A MONTGOMERY MOMENT, AN ENCOUNTER WITH HISTORY
A maritime career, any maritime career can bring some memorable moments, some have nothing to do with the maritime World, or do they. There was sunshine this morning and "She Who Would Be Obeyed" (SWWBO) was restless and I just couldn't face a morning of trying to write with the motel room TV blasting in my ear with all the latest storm news. The storm news indicated that there would be no rapid return home, the slow moving storm would take two days to pass over the city and if we wanted to come home to air conditioning and lights we'd have to wait beyond that for power to be restored, assuming all of the optimistic predictions actually come true and we have a home to go to at all. So I decided to go have a look at the city's waterfront and get the SWWBO out for some air.
The Alabama River looked quite capable of supporting barge traffic though I was told that most of it had disappeared and the city docks were now a park like "River Walk" with two regular vessel customers. There was the little paddle wheel excursion boat, maybe 400 passenger capacity, and the big surprise, a small fleet of Dragon Boats which race under paddle a few times a year. We were fortunate to get to watch a small practice by part of a single crew.
Then we signed up for one of those trolley tours of the historic downtown.The "Trolley " was one of those Trolley replica diesel buses that almost every historic town in America runs through whatever passes for a historic district. But this one proved to be a time machine and magic bus. We saw the beautiful state capitol, and the Alabama State Archives, "The Smithsonian of Alabama" We saw the Hank Williams Museum, The place where the telegram that launched the Confederacy was sent, the Rosa Parks Museum, all very interesting. Montgomery is both the birth place of the Confederate States of America, and the starting point of the American Civil Rights Movement. History comes full circle here. But what happened on this tour was mind blowing. Things were swimming along about as expected after we passed the church where Martin Luther King had preached, then we passed his house ,and then we experienced something you can only experience in Montgomery.
A few doors down from the King home, the driver stopped at a nicely kept modest home where a little old lady was sitting in a rocker on the porch. The driver told us how one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, some of the first military aviators of African American descent to be commissioned back in WWII, used to live there. The driver referred to him as "Mr. Harris". It seems "Mr. Harris" had been injured in the line of duty and was medically retired from either the Army Air Corps or its successor, the U.S. Air Force. He was probably "Capt. Harris" out at Maxwell Air Base which he had access to including officer club access , as a retired officer. The driver had told us about the bomb that had exploded on Dr. King's front porch, and the stresses that the King family were under at the time. The driver told us how "Mr. Harris" would take Dr. King and no doubt occasionally his family out to the Air base, where once through the gates they were safe from those seeking to take their lives. Additionally they were exposed to a semblance of an integrated society. I have to believe that these respites from stress, and the vision of airmen living and working together with African Americans in all positions from the lowest ranks to the commissioned officer corps must have helped Dr. King envision his "dream"., The integrated Air Force, even if imperfectly at the time had to be a powerful convincer that an integrated larger society could be achieved. "Capt Harris" who made history himself nurtured the future and it became history. But one has to wonder how many people outside of Montgomery have ever heard this story.
Since "Mr. Harris" was a World War II veteran and suffering from disabling physical injury no one would expect that he would still be alive. Then the driver confirmed that "Mr. Harris had died a couple of decades ago. "But the lady sitting out there on the porch is his widow who still lives there with two of her grand daughters". I was thunder struck once I realized that I was looking at a real living witness and participant to human history of cosmic consequence. I started waving to her through the bus window, after a few movements she looked towards me and waived back! How many times do you come into even that much direct contact with living history? I've served on every coast of the United States, up and down the Mississippi, on parts of three oceans, and visited many of the garden spots and hell holes of the world. But until I had to move my maritime blog activities and other writing chores in the face of a storm engulfing a major port, Montgomery was just a wide spot in the road between New Orleans and Annapolis. From now on it is burned into my memory as the place where I exchanged greetings with a living historic figure. No Montgomery ain't Las Vegas, but at least one visit here ought to be on every American's bucket list.