalled the engine, you were a goner.

And if that were not enough, student drivers were also required to parallel

park on hills between cars.  If you got a license in this town, you could

probably drive anywhere in the world.

Looking around at the top of the hill moments before descent, Annie

observed that the houses did not resemble those in her neighborhood.  In

most instances they were older but mainly they were smaller and less

substantial, many downright rickety.  It was still light enough to make out

trashy colored women trying to look enticing on porches.  Here and there a

car was parked out front.  She saw a couple of common-looking white men

walk into one of the houses, greeted by what even she naively would call

sluts.  Her only remark to Dwight was, “I don’t think we belong here.”

But they were at the crest of the incredible hill.  To highlight his bravery,

Dwight casually leaned left against the driver’s window, the fingers of his left

hand twiddling, his right hand loosely draped on the steering wheel, his right

foot slewed across the accelerator as he stomped down decisively.  The car

leaped forward, but then he quickly backed off halfway on the gas pedal and

let her roll straight down the mountainside.   The falling, plunging sensation

was grossly accentuated when the automobile struck the very bottom of the

slope.  It felt as if the car were going to continue down, down, all the way

underground.  Dwight was accelerating hard again at the bottom and up the

hill.  The springs creaked and strained and kept doing so as it climbed up the

opposite side, pressing down against the road as if to crush it.  Car occupants

always felt their bowels move dangerously lower.  There were no seat belts in

those days, and both driver and rider had to steady themselves with arms

outstretched and clutching first the seat and then the dashboard.  Dwight

fought with the wheel to keep the vehicle in a straight-line descent.  Luckily,

no car was coming in the other direction.  The top of the opposite hill came up

very, very quickly and required that Dwight negotiate a hard left turn to keep

from sailing through somebody’s front yard and over one of the cliffs that

edged each back yard.  He was literally standing on the brake as Annie

screamed “good Lord have mercy!”  On the way down she had slid all the way

off her seat, feet and legs under the glove compartment.  On the way up the

opposing hill she automatically fell backwards up into her seat again and

began to struggle to regain a measure of composure.  Dwight, of course, was

the picture of calm and assurance.

And then the unexpected happened.  Pulling up to the curb, Dwight tried to

park for a moment to let Annie catch her breath.  In doing so, he heard the

car give a mighty hiccup before the engine quit.  Rolling back a few feet to

align the car with the curb, he tried to restart the engine.  Over and over and

over again without any luck.   As the gauge clearly showed, there was no fuel.

Oh, for crap sake, he forgot to buy gas!  And his father had warned him that

the tank was running low.  It was after dark; they couldn’t use the lights for

long without running down the battery.  On top of it all, the car was tilted back

at such an angle that there surely wasn’t a drop of fuel in the carburetor even

if there was a little in the tank.  There was no filling station anywhere around

where they could borrow a canister and bring back some gas.  There was no

traffic on this miserable, hilly racetrack.  And here they were stuck in the

worst part of town amid shacks, whores, and niggers, with no public

telephone in sight.  “What on earth are we going to do?” moaned Annie.

Dwight cursed his rotten memory and carelessness.  All he could think of

saying was, “I’ll figure out something.”

There was a faint light on in a house just steps up from where they were

parked.  There were no cars in sight that might be connected with any of the

houses and from which he might siphon a little gas—that is, if he had a siphon

hose.  The only other light they saw was practically back at the top of the hill

where they began their thrill ride.  Many colored houses still had only

kerosene lamps that gave off little light in comparison with electric bulbs.

How would the people in the nearby lighted house respond to their

predicament?  And would they have a telephone?  Not very likely.  Not even

every white household had a telephone in those days.

Annie’s apprehensiveness evinced itself as she began to whimper and asked

once again, “What are we going to do?”

To Dwight she was looking less like a loaf of bread and more like a scared

young girl in his care.  They got out of the car.  Dwight turned and carefully

locked it.  He rallied and took her hand, and together they trudged

uncertainly up the short, cracked walkway to the lighted house.  There was no

door bell.  They knocked.

The man who finally answered the door was slow in coming, the result no

doubt of years of intimidation by young black toughs, druggies, robbers, and

cops, whose house calls were not always of a benevolent sort.  Caution was

always in order.

