How thin and sharp is the moon tonight
How thin and sharp and ghostly white
is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight
Winter Moon by Langston Hughes
February 1, 1956
20 miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia
A thin layer of fresh snow lay across the long open road. It was well past midnight. A black and white, 1950’s Nash Rambler station wagon, traveling south toward Georgia, made its way down the two-lane highway. Former WWII officer’s Sergeant Kapp Johnson and his wife Clare; Lieutenant Milton Taylor and his wife Olivia, and Private First Class Ray Wilson and his wife Charlene were in the car. They had just come from the annual reunion of the 761st Tank Battalion held at the University of Virginia in the gymnasium. Kapp was driving. Clare sat next to him. The other four occupied the back seat.
Like every year, the reunion was a formal affair with the ladies dressed in long flowing evening gowns like glamorous society matrons. This year Clare wore a shimmering gold silk, spaghetti strapped dress with a large matching bow adorned to the front of its high waistline. Her long black wavy hair parted on the right and combed to one side cascaded over her shoulders. Kapp surprised Clare this year for the occasion with a beige mink stole. Ray’s wife, Charlene, wore her husband’s favorite color--red. The tightly fit bare-shouldered dress sparkled with sequins. Her auburn hair was styled in a sassy short cut framing her small, round face. Olivia Taylor and her husband Milton could have been twins. They were both tall with a long thin neck and light brown complexion. Olivia’s sandy brown hair was curled on both sides and pinned up on top of her head. She wore a sleeveless v-neck dress of avocado green chiffon with a thin belt and a pleated skirt that flowed to her ankles.
The men wore black tie and tux, except the ones who, like Milton and Ray, wore their military uniform if it still fit. Kapp didn’t like wearing his uniform. It reminded him of the way his brother Paulie died, and the strange, unexplainable changes to his body. He was certain his condition was the cause of Clare's miscarriages. The doctors couldn't find a medical reason for why she was unable to carry a baby to full term. Now, after ten years of trying, the couple had become reconciled to the likelihood that they may never have a child of their own.
Ray and Milton have boys, one each age eight and fourteen. They wear their uniforms proudly at any and every occasion appropriate. They relish their status as war veterans and never waste an opportunity to boast about serving under General Patton. Wilson especially loved holding listeners captive with soaring tales about the heroism of the 761st Tank Battalion when he wasn’t sticking his nose in everybody’s business.
"What were you and Captain Carter talking about so intensely in the corner?" asked Ray.
"Nothing, just catching up," Kapp replied.
"There's not that much catching up in the world. It’s not like the two of you don’t communicate all year long. Seems like every reunion, you and cap are huddled in a corner somewhere all by yourselves. One would think you two are hiding something. Got a secret? Do tell. I’m still wondering how you got sprayed with all those bullets in that ravine on the road outside of Straubing and emerged without so much as a scratch,” Ray said.
After all these years, this was the first time what happened in the ravine had been mentioned, at least, to him. Kapp’s heart flipped as his hands went numb. So numb, he couldn’t feel his fingers and lost control of the steering wheel. The car skidded to the right off the road.
"Kapp! Clare screamed. She reached over and grabbed her husband's arm. Kapp quickly regained his senses and guided the station wagon back on the pavement.
Breathing in and out heavily, Clare kept holding onto Kapp's forearm but didn’t look at him. Kapp fought the urge to glance at Ray in his rearview mirror. There was an awkward moment of silence followed by whispers between Ray and Milton before Clare abruptly switched on the radio.
"This is Walter Cronkite. After 30 days, the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama continues. With nearly a hundred percent of Negro resident's participating, there are no signs of let up. The conflict ignited one cold December evening last year after Mrs. Rosa Parks, a department store seamstress, steps on the bus and sits in the fifth row--the first row of the “colored section.” When the bus starts to fill up, the white bus driver, James Blake, asks her and three other riders to give up their seats to the white passengers. But Mrs. Parks refuses and is arrested."
“My Uncle Lenard was one of the four riders, and they were told not asked,” corrected Clare.
“You’re kidding! I can imagine what that redneck cracker said,” quipped Charlene, Ray’s wife. “I bet it wasn’t nice.”
