Southern Sixties


“Hold on! Hold on!”

Wind blown grey rain sweeps the road. I grip the dashboard, my body rigid with fear. Big American car skidding, crossing the dividing line, veering directly at us. In our lane.

A sharp thump. Our Volkswagen camper spins, heads in the wrong direction, then keels over in the middle of the rain-whipped highway. On its roof, gliding. Rasping sound of scraping gravel. Our world turned upside-down. Pots and pans, clothing, books, a guitar fly through the air. Sliding slow motion off the road. A bridge abutment ahead. In free fall down an embankment. A soft thud. We are hanging upside down by our seat belts.

“Are you ok?”

“I’m alive! I’m bleeding. … Are you ok?”

“No blood, little sore. Can you get out? This could catch fire.”

I try the door. It has caved in and is impossible to open. We destroy what’s left of the windshield and squeeze out. We land in mud. I see something move in the muck.

“Alligators!”

He pushes me. I scramble up the embankment. As I emerge I see a car stopping on the shoulder. Someone runs across the highway, puts an arm around my shivering body, helps me into his car, and covers me with a blanket. My shaken husband follows, is offered a cigarette, and accepts gratefully.

Moments before, we were sixties’ nomads searching for our Shangri-La. Driving just north of Jacksonville on US 1, in our bathing suits, listening to rock ‘n’ roll, full of resolutions for our new life. My husband hadn’t had a cigarette in days and swore he never would, I promised to learn to drive a stick shift. He will start smoking again. I will never drive again.

Now with a blanket over his shoulders he walks to the American car and returns to report that an elderly Negro woman is pinned beneath the steering wheel and can’t move. She lost control when her front tire blew out. Badly hurt, she needs help.

Two nights before we had camped in a farmer’s field in Virginia. At a convenience store I asked why the state campground had been closed

“Yeah, the court said that niggers had to be allowed in. So, better than doing that, they closed it.”

Sirens announce the arrival of an ambulance. The medics want to take me to a nearby hospital. I tell them that the woman in the other car needs to be helped first.

“The colored ambulance will be right here. They will take her.”

“I’m not going — she needs help more than I do.”

The highway patrolman asks the medic to step aside.

“Look, I know how you feel. You are from New York, but this is Florida. It’s different here. Things are changing, slowly. You can’t speed it up. You need to get to the hospital now.” I hurt too much to put up a fight.

Several cars have stopped to watch the action. From the ambulance I see a spectator pull my husband aside and hand him a card. When he comes to see me off, I ask who was that?

My husband looks disgusted.

“He told me he knows a real sharp lawyer. As he put it ‘he knows how to take them for all they are worth, and they all have more than you think.’”

We roll our eyes.

A short ride in the driving rain and I am deposited in an emergency room. A few minutes later I see two Negro medics wheel in another gurney. Before they pull the curtain between us, I see the woman from the accident.

“I’m glad you got here”

“Bless you.” She whispers back. “I can’t believe it. I am in a white folk’s hospital.”

Anna Rabkin survived the war in Poland and her luck continued when she was able to emigrate to England and eventually to the United States. She worked as a travel agent in New York where she met her husband, Marty. “Southern Sixties” was one experience on their cross-country relocation to the Bay Area. They live in Berkeley, where for sixteen years Anna served the city as an elected official.

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