It was hard to see him through the screen door, and all he said at first was,

“Yes?”  Estimating by means of his own height of only 5 feet nine, Dwight

decided the resident was probably close to 6 feet two and sturdily built as

well.  He was not young—perhaps as old as 60, although Dwight admitted it

was very hard to ascertain a colored person’s age.  He sported a narrow

moustache and had on a white open-necked shirt.  He was neither smiling nor

scowling and now said very simply, “What’s wrong?”

Annie was clutching Dwight’s arm and standing slightly in back of him.  She

was making faint little moaning sounds.  Dwight spoke up.  “We’re out of gas.

That’s our car parked out front on the street.  I wonder if you’d have any gas

you could sell us.”  Then he quickly added, “It’s not really our car; it’s my

parents’ car.  They lent it to us for the evening, and I failed to stop and buy

gas even though my father warned me the tank was low.  I am sorry to bother

you, but your house was the only one with lights on.”

The colored man’s answer was clear, “No, I don’t have any gas; we don’t

have a car.”

Just then a colored woman of about the tall man’s age appeared behind him

at the door and said to Dwight and Annie, “Come in the house, young folks.  We’ll

try to help.  Just step in.  I’ll turn on some more lights.”

There is no way of knowing what mechanisms were grinding away in the

heads of Annie and Dwight, but their reaction was slow.  Neither one had ever

been in a colored house before, and both were apprehensive.  No telling what

might await them there.  Add to that also what old man Robertson might say

and do to Annie when they got back home.

The tall colored man was still just standing on the threshold, looking

neither friendly nor angry, just impassive, but his wife’s voice had had a certain

welcoming tone to it, so the two teenagers looked at each other.  Dwight

nodded to Annie to step inside.  She did, and he followed.

The woman was rotund, like Annie, and thus Annie must have been

emboldened to ask:  “Do you have a phone I might use to call my

grandfather?”  Dwight was sure the answer would be “no,” but the woman

said, “Yes, right here,” and she pointed to a black phone on a little table just

to the right of an old upright piano.  “If it’s a local call, go ahead and call.  Do

you know the number?”

“Yes, I do,” said Annie, and “thank you.”  Picking up the telephone, she

spoke into the mouthpiece, “328-J, please.”  She looked at her watch; the time

was 9:30.

It was still hard to tell what the tall man’s feelings were about having these

youngsters in his house, but Dwight was beginning to discern a rather more

negative mien about him.  The woman invited Dwight to sit down, and he

chose a seat near the telephone and Annie.  The woman sat down next to him.

The man remained standing although there was a chair available for him as


The phone was ringing at Annie’s house; everyone could hear it through

the earpiece Annie was holding.  A man’s voice, her grandfather’s, came on, and

Annie pressed the instrument closer to her ear in an effort to gain more

privacy.  She began by saying that she was calling because they had run out of

gas and were stranded and that she would pretty soon be late getting home

and thought she had better call and ask for help.  There was no gas station

anywhere nearby and besides, most were closed at this hour.  She went on to

say they were fine but could Grandpa please drive over with some gas.  She

explained that they were on Monroe Street, off 4th, and offered to put Dwight

on the phone to give more specific directions.

What followed was a tirade that could be heard by all in the room.  “Did you

say you were on 4th Street?” screamed the old man.  “Why that’s nigger town!

Nothing but black bums and whores there!  You have no business there!”

Annie’s frantic attempts to explain that they were just riding around and took

a spin down Thrill Hollow only set the old fellow off even more.

Embarrassment and fear seized both the kids. Grandpa Robertson

continued to rant and rail but agreed to get directions from Dwight, who

reluctantly took the phone in his hand and immediately and non-stop

apologized for their situation, even while the old man kept up his angry verbal

lashing.  Eventually,Mr. Robertson settled down enough to jot down the

directions, the precise address, and the license tag number of Dwight’s father’s

car.  He said he would leave shortly and come get Annie.  Hedidn’t intend to

search for an open filling station and bring gas.  He didn’t care one whit what

happened to her “blockheaded, irresponsible escort.”  Those very words came

out of the earpiece like two heavy wads of spit.  Both colored adults registered

startled looks but said nothing.

For a short while everybody just sat and stared off into space.  Suddenly,

the colored woman said, “Why don’t we all gather round the piano and sing?”