"He told them to move, that he wanted those two seats. My uncle and the two other men got up immediately and walked to the back of the bus. Uncle Lenard said his face turned white when he saw Mrs. Parks still sitting there. My uncle attends the same church as Mrs. Parks and her husband. The bus driver raised his hand as if he was going to slap her, but he heard Mrs. Parks tell the bus driver, ‘don’t you dare.’ He didn’t, thank God. Knowing my uncle, he would have intervened and ended up dead for doing so.”
“So what happened next?” Milton’s wife, Olivia, asked.
“The driver just walked back to his seat. He radioed for the police, and they came and arrested her.”
“Whew! I’m sure glad I’m not living in the South,” said Milton.
“Oh! Like Chicago is such a bastion of racial justice.” retorted Kapp.
“I’m not saying that. But it is better than the South. At least, we got some recognition for serving in WWII by getting better jobs. Before the war, it was unheard of for a Negro to be a bus driver in Chicago, much less get hired as a welder, working for the railroad like me. And look at Ray and the number of other Negroes working in Detroit for the first time in the automobile industry. It may have taken killing Jerries in Germany to make whitey finally display an ounce of fairness. But an ounce is better than nothing which is what most Colored southern soldiers returned to. That’s why so many migrated east after coming home. Lucky for you, there are a lot of Negro colleges in the south. Do you think your position as assistant football coach at Morehouse College would be possible at Georgia Tech?” asked Milton.
Kapp didn’t answer. He was no longer listening. Instead, his eyes were fixed on the approaching vehicle, speeding towards them in the oncoming lane. The headlights were too big for a car but too small for an 18 wheeler. Must be a pickup, he thought.
Kapp slid his hands from the bottom of the steering wheel to the top and tightened his grip.
“What is it?” Milton and Ray both asked, leaning forward in their seat at the same time to look out the front window.
Kapp just shook his head from side-to-side and passed a glance to his wife. Clare knew the drill. She clicked off the radio then reached under the dashboard on the passenger’s side and pulled out Kapp’s Colt 45 and placed it inside her gold silk purse. Every American Negro knew an approaching car on a lonely road in the dead of night, particularly in the south, could mean you weren’t coming home that night in one piece or perhaps ever again.
“These damn reunions! Why do we have to be the last ones to leave every year?” Ray’s wife, Charlene, complained.
Swoosh; a red pickup truck zoomed by. Kapp checked the side view mirror and watched the truck speeding away in the opposite direction.
“Looks like a Ford,” said Kapp.
After looking back, everyone else let out a sigh and Clare immediately clicked the radio back on.
“No more Walter Cronkite, please. Let’s have some music,” said Charlene cheerfully.
Clare switched to a station playing: “It’s AWonderful World”by Louis Armstrong, and suddenly, everyone broke out singing…
“I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Clare and the other wives screamed at the same time a bright light, coming directly from behind them, streamed into the car.
“Got Damn! That’s a rifle,” Milton shouted. He reached over the front seat and grabbed Clare’s purse and took out Kapp’s gun as Ray retrieved his revolver from the inside breast pocket of his uniform.
Milton, who was sitting directly behind Kapp, rolled down the window on his side of the station wagon and fired several shots at the red Ford now chasing them. Ray did the same and shot out of the window on his side.
"Shh honey, get down! All of you,” Milton ordered Olivia and the other wives. They obeyed.
Kapp pressed the gas pedal to the floor. The arrow on the speedometer quickly shot to 100. A flashback of himself running through the woods in Germany popped into his mind. He couldn’t help but think how much faster he could run on foot.
Suddenly a flurry of large snowflakes began to fall. The road became slippery, causing the car to slide from right to left.
Hell, I can’t see a thing! He told himself, words he didn’t want to say out loud. Damn it! If only our wives weren’t here, I’d turn this car around and kick some redneck ass!
But your wives are here, so just stay calm and make sure you get them home safe.
Visibility grew worst as the snow rained down even harder. So far, Kapp had managed to keep a considerable distance ahead of the pickup. But he could feel the curve in the road first left, then right, then left again. He slowed down with each twist and turn. That allowed the riders in the Ford to cut the distance and get close enough to fire off their rifle again.
Bang burr bang burr bang! The sound of bullets slicing through the cold icy night air made an echo, loud and shrill.
Kapp glanced at his wife crouched down partially under the space between the dashboard and the seat. She was crying with her face buried in the seat and her arms covering her head.
