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Crossing the Lines: A Novel

Crossing the Lines: A Novel

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by Richard Doster

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Family man Jack Hall wants nothing more than to be a respectable newspaper reporter, see a good baseball game now and again, love his wife, and watch his son grow up in their middle-class, white community. Then he finds himself on the fault line where black meets white in the American South of the late 1950s.

Still reeling from an explosive confrontation that


Family man Jack Hall wants nothing more than to be a respectable newspaper reporter, see a good baseball game now and again, love his wife, and watch his son grow up in their middle-class, white community. Then he finds himself on the fault line where black meets white in the American South of the late 1950s.

Still reeling from an explosive confrontation that put his family in jeopardy (detailed in Richard Doster's first book, Safe at Home), Jack takes a job with the Atlanta Constitution and moves his wife and son south. He's thrilled when he's introduced to legendary editor Ralph McGill, an outspoken opponent of segregation who promptly sends Jack to Montgomery to investigate reports of a bus boycott.

Once again, historic events sweep Jack and his idealistic son, Christ, into harm's way. Will this be the collision that destroys his family forever?

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David C Cook
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By Richard Doster

David C. Cook

Copyright © 2009 Richard Doster
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4347-0030-8


There was a time when I aspired to only three things in life: to enjoy my work, to love and care for my family, and to take pleasure in the company of a few good friends.

I never coveted fame nor craved fortune. My proper place, I felt, was adjacent to the fray, but never in it. As a reporter I gathered facts and presented them well. With nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, I ushered readers to a ringside seat; I put them front-and-center where they could—without obstruction—witness the drama of life in the world around them.

I prowled at the fringes, hovering where I could keep an eye on the men who moved the world. Like a hummingbird, I flitted from one story to the next, extracting what I needed and then quickly moving on in search of more.

In a perfect world, I thought, I'd do my job and then go home. And there I'd savor the last hours of each day with my wife, Rose Marie, and our son, Chris.

But it's been some time since the world was perfect.

Our ambition, the Bible says, is to live a quiet life, but none of us will ever know one. If we're awake in this world, if we breathe in and out, if we put one foot in front of the other, or so much as encounter one other human in the course of a given day—then there's not much hope for more than a few hours' rest.

God has set this goal before us, and then placed it beyond our reach. And that's a mystery that tangles up my mind. If He is good (and I believe He is), then why does His world conspire against us? And if He loves us (and I'll grant that He does), then why does everything get stirred up into one mess after the other, depriving us, every day it seems, of the peace we are meant to have?

I suspect that you've had doubts too; that you've seen the evidence as clearly as I have. And that we've all, in the midst of grief or confusion, built a case against Him, that we've proved, at least in our own minds—and way beyond a reasonable doubt—that God has lost control of this world. Even the dullest among us can point to war and communism, or to hurricanes and tornadoes. And God Himself surely knows we've had our fill of polio and cancer and tuberculosis.

But the testimony that's even more disturbing is what we see two feet in front of our own faces. It's what I have seen up and down Peachtree Street; in Montgomery and Little Rock and Nashville; and even in the hearts of the people I love.

There was a time when I rarely yearned for more than a peaceful life, when I was content with a backyard barbeque, a good ballgame, cuddling with Rose Marie while we watched Ed Sullivan.... And for years the world spun my way. Month after month, life provided more than I asked—until the summer of 1954, until the night my home was bombed, until the lives of my wife and son were threatened, until—in the pitch-black hours of a brand-new morning—our comfortable existence was shattered, and every good thing that I had taken for granted was—in the flash of that single explosion—gone.

Ever since, I've been nagged by the thought that God Himself has been plotting against me; that He has—for reasons He hasn't deigned to share—mined my path with the worst of the world's problems. There've been days that I even thought He hovered above, just waiting for the pieces of my life to come "this close together," and then Wham! He dusts off some favorite calamity, hurls it my way, and watches as life peels off into some new wreckage, forcing me to sort out some mess I never made.

It's ridiculous, I know, to think that the God of the universe would trifle with the likes of me, Jack Hall. And trust me, I've spent the opening hours of a thousand mornings wondering, Why me, Lord? Why, when there are so many deserving creeps in the world, me?

To date, God's felt no obligation to answer. And by His silence He sets before me the same question He posed to Job: "And exactly who are you, pip-squeak, to question Me?"

Fair enough, I suppose. But like Job I've been wounded and forever scarred. An event like that lingers—it's always there, lurking, and I'm not sure I've known a sound night's sleep in the past six years.

What is it, exactly, that drives a fellow human to so much malice? By what logic does one conclude that a bomb—thrown through the window of a quaint, three-bedroom home—is the wise and sensible course of action?