Dwight and Annie thought they had heard piano music as they were walking

up to the front door.  “Any favorites?  We like to sing hymns.”  With that she

rose and walked to the piano and struck up the opening chords to “The Old

Rugged Cross.”  Annie said, “I know that,” and also stepped up to the piano

and began to sing.  Dwight followed suit, although he didn’t know why he had

responded so quickly to a piece of religious music.  It all seemed so

incongruous:  the disabled car, this house, Annie’s wild phone encounter with

her grandfather, hymn singing, and the prospect of being abandoned here

overnight.  His own father couldn’t get him; there was only one car in the


“You too, Tom,” said the colored woman to her husband.  “You love this

hymn.”  Scowling, Tom joined everybody, and out of his throat came an

unbelievably fine voice.  Dwight thought, “That figures; everybody knows all

colored people can sing.”

At one point, the colored woman remarked on Annie’s excellent voice and

asked if she could play the piano.  “Yes,” replied Annie, “I’ve been studying

piano for some years and taking singing lessons at the same time.  I hope to

find a career in church music.”  The colored woman beamed, and her husband

looked more agreeable.  Hymn followed hymn.  A liberal-minded outsider

dropping in might have concluded these were friends having a good time

together.  Indeed, if they could have been asked individually, chances are

they would all have said they were enjoying themselves.

Then there was a stentorian rap at the door.  Tom answered it and ushered

in an irate Grandfather Robertson who, with nary a word to anyone, strode

across the small living room and grabbed Annie’s arm and pulled her toward

the door.  He did not even acknowledge the presence of Dwight.

“Hold on!” bellowed out the big colored man, “You’re in my house, and you

don’t grab people and make for the door.  As far as I know, these youngsters

have done nothing wrong.  They just used some bad judgment and got stuck

here without gas in their car.  If you take one, you have to take the other too.

He has no other way of getting home.”

That fired up old man Robertson.  “Look, preacher,” he said, “I don’t need

your advice.”  He had long ago learned that if a nigger was contrary or sullen,

calling him “preacher” usually softened him up.  “The boy stays here or walks

home; I don’t care which.  But I’m not taking him with me.  He brought my

granddaughter into this den of iniquity, and we’re getting out of here right


The big colored man was undergoing some kind of tremor, a quavering that

ran from his head to his knees.  He moved directly in front of Grandpa

Robertson and grasped an arm in each of his huge hands, articulating

carefully his words:  “I ain’t gonna take no shit off of the likes of you, you

holier-than-thou smart ass peckerwood old redneck honky!  Give both these

youngsters a ride home and don’t hassle them on the way.  If I find out you

did, I’ll come get you and smack you upside the head so’s you’ll wake up in

the next county.”

Annie looked at her grandfather anxiously for fear he might have a stroke.

The old man turned red in the face and neck and balled up his right fist at his

side and felt his heart grow hard as a rock.  “I’m going, but you lay a hand on

me again, and I’ll send the cops out here to teach you a lesson.  No black

nigger is going to threaten me and get away with it.”

The front door was wide open, and the colored man pointed the way out

with a sweeping motion of his arm.  Annie and the colored woman were sniffling

and fighting back tears, and all Dwight could think of to say was, “We are

sorry, but thank you for helping us.”  The door slammed shut behind them.

Except for low mutterings from Grandpa Robertson of such words as “that

rotten black SOB,” “that stinking no-account darky,” “that loudmouth

jigaboo,” and worse, the ride to Dwight’s house was almost in silence.  Annie

had never heard the old man use such racist language.  For that matter, she

had never heard a Negro spout such filth, either.  She felt scandalized,

violated, and embarrassed before Dwight.  He said nothing but admitted to

himself he never would have thought a so-called “fine Christian man” could

act and talk like that.  He had a hard time explaining to his parents what all

had transpired that evening.

The next morning a neighbor agreed to take Dwight and his father to Thrill

Hollow to pick up the car.  On the way they stopped at a filling station and

paid to borrow a gas canister with a couple of gallons of gas in it.  The car was

where Dwight had left it parked against the curb on the hill, but all four wheels

were missing and it was sitting on four concrete blocks.  They checked the

inside of the car briefly but found nothing out of order—not that that was

much consolation.  They poured the two gallons of gas in the tank.  Back at the

gas station within minutes, they called the police and awaited their arrival.

The station operator forgave the charge for the canister because he imagined

he would shortly be sending a tow truck to pick up the car.