Is this what we fought a world war for and gave our lives, to come home to this? Are we forever to be chased down and brutalized and maybe killed like nothing more than wild animals because some other race can’t accept our existence?
Before Kapp realized it, his left hand crossed over his right turning the steering wheel while easing his foot onto the brakes. The car skidded as it spun around into the oncoming lane. He sped forward, cut another sharp left until the car was once again heading south toward Georgia. But this time, the pickup truck was in front, not behind him.
“Yes, yes, this is what I’m talking about!” Ray shouted, pumping his fist in the air. Milton just patted Kapp on the back. Ray and Milton each stuck their heads out of his window and began firing at the vehicle.
Immediately, the red Ford swerved back and forth across the two-lane highway. “Niggers!” shouted an angry male voice from the pickup. Then, someone in a pointed white hood leered out of the window on the passenger’s side and held up his middle finger.
“I got your niggers right here,” Ray shouted back, and then fired his gun. The bullet went straight through the top of the man’s pointed hood and hit the roof of the vehicle. The driver lost control and the truck swirled around until it finally stopped, facing the station wagon.
With the headlights from the pickup beaming into the car, Kapp couldn’t see.
“Oh, sh_ _!” yelled Kapp slamming on the brakes.
"Clare, get up! Everybody put on your seatbelts!” Sensing that the driver was going to ram his truck straight into them, Kapp immediately turned the steering wheel right and hit the gas.
“What the hell are we going back to Charlottesville for?” Ray objected.
“He’s right,” said Milton, “there’s far too much road ahead of us. We’ll never make it all the way to Georgia with them in pursuit. It’s better to go back to the city where people are. As long as Kapp can keep far enough ahead of them so firing their rifle will be useless, we’ve got a chance. I’m all out of bullets anyway. What about you?”
Ray checked the chamber in his revolver; he was out too.
Once again, Kapp was speeding down the highway at100 miles per hour. His brand new Rambler was capable of reaching 120, but Kapp hoped he wouldn’t have to drive any faster than his current speed. The snowy road conditions already made it too dangerous.
“It’s a good thing their Ford is a much older model than your station wagon,” said Milton, “or we probably wouldn’t be able to out drive them.”
Kapp didn’t reply. His attention was on the road ahead. They were coming to the section of the highway where it curved. Kapp didn’t want to, but he had to slow down.
Everyone braced themselves as Kapp took the first bend in the road, then the second and the third. With uncanny physical prowess, he was able to maneuver the curves while decreasing his speed by only ten to 90 miles per hour. Kapp never lost control of the car and not once did the car skid or slide.
Clare and the others clapped and cheered. They were going to make it. It had stopped snowing and the sign to Charlottesville read 10 miles ahead.
“Hey y’all, no more headlights,” said Olivia, peering out the back window.
Kapp glanced in his rearview mirror as everyone else turned and looked out the back window as well.
“Yea, I guess ole speed demon here left them in the dust,” said Milton.
“You mean in the snow,” chuckled Ray.
Twenty minutes later, Kapp turned off Highway 29 and was driving down Ivy Road towards the University of Virginia. They were hoping to spend the night at Tarver House, a twelve room lodge not far from the University on Massie Road. Owned by a Colored family since 1902, it was the only establishment where Negroes could stay in the city.
The streets were empty. With sheets of snow blanketing the landscape, the city looked like a winter wonderland. The glow from the streetlights made the snow sparkle and appear luminescent.
Kapp drove at a steady pace, careful to stop at every stop sign and red traffic light. If the city of Charlottesville was similar to the city of Atlanta, a few beat cops were parked inconspicuously along the main thoroughfares to catch late night joy riders or deviants trying to commit whatever crime they could perpetrate.
Heading north off Ivy was Copley Road. But heading south that same road changed to Alderman. Copley was now just three blocks away. Kapp accelerated, hoping to make the green light before it changed to red. Reaching the intersection of Copley and Alderman, Kapp began turning left onto Copley. He hadn’t fully made the turn when, out of the corner of his right eye, he saw the red Ford speeding towards them from Alderman Road.
Attached to the front fender of the pickup truck was a huge metal rail. Boom! It all happened so fast. The truck slammed into the passenger’s side of the Rambler. The force of the impact was strong enough to hurl the car three feet into a parking lot fence and tear through the silver wire before landing on its side.
