Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fires and Fears

Forty-two years ago today, I arrived home from Knoxville, Tennessee - four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis. The days between the assassination and the touchdown of the plane on home soil were the most frightening of my life.

A Canadian teenager visiting a friend in Tennessee when King was shot, I was terrified when everything erupted. There were police everywhere we went in Knoxville. There was talk at one point of the commercial airports being closed to facilitate bringing in the National Guard.

Everyone was scared, tense, and highly opinionated about the assassination. The civil rights movement and its detractors were a concrete, in-your-face reality in Tennessee - much different from the television images and conceptual discussions I had experienced at home.

Finally, the day of my departure came and, as the plane took off from Knoxville, I breathed a small sigh of relief - only I still had to get through Atlanta, Washington DC, and Boston before I would be home in Canada.

We cleared Atlanta headed for Washington, one step closer. But on the approach to Washington, the evidence of the riots was only too obvious. Smoke was rising everywhere from all the fires in the city - one source reported over 1000 buildings burned.

Fear is generally not logical, and throughout the stop in Washington, I was convinced that the plane would be taken over and burned, or that we would have to get off (and be stranded) because the airport would be closed. 

Neither happened, and as we took off, banking over the city, the magnitude of the fires and their number was even more visible. It seemed impossible, but too true.

I remember trying to calculate when we might be in Canadian airspace after we left Boston, thinking that I would be safe and that nothing could harm me in Canada - the naivete and ignorance of youth!

In a most dramatic way, I learned how people can interpret and think about things so very differentlly. I learned that we are never immune to fear and danger.

Sadly, the the Vietnam War that King was so strongly and unpopularly against, claimed the life of my friend. He left for Vietnam shortly after my visit to Tennessee and never came home.

Every year in April, I remember them both.


ChrisJ said...


I lost your comment - pushed the reject button on too many spam comments and then did the same for yours and one other. I'm sorry.

The ordinary people also vastly outnumber the main participants, often. Sometimes we tend, or the media does, to forget them.

ChrisJ said...


I rejected your comment by mistake; I'm sorry.

You're right; the urge to get home is our urge for security in frightening times.

Hels said...

I cannot remember what I wrote exactly.. sigh... middle age is a shocker, isn't it? But here we go.

I was thinking that ordinary people sometimes participate in, or are witness to, extra ordinary events. And these events change the witnesses' lives, forever.

You will remember Martin Luther King of course, but I don't mean that. I mean the threat of mob violence, of racist hatred, of the disintegration of civil society. And of the vulnerability of a very young woman, a long way from home.

If you were to ask your friends, family and colleagues, I am certain that there would be many such pivotal moments in recent history. Enough to write an amazing book.

Anyone who was a teenager during the middle 1960s will remember participating in, or watching the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, the sit ins, the posters, the slogans, the hatred of police and the army. We remember these events as if they happened yesterday.

The only difference I would make was that the Martin Luther King riots were 100% real and fearful. The anti-Vietnam war demonstrations DID divide the nation horribly, but they were also full of great sex, lots of weed and a powerful sense of camaraderie.

I was in a Jerusalem hotel one year when the terrorists blew up a school bus not far from the street below my window. The bodies of dozens of Jewish children were massacred beyond belief, but what immobilised me then (and now) was the chaos: endless sirens, army, police, hysterical parents, the utter helplessness of decent people to live out their lives in security.

ChrisJ said...


Thank you for re-creating your comment.

Fear is one thing, but seeing the mangled bodies of children must be an image that forever haunts you.

I did laugh about your comments about Vietnam war protests - good weed and good sex!

Owen Gray said...

I began graduate studies at the University of North Carolina a year after King died; and I remember only too well the mood in the South at that time.

As a Canadian, I was always struck by the vehemence -- both for and against -- the war and Dr. King.

And I am haunted by the lives that were lost.

ChrisJ said...


I know that we are certainly not without our problems in Canada, racial and otherwise; however, the tone is entirely different and somehow scarier.

"Vehemence" well describes it.