The cop in his cruiser followed Dwight and his father in the neighbor’s car

back to the scene of the wheel theft, and together they assessed the situation.

The policeman wanted to know every detail:  whose car it was, with proof of

registration, why it was where it was and for how long, and whether anybody

else had been with Dwight the previous evening.  All the information the cop

jotted down in his notebook and then radioed for a tow truck.  Among the

facts the policeman gathered was a quick run-down of the events of the

previous evening in the house nearby.  He was not smiling; in fact, he was

grim-faced as he explained to Dwight, his father, and the neighbor that this

was a very dangerous and lawless neighborhood and that Dwight should have

known better than to venture into it.  With that, he instructed the three to

watch for the tow truck; he was going to talk to the people in the house and

would be back shortly.  They watched as the policeman knocked on the door

and saw the tall Negro open it.  They could not hear what was being said, but

it wasn’t long before the patrolman came back to Dwight’s father and said that

an investigation would be underway immediately and his office would be in

touch as soon as possible.  They hoped to apprehend the thieves, he said, this

sort of thing happens all the time around here.  The policeman added that he

would report this event to Mr. Robertson.  The tow truck was just pulling up.

The policeman waited as the driver winched the automobile first carefully off

the blocks onto two long roller ramps and then up onto the flatbed of his

truck.  Dwight, his father, and the neighbor followed the truck to the station,

where they intended to leave the car until such time as the police found the

wheels and tires or they bought new ones for installation there.  It was likely

to be an expensive proposition all around.  Dwight’s father was visibly put out

as the three men got into the neighbor’s car and headed for home.

Law-abiding citizen that he was, old man Robertson was thoroughly pissed off

to hear of the missing wheels and suggested to the policeman immediately

that “that nigger in the house did it or put somebody up to it.”  The cop

assured Robertson their investigation would be fair and complete and

advised him not to jump to conclusions about anything.  He told Mr.

Robertson he could not report to him but to Dwight’s father, who was the

original complainant.  That was the law.  The cop also solicited Robertson’s

story about events in the house and what he actually said to the Negro.  He

was surprised that for once the story tallied with what Dwight had related.  So

often there was complete disagreement among witnesses.  The last thing the

policeman said to Robertson was, “Stay out of it.  Okay?”  Robertson didn’t


Over the next few days the several parties seethed:  old man Robertson for

one, the Negro for another, Dwight, and his father, each for a different

reason.  Dwight was upset with himself for having forgotten to buy gas,

thereby stranding himself and Annie.  His father was sorely inconvenienced

by the loss of the use of his car for work and errands and chastised his son

royally.  The Negro was angrier at himself than at old man Robertson,

although he had a hefty measure of wrath left over for him underneath.  He

had fought his prejudices against the white man for years and thought that he

had finally conquered them when this happened.  His wife had constantly

lectured him about his bigotry and gave him to understand that his attitude

was decidedly unchristian.  How, she wondered, could he go to church, pray,

and sing hymns when he expressed such an inimical disposition toward his

white brethren.  She was thoroughly disgusted with her husband for

unleashing that vulgar, obscene tirade against Mr. Robertson, no matter what

the latter had done—and in their own home, where they had always said all

people were welcome.

Of all the people involved, however, Robertson was the most affected.  He

simply could not flush his mind clear of the enormous insult that had been

dumped on him by a black nigger.  This was a white country and a white

Southern city, and he wouldn’t stand for an affront that was so gross it turned

him into a non-person.  That nigger had not just touched him, he had had the

temerity to seize him, to clutch him, to lay hold of his arms with his big, dirty

Negro workman’s hands and to squeeze his arms with the force of a bench

vise.  And as if that were not enough, the fellow followed up his physical abuse

with the vilest appellations anyone had ever addressed him by.  To call

him—John P. Robertson III—a white man of substance and position!—a

“holier-than-thou smart ass peckerwood old redneck honky” was more than

he could bear.  He had to teach this black son of a bitch a lesson he’d never

forget.  The very idea of talking to him like that!

No doubt Dwight was the next most affected person of the group.  Annie

had been hurt, to be sure, but it was more because her grandfather had been

abused and she was embarrassed for her family because of his salty language.