The answer to questions like these is rarely simple, but I'll do my best to explain:

We lived in Whitney, once the world's most beautiful town, and a place that felt more like home than anything ever built by human hands. But in 1954 we tore the place in two. With bitterness and violence we slashed it along the seam where black met white—and I bore a share of the blame.

I'd been the sportswriter for the Whitney Herald, and I had, in an effort to salvage the town's struggling baseball team, engineered the signing of a Negro player, the now famous Percy Jackson. But white fans and most of the city's leaders shuddered at the thought of mixing races, anywhere or for any reason. And night after night Jackson felt, and heard, a full measure of the town's wrath.

We might have survived that. We might have outlived those first bursts of outrage, just as the Dodgers had with Jackie Robinson. And who knows, we may have flourished. But, in the midst of our experiment, the Supreme Court fielded one of its own. Nine black-robed justices outlawed "separate but equal" schools, and Whitney's mothers and fathers came unglued. Our bankers, lawyers, and merchants panicked. Our city councilmen scurried for cover, shielding themselves behind a chorus of defiant proclamations. Our pastors joined the battle too; white and colored both, they stormed to their pulpits and exhausted every ounce of the moral authority they had, urging their congregations to either comply or resist, deepening the wound that had gashed us.

The presence of Percy Jackson, living and playing in the midst of white teammates, was more stress than Whitney could bear. In a Negro ballplayer, my friends saw the looming threat of racial integration. When they watched him play they faced the unbearable truth that a Negro was better than the white men around him; it was a chilling glimpse into a dreadful future, and the threads that had held us together frayed.

As colored folks inched forward, as they crept—ever so scarcely—into the fabric of everyday life, their white neighbors scurried to block the path. And we all, in pursuit of the society we craved, ran ourselves right out of Eden.

Percy Jackson and I became the flesh-and-blood faces of one town's trouble. He and I—a colored kid and a white reporter—personified every last drop of Whitney's strain. And on a summer night in 1954 my home, and then his, became the bull's-eye of our neighbors' rage.

As I faced the aftermath an old college professor had called. And it is there that this story begins.

He had heard from the sports editor of The Atlanta Constitution, Furman Bisher. "I knew him when were both at the Charlotte News," my teacher explained. "He's looking for somebody who knows baseball, for a guy who's just itching to cover the Atlanta Crackers and the Southern Association. You'd be perfect," he said. Then he chuckled—a little too sadly I thought—"and besides, Ralph McGill, the editor down there, he's probably the one guy who won't hold all that Percy Jackson garbage against you."

My heart thumped audibly at the sound of the words "Atlanta Crackers," and my salivary glands oozed. The Crackers were the New York Yankees of minor league baseball, the best team ever assembled in a Southern city—and that made this the best sports job south of Baltimore. "Who else is Bisher talking to?" I asked. "How long's he been looking? When's he going to decide?"

My friend chuckled. "I think I was his first call," he said. "So if I were you, I'd hang up on me and call him. He's expecting to hear from you."

Furman Bisher had been in Atlanta for three or four years. I'd seen his work and I knew he possessed a first-rate talent. I remembered him from a few years before—it might have been 1949 or '50—when he'd snagged an interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson. There wasn't a sportswriter alive who wouldn't have killed to swap places. It'd been thirty years since the Black Sox scandal, when eight Chicago White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe, stood accused: of conspiring with gamblers, of throwing the 1919 World Series, of profiting from their team's loss. They'd been banned from baseball, and the world had yet to hear from its fallen hero. An explanation was overdue, and when the time had finally come, it was Bisher who got the story.

The man wrote sports like Thomas Wolfe wrote novels—vividly and with elegance. He took his readers where they most longed to go—to the sixteenth green at the Augusta National, where the air was thick with just-bloomed azaleas; to Churchill Downs where the ground shook under the pounding hooves of Native Dancer; to Ponce de León Park where, as they read Bisher's words, they would, within the expanse of their own imaginations, crane their necks to follow the path of a long fly ball drifting back, back, back ... and just clearing the leftfield wall.

There wasn't a game he didn't love: baseball, basketball, football—he devoured them all. And he looked the part too; a sportswriter straight out of central casting: curly black hair combed straight back, a boxer's nose, thick, dark brows that arched above playful black eyes. He was rough and old school, but his words were always refined and perfectly mannered. And every time I read his work, I envied the talent he'd been given.

* * *

I lingered outside his office. It was 9:51 the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving, 1955. A reporter leaned over the desk, both hands planted squarely on top, waiting. Bisher read; he tapped a pencil, his eyes racing left to right and down the page. A moment passed, and then another. And then I heard the dreaded sigh. "What the—? What is this, Bill? The lead's hobbling around like it's crippled; there's no drama, it might be nice to see a verb somewhere...." There came another words-fail-me huff, then a crumpling sound, and then a ping into a distant trash can. "Do it again," Bisher snarled. "I need something in a half hour."

