It was shortly after West Point, and I was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. One weekend I had time off, so a few soldiers and I decided we were going to take a trip to Nashville for a concert that was taking place there. This was in the middle of the 1980s during a period of time when the United States was starting to regain some of its image around the world, as much of the 1970s was spent recovering from the disastrous Vietnam War era. Reagan was president, the Soviet Union still had years until it collapsed, Star Wars had finished its original trilogy, the Cosby Show taught us values from someone who still had a lot of respect throughout the country, and there was a sense that things in the future were going to be improving because so many technologies appeared to be in our headlights, like microwaves, cell phones, the Internet and some device called a Rubik’s Cube.
So we hopped into my Mercury Capri, all five of us, and made our trip south. In case you’ve never taken the trip by car before, it’s a really nice drive through beautiful country.
Anyway, somewhere around the border of Kentucky and Tennessee (to be honest, I don’t remember which side of the border when this happened), we came to a huge intersection that was kind of bogged down with traffic. It felt kind of out of the ordinary because traffic had been moving so smoothly only moments before. And then I discovered why.
On all four corners of the intersection were people dressed in white robes handing out pamphlets to people in their cars. For some reason, this spectacle seemed to slow traffic down to a standstill. It took me a couple of moments to realize what was happening, but traffic was moving slowly because each driver was having somewhat of an impassioned conversation with whatever person in robes showed up alongside that driver’s car. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear any of their conversations, but part of me to this day hopes that the words exchanged were not friendly, but I honestly don’t know any of those details.
This was the Ku Klux Klan handing out their pamphlets to the people who were driving through their county.
Now, I’d never seen one of those people before in real life. Sure, I’d heard all of the stories about them, watched films of some of their notorious deeds in the past and knew that since the early days of this country they represented some of the most vile sentiments people could possibly have. But seeing them in person, I had no clue what their intentions might be, or even how much of the past history the group made was part of what they might be doing on that particular day.
Then I reached the position where they were located. They were blocking traffic, one person standing in front of a car to make sure you had to stop while another came over to the window to speak and offer their pamphlets. I was kind of oblivious to what was really going on, but the person who came to my window knocked on it and gestured for me to roll down the window. Somewhat curious, I did.
Okay, two things are important to this story. First, the person who knocked on my window was a female Klan member. Second, well, I should have probably mentioned a little bit more about the group of people in my car.
There were five soldiers in my car, tightly packed into it. The guy in the middle back seat was white, and so was I. The guy sitting next to me and the two men seated near the doors in the backseat were all African-Americans. Every person in the car was a seasoned veteran and currently serving in the Army.
So I rolled down my window, and I was not known for holding back on anything I had to say, so the first thing out of my mouth was: “So, they’re letting women into the Klan now?”
The woman stared at me for a second and responded with: “Women have been in the Klan for years.”
On instinct, I said: “Wow, how progressive of them. I guess they let anyone into it these days.”
To that, the guy seated next to me crouched over to the window and said. “That’s so cool. How long until I get to join?”
And I think that’s the moment that she realized the car was packed with a mixture of people she was probably not all that comfortable with seeing. The two guys in the backseat yelled out: “Can I have a pamphlet?” and “What time are your meetings, cause most of my mornings and afternoons are kind of busy these days with Army shit?”
The woman turned to her partner who was blocking my car and pointed to the car, I guess trying to figure out what she should do. I helped them make a quicker decision instead.
I said: “If he doesn’t move, I’m running his ass over.”
The guy in front of my car motioned for one of other partners, kind of trying to motion him over to the car or at least to assist him in blocking the car. Now, I don’t know what they were intending to do, but let’s put things into perspective. We were all trained killers and even without guns could do some serious damage to someone if we needed to, so if they would have stopped us and forced us out of the car, even if they were armed, the chances are there would have been three fewer Klan members alive that day.
I also noticed that one of the guys in the backseat, a part time power lifter who people used to call “The Tank” (which is someone ironic because he was an armored division officer) had his hand on the door handle and was about to step out and start an encounter that wouldn’t end well for anyone. In my rear view mirror, I could see the whole group was already transitioning into the “fight” of fight and flight mode.
Instead, I gunned the engine and just lurched forward. The woman at my window jumped back and the guy directly in front of me saw me coming and literally dived to the side of the road. The other guy that was heading towards the car also jumped back, realizing that I was flooring it and had no intentions of remembering my car had a brake pedal.
So we continued driving until I stopped a few miles out so the adrenaline could subside. One of the guys n the back yelled: “Let’s go back and fuck them up!”
But we didn’t. We continued on and made it in time for the concert we went to see. A good time was had by all.
That was my one and only encounter with the Klan. But I never forgot it.