She knew all too well what lay behind his ravings, and she was not proud of

that either.  But she had learned to live with it.  Her father had been somewhat

the same sort of man.  Dwight, on the other hand, had not been exposed to

that degree of vitriol in his immediate family, although his father certainly

could not be described as a liberal, a “nigger lover.”  He had traveled more

than most and was accustomed to saying, “I’ve seen all kinds, black, white,

yellow, red, and brown and there’s a mean streak in everybody, just better

hidden in some.”  When pressed—and Dwight had done that a time or two—his

old man admitted he had much more admiration and respect for white

people.  “For one thing,” he proclaimed, “they’re smarter.”  Dwight wanted to

challenge that statement, but he didn’t have the facts to back up his

argument.  However, he was inclined to believe it himself.

It remained to be seen whether Robertson could prove that point by

exercising some sort of revenge.  By making the Negro pay for his gross

insults to him, he hoped to show that the white man was superior, in charge,

and in no way subservient to a foul-mouthed jungle bunny.  Day after day he

schemed, and night after night he was assailed during his tortured sleep by

recollections of the Negro’s remarks.  Every time he thought he had a plan set

up he would suddenly hear the Negro call him a “honky” or a “redneck,” and

his ever-rising anger would cause the plan to evaporate.  He tried devising a

means for setting up a “discussion” with the man in which he might somehow

reenact that revolting living room scene in order to place himself in a more

innocent light; he thought of suing the man; he gave serious consideration to

enlisting Dwight’s assistance; he even wondered if he could actually make his

Christian faith work to bring the Negro to his senses.  The last idea was the

first he emphatically rejected.  This deplorable event had just about

destroyed his faith, and he saw no way he could impose with any effectiveness

such a thin gauze of his own belief on anyone else.

Dwight too had undergone a profound change.  For years he had witnessed

contradictions and dilemmas in life, coupled with no decisive means of

making right choices between them, and recently he had come to the

conclusion that the recognition of contradictions and dilemmas did not, in

and of itself, force him to weigh all pros and cons.  Life was a gamble; you

made a choice and you lived with it.  One choice was probably as good as

another, although you could assemble a reasonable number of facts before

acting.  Pure pragmatism.  No religious calculations.  No fear of society’s

judgment.  Just do it.  If you could leave yourself an escape hatch, all the

better.  He was going to take the debate advisor’s suggestion and hope that his

understanding of the more important aspects of life would become clear in

their own good time.  The scene at the Negroes’ house illustrated for him all

too well the need for the separation of the races.  But for the impending

military service about to be imposed on him by higher authority, he could

walk away from just about anything at this time.

Every day that passed added to the storage tank of hatred that was

threatening to overflow and flood Robertson’s very existence.  As he said to

his wife and daughter Sophie, “Why am I supposed to accept and absorb a vile

insult without complaint, especially from someone far below me?”  Even to

him, his question had a rhetorical ring to it.  Never once did he imagine that a

speck of blame for the event could be laid upon him.  Suddenly, he knew what

he had to do:  Demand an apology from that Negro man.

Robertson always kept a loaded .357 Magnum revolver, its bullets

manufactured with Hercules 2400 propellant, in the drawer of his bedside

table in case somebody broke into the house and threatened him or his

family.  He was neither the bravest nor the biggest of persons and therefore,

he reasoned to himself, he had better have an equalizer at hand.  The only

time he had used the pistol since he purchased it five years ago was when he

shot a large water rat from close up near the garbage can out back.  It was

overkill.  A bullet of that caliber literally blew the rat apart.  It kind of made

him sick as the animal practically exploded upon being hit.  Robertson

rationalized the shooting of the critter as “good riddance.”  Filthy beast.

A plan was taking shape.  He slipped the gun into the glove compartment of

his car and headed for 4th and Monroe.  It was early afternoon.  He told

himself, quite honestly, he had no intention of using it, but it was good to

know he had the protection as he entered such a sleazy neighborhood.

Frankly, he hoped to spot Big Tom in his yard because he would call him over

to the car and ask for, or, depending on Tom’s attitude, demand an apology.

