But I wouldn’t want my brother to marry one.
In 1967 I was working 5.5 days a week doing hard physical labor, taking night courses at the University of Houston and having an urgent, compelling romance with my wife-to-be living in Port Lavaca, 150 miles away. Every minute I could spare I cranked up that Metropolitan and headed west to spend a few hours with her. Even for a young man exhaustion built and I had a lot of difficulty staying awake while driving.
Picking up hitch-hikers was one of the ways I stayed awake. Just having someone to talk to on that endless road was a major asset.
1967 was a year of serious racial tensions and polarization. During the years immediately previous a gradual mind-opening of tolerance was manifested in a brief cliche, “I’ve got nothing against blacks, but I wouldn’t want my sister to marry one.” For a while a person heard that at least once a week.
One day as I was leaving Houston I stopped for two black guys hitching at an empty stretch of highway. As they ran up to the car they saw the University of Houston sticker on back and without moving to get in they took on a grinning, belligerant-but-joshing attitude. “You go to U of H?”
“Yeah. Where you guys headed?”
Still no move to get in. “We go to Texas Southern [a black university in Houston]. You a queer? The last guy picked us up went to U of H was a queer. Dumped us out here ’cause we didn’t want none of him.”
“I’m not a queer. I’m going to Port Lavaca to see my girl friend.”
They relaxed and squeezed into the Metropolitan, joshing about the klutzy car, how tight it was, how they didn’t want to be seen riding with a white guy. “Anyone sees us riding with you they’ll think you’re queer. They’ll think we’re letting you queer us.”
As we reached highway speed I grinned and looked over at them. “I’ve got nothing against queers but I wouldn’t want my brother to marry one.”
Both of them gagged on that, double-took me, one another, trying to decide whether to be offended. Finally one of them guffawed. “Hey man, that’s a good one!” Held his hand up to be slapped.
Turned out to be fairly nice guys headed to Corpus Christi for the weekend. The drive to Port Lavaca went by fast, once we decided we were just three young guys not needing to fight, fear, or scrutinize every word for some slur or threat.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much times have changed.