The reporter turned and stomped away. He was hunched low like a middle linebacker who'd tear your head off and know nothing but glee for the effort. He trudged fifteen feet down the corridor and punched the wall. At twenty feet he muttered furiously and unintelligibly. "Son," "cram," and "stick" were the only words I actually heard, but everyone within fifty feet got the gist of what was on the man's mind. Ten feet farther and he disappeared around the corner, still grumbling, the back of his neck now tinged with bright red rage.

Swell timing, I thought. I took a deep breath, poked my head into the office, and rapped on the door. "Look, maybe it's not a good time," I said. "But—"


"Yeah. We had a ten o'clock appointment, but really if it's not a good time—"

He glanced at his watch, scowling. "Good a time as any," he muttered.

I eased into a coffee-stained, lopsided, and threadbare chair. Bisher tossed his pencil onto the desk, sat back, and opened with the only cliché I'd ever hear him use: "So, tell me a little about yourself."

Our conversation began, and I have loved Furman Bisher from that day to this one. I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, and how on the day we first met he'd been kind enough to say some nice things about mine. We talked about the Atlanta Crackers and the Georgia Bulldogs. He described what it was like to follow Bobby Jones at the Masters. And I rendered a picture of what life was like covering minor league baseball. I told him how it felt to trail a flock of ugly-duckling farm boys who dreamed of waking up one day—transformed—and standing at the plate in Yankee Stadium ... honest-to-goodness ballplayers.

We talked about coaches and athletes and the writers we most loved to read. We talked about the most thrilling sporting events we had ever actually seen. We talked about why we loved the newspaper business. And we had talked for the better part of two hours when Bisher caught sight of the time.

"Geez, it's nearly noon," he growled. He stared up at the ceiling. Then he popped up from his chair and grabbed a wrinkled blue blazer. "You hungry?" he asked.

"Sure," I told him. "I could eat."

"There's a little cafeteria down near Tech...." Bisher motioned for me to follow him. "Skillet-fried chicken's terrific down there."

We rode down Marietta to Luckie Street, made a right, skirted the Georgia Tech campus until we came to Hemphill Road. The Pickrick restaurant was white with black trim. Four large windows sandwiched a pair of glass doors, and two small billboards—one advertising Dr Pepper, the other 7UP—were posted along the fence at the far side of the building. Inside, the placed swarmed with businessmen, carpenters, plumbers, and college kids—everybody shoving trays down the line, choosing from sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, chicken, and pork. From the back side of the counter Negro servers heaped mountains of food onto glistening white china—all of it cheaper than anything you'd ever find in Whitney. From the moment I crossed the threshold, my mouth watered at the blended scents of the fresh-cooked foods.

The owner was easy to spot. He was a sunny, bald, round-faced man wearing thick black-framed glasses. He skimmed from customer to customer like a bee in a flower garden, calling his friends by name, asking about their kids and their work and their wives—working the room like a small-town mayor—smiling, backslapping, and joking with every human who had a heartbeat.

This guy would've been a perfect fit in Whitney, I thought. Homespun and natural, a man in his element, presiding over a room that was filled with friends, all sharing delicious conversation, and where everyone felt at home.

Bisher and I huddled over a tiny Formica-topped table, and we dreamed out loud about the future of Atlanta sports. It wouldn't be long, Bisher thought, before Atlanta lured a big-league team to town. "This place is booming," he told me. "There's so dad-gum much money pouring in here...." His eyes filled with thought of it. "Town makes Fort Knox look like a welfare case." Bisher devoured the scene, savoring our rustic surroundings. "Take a good look," he said, grinning. "This right here ... this is the capital of the New South."

He shoveled a forkful of fried chicken into his mouth. "I'm not kidding," he went on. "You take this job and it won't be long before you get a shot at the big leagues. There's already talk about a new stadium; won't be long after that."

I held out my glass for a refill. "Sounds promising," I said. "But can I tell you something?"

Bisher glanced up.

"I'm real partial to the stadium you got."

A smile rippled across his face. "You've been to Ponce de León?"

"Yeah," I said. "Once or twice."

"Nothing like it in the world," Bisher replied. "That old magnolia up on the terrace ..." he tipped his glass toward me. "If that old boy could talk, now there'd be some stories to tell."

"Somebody told me that Eddie Matthews hit a ball into the tree. That true?"