It was to be man-to-man, none of that religious hooey, no insults in either

direction.  If Tom said he was sorry, then Robertson would consider the

matter closed.  They might even shake hands, though the thought repelled


He descended the Thrill Hollow hill far more cautiously than Dwight,

braking all the way.  As he moved up the hill from the bottom-most point, he

had to shift to second and then to first gear as he studied each of the houses on

the right in his search for the right one.  Not spotting it immediately, he turned

around at the top of the hill and came back down slowly checking out the

houses again as he looked left at each one.  He still did not succeed in

identifying the house and made another round trip.  The second time driving

up the hill on the far side of Monroe, he felt pretty sure he recognized the

place.  He parked at the curb close by and studied the house.  Yes, that was

the one.  Now if only Tom is home and will come out into his yard, maybe

they can work something out.

It was not to be.  Robertson sat for close to half an hour, and no one went in

or came out of the house.  He drove home and promised himself he’d try

again tomorrow.  The guy was probably at work, so he’d arrive a bit later.

His trips to Thrill Hollow went on for a solid week, and Robertson never

spotted the big Negro.  Could he have gotten the house wrong?  He was afraid

to ask Annie, although she had told him that morning that the cops had found

the wheels to Dwight’s father’s car in a junkyard not far from Thrill Hollow.

Seems two colored thugs had taken them off the car and sold them to the

junkyard.  “Them ole boys” were now sitting in the city jail and the wheels

were back on the car.  The tires had been removed and sold separately.

Dwight had to buy four new recaps as replacements.  The whole affair had cost

Dwight a lot of money.  On top of it all, he had had to testify before a judge.

Late the next afternoon Robertson drove over to Thrill Hollow and parked

near the house and settled in to watch it.  He was prepared to wait until the

man came out or went in.  It didn’t happen that way.  Within the next 15

minutes he spotted in his rear view mirror a tall black man walking up the long

hill.  In all the times he had been in this neighborhood he had never seen

anybody walking.  The man moved steadily up the hill toward Robertson’s car

from the rear.  It was Tom; he recognized him.  Robertson knew this was his

chance and rolled down the window on the rider’s side in anticipation of a

conversation with the man when he reached the car.  Robertson had calmed

down a bit over the last week and felt reasonably confident he could extract

an apology from this man who had so insulted him and botched up his and his

granddaughter’s lives.

Without warning, Tom appeared at the car window brandishing a knife and

addressed Robertson:  “What the hell are you doing here every day, you old

fart?  I have a message for you:  Beat it!  And if you don’t, I’m going to cut you


Robertson could scarcely believe what he was seeing and what he had

heard from a man from whom he was about to request an apology in all

sincerity. His eyes glazed over, and then he squinted as his tattered mind

replayed the just-witnessed scene.  The world was sideways, and it was about

to turn upside down and flatten this hill so that he could get his wits about

him and see straight for long enough to understand what was happening.

“Did you hear me, you damned old redneck?  Get the hell out of here now

or I’m going to cut you from top to bottom!  Start the fucking car!”

Robertson’s mind was racing now.  He pressed the starter button—he was

surprised at how calm he was outwardly—the engine came to life.  Tom was

turning slightly to leave but his face still filled the window.  Robertson, with

his right foot on the brake, his left foot holding down the clutch, leaned to the

right and extracted his revolver from the glove compartment and said in a

steady voice, “I’ve got something for you to remember me by, boy!” and with

that unloaded two bullets squarely into the man’s face, jolting him back as if

he had been pushed hard by a black man of his same size.   His hands raked

down the window glass as he crumpled to the ground, his groans painfully

audible.  In making a panicky U-turn Robertson saw his assailant’s destroyed

face for an instant and felt violently ill.  As he vomited on himself in utter

revulsion, he lost control of the car, which miraculously rammed a telephone

pole close to the roadside and came to a stop at a sideways angle to the road.

He blacked out.  When he came to, he was looking at two policemen peering in

his car.

The weekend edition of the newspaper reported that a Mr. James P.

Robertson III had been involved in a single-car accident on Monroe Street

Thursday afternoon but had suffered no injuries.  Another police report, this

one on a back page, stated that Tom Hayden, negro, 61, had been shot while

assaulting a motorist with an illegal knife.  There were no further details.  In

the front local section of the next day’s paper there was a picture of four new

Navy recruits.  One of the names was that of a local boy named Dwight


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One comment on “Thrill Hollow
  1. Nina Abrahams Ost says:

    I am trying to remember…. Donny, was your Dad named Dwight? You do go on!. I have joined you in publishing land. Got to and enter Nina Ost. xxx Nina Eve

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