Kapp’s head banged against the door window breaking it. He felt no pain, though, and there was no blood. But the smell of blood was all around him mingled with the heavy odor of gasoline. His head lay outside on the cold snow. He couldn’t feel his legs. Slowly, Kapp turned his face to the right. Beside him, lying unconscious was Lieutenant Milton. Like Kapp, the lower half of Milton’s body was still inside the car. Blood soaked the lieutenant’s uniform.
Oh God! Suddenly, Kapp was aware of the silence.
“Clare! Are you all right? Clare!”
“She’s dead nigger, just like you gonna to be in a second.”
A hooded man walked from around the other side of the Rambler. In the top of his hood was a bullet hole. Sewn on the upper left corner of his robe was a round black emblem with the words Ku Klux Klan in white. In his hand right was a rifle resting upright against his shoulder.
“Ha, ha, ha,” giggled another hooded member, approaching from the other direction.
“Hold his nose,” said the one with the shotgun.
The other one obeyed, kneeled down and squeezed Kapp’s nostrils together so he couldn’t breathe. When Kapp didn’t open his mouth, he was jabbed in the stomach with the butt of the rifle. Kapp’s mouth opened involuntarily. Quickly jammed down his throat was the barrel of the shotgun.
As soon as the one holding Kapp’s nose let go and stood up, the gun went off.
“Bo, come on now, we better get moving. The police will be here any minute. Come on, what you waiting for?”
“But look at him, Johnny. That bullet should have blown his head off. It don’t even look like I shot him.”
“You plugged him all right, and he’s dead. There’s no way he ain’t. So you can stay here if you want, but I’m leaving.”
Kapp’s eyelids closed as soon as the bullet exploded in his mouth, but he was still conscious. He was aware of everything around him such as the sound of police sirens in the background. He heard the two talking, and he heard them drive away.
The bullet felt like a tiny ball of fire rushing down his throat. It punctured his larynx, ripped through his lungs and stomach until it lodged itself in his intestines. But it didn’t settle there. The pointed-tip piece of lead quickly began to churn its way back up through his body until it reached his throat again. He coughed and out it spit. Opening his eyes, Kapp reached up with his left hand and plucked the bullet out of the air.
Suddenly, Kapp started to feel tingling in his legs. He was now able to wiggle his toes. He sat up and began flexing his feet all while his mind kept repeating--Clare! Clare! Clare!
“Holy hell, how in God’s name did this happen?”
Kapp shut his eyes and laid back down when hearing the voice. The sound of crunching snow under the feet of the police grew louder as two officers approached. Then, the crunching stopped.
“Ugh, figures, just a bunch of niggers, probably drunk--serves them right,” said one of the policemen.
Kapp sensed that the officer was standing over him.
“Look at this one,” said the second police man. “He’s wearing a military uniform. Wow! Look at all the medals on his jacket. Hey, there was a reunion at the university for World War II veterans. I bet they attended it.”
Is he alive? Check his pulse you redneck pig! Call for an ambulance.
“I can feel a faint pulse. He’s still breathing, but barely. You check the others while I call for the ambulances. We are going to need a lot of them for all these bodies.”
Oh Yes! Thank God. Thank you, Jesus. Maybe they are all alive. Oh God, please let Clare be alive!
Kapp suddenly felt a pair of cold fingers pressing on the carotid artery of his neck.
Not me, you fool! My wife! Check my wife, the woman in the front seat!
“He’s alive too,” hollered the first officer to the second.
Kapp kept his eyes closed and pretended to be unconscious even after the ambulances arrived. His prayers were answered.
“They will all need emergency surgery for internal bleeding, except the male over there in the tux. He’s just unconscious, though, he may be in a coma due to blunt head trauma,” said one paramedic to another, “we won’t know for sure until the doctors can examine him.”
Kapp felt one paramedic grabbed his feet, and another grab him under his shoulder blades then lift him onto a gurney. The paramedics continued to talk as they loaded him into the ambulance, closed the door, and attach an IV drip into his veins.
“The other five are going to need a lot of blood transfusions, at least, two or three pints, if not more.”
“The hospital doesn’t have that much blood in storage, do they?”
“No, I don’t think so, which means only one or two, if any, will survive.”
Kapp began to moan. He moved his head slightly from side-to-side, and then slowly opened his eyes.
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