"It is a fact," Bisher proclaimed. "And he was just a kid at the time—nineteen maybe?" Bisher stabbed at a mound of green beans. "Story goes round that Babe Ruth put one out there too." He tossed back a who-knows smile. "I can't confirm that one."

"It's a great place to watch a game," I said. "Don't get me wrong; I'd love to cover the big leagues—that'd be a dream come true. But there's a piece of me that'll hate to see Ponce de León go."

Bisher's head bobbed. "I know what you mean," he replied, his voice lilting to the wistful side. "Place has got more memories than my wedding album."

We joined the line at the cash register. Bisher fished for a couple of bucks, and I had just reached for a toothpick when a neighborly clap slammed down on my shoulder. "Hadn't seen you in here before." The owner of the Pickrick reached for my hand and shook as if we were distant cousins at a family reunion. "Lester Maddox," he beamed, "the proprietor."

"Jack Hall," I replied. "Food was great."

"That's what we like to hear," Maddox said, still pumping my hand warmly. "We want to see you back here real soon, and bring your family next time, you hear?"

I raised the toothpick into the air. "I'll be sure to do that," I promised.

He angled his head toward Bisher. "Now this man right here," he said, "he puts out the best sports section in United States of America." I heard the wink in his tone.

"Yeah," Bisher growled—he handed the cashier a five—"but tell me something, Lester: Which is better, my sports section or your fried chicken?"

Maddox tossed me a sly nod; he slapped me on the back and said, "Well listen, you boys hurry back, you hear?"

Bisher laughed and the two of us ambled outside, visoring our eyes against the midday sun. "Seems like a nice guy," I said.

"Yeah ..." Bisher stretched one syllable into four. "He is a nice guy. But he's got this weird love-hate thing going on with the paper." Bisher reached for his keys. Over the roof of the car he said, "And he and McGill—let's just say they're not on each other's Christmas card list."


Excerpted from CROSSING THE LINES by Richard Doster. Copyright © 2009 Richard Doster. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

After 25 years in advertising, Richard Doster, editor of byFaith, a publication of the Presbyterian Church, brings his rich Mississippi upbringing to the written page. He currently lives in Atlanta with his wife Sally, and while he's been published by the Atlanta Constitution Journal, this is his first novel.

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Crossing the Lines 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Janna6 More than 1 year ago
The turbulent 50's and segregation vs. integration in the South. What happens when you take actual events (Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, integrating Little Rock) and insert a fictional reporter and his family into the events. Richard Doster takes us on a ride back to the 50's and brings those events alive. It took me just a few chapters to get into the book, this is book #2 and I haven't read #1 so I had to get acquainted with the family and what they had gone through in #1. But, it didn't take long for me to get very interested in the family and the events going on. I got some amazing insight into some of the events like Rosa Parks and the bus strike that happened as a result, and the Little Rock 9. So much so that I actually took it upon myself to do further research. I plan on getting book #1 "Safe At Home" and having my kids read these as part of their high school American History. These books are that good at making history come alive.
ChristyLockstein More than 1 year ago
Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster is the sequel to Safe at Home, but it's not necessary to have read that volume in order to fall in love with this rich characterization of the South in the 1950s. Jack Hall is moving with his wife Rose Marie and son Chris to Atlanta after their home was bombed because of their association with a black baseball player. Jack initially takes a position at a newspaper but then begins a magazine with two friends to emphasize the South that the world isn't seeing. In the midst of Civil Rights movement, relations between black and white are strained in the deep South and in the Hall household. Jack meets various important figures, including Martin Luther King Jr, of the movement which opens his eyes to the injustice facing blacks and makes him question what's right and what should a good man do. I loved this book and didn't want it to ever end. By introducing the concept of a magazine, Doster is able to include fascinating stories about the birth of Rock and Roll and Nascar and an essay by Flannery O'Connor about Southern literature. Jack and his friends begin the magazine because they realize that the North and the rest of the world think of Southerners as angry, racists. They want to emphasize the wonderful and beautiful things about their beloved home while gently introducing controversial topics. The South still suffers from some of this misconceptions, and Doster tackles each one smoothly. There are so many books on the market now about the South during the Civil Rights era that are filled with white characters who are 100% for the rights of blacks, but Doster reflects a more accurate history in the Hall family. Rose Marie thinks that individual blacks are okay, but doesn't want them dating her son, eating in the same restaurant or using the same bathrooms. Chris is ferocious in his defense of his black friends. Jack is caught in the middle. He has many friends who are black, but he has a hard time understanding why things need to change. The book is told through Jack's eyes, and the reader sees his gradual understanding of the injustice his friends face every day. This book ends in 1960 with much more to come in the Civil Rights movement, and I look forward to travelling to that era with the Hall family again soon.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago