In March 1968, Navy Lieutenant Jon Zachery has just received orders to report to his new duty station in Meridian, Mississippi, for basic jet pilot training. But after he and his wife, Teresa, arrive in what they are initially told is a friendly little town, they soon learn what it means to live in a sundown town.
When Jon and Teresa attend Mass on their first Sunday in Meridian and enter a pew occupied by a young colored woman "sitting-in" the all-white church, the Zacherys unwittingly step into the middle of a KKK campaign created to discourage civil rights sympathizers. As Jon works his way through six months of flight training with an antagonistic flight instructor, the Klansmen escalate their focus on the Zacherys, soon transforming their threats into violent acts. Near the end of Jon's tour of duty, tensions escalate further, culminating in a confrontation with deadly consequences.
In this compelling story, a young lieutenant's faith, patriotism, morality, and love for his family is tested as he bravely battles the evil that lurks within the shadows of Meridian, Mississippi.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.87(d)|
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Sundown Town Duty Station
By J. J. Zerr
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 J. J. Zerr
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNot many things, aside from the baby crying, rousted Teresa Zachery out of bed before 0700. That morning, List Almighty would determine their future, and her husband, Jon, could get a permanent bridge to replace his two upper-front false teeth.
She slid her feet into her bunny slippers and padded across the living room carpet to the kitchen. Jon stood at the sink, water running, and Teresa stopped to watch from the doorway. It wasn't spying; it was more like when she discovered two-year-old Jennifer deeply engrossed in her coloring book, one of those precious, and rare, motherhood moments. She frowned. Really, watching her husband felt like spying.
Jon turned off the faucet, shook water from what he was fond of calling his falsies, put them in, and looked down at the front of his Navy uniform shirt. She smiled as he ran through his get-ready-for-work routine: Teeth in. Edge of shirt, edge of belt buckle, and edge of fly in a line—gig line straight. Zipper up. Hat tucked under the belt on the left.
"Everything shipshape," Teresa said.
He spun around, an annoyed look on his face, but it didn't last.
"Sleeping Beauty up at ..." he checked his watch, "0554? The handsome prince was about to awaken you with a chaste, fairy-tale, industrial-strength lip-lock."
She shook her head but couldn't keep from smiling. He loved to do that, to package "fairy-tale," "chaste," and "industrial-strength lip-lock" in one sentence. She crossed the kitchen and kissed him, dislodging his teeth.
"Rats, now I have to start the checklist all over again."
"You look squared away to me, sailor."
"I was about to come in and tell you I was leaving," he said.
She hugged him. "Call me after you leave the clinic. I'd like to know if they can do permanent Bucky Beavers for you."
He looked away. "I decided to skip the dentist."
"Jon Zachery, it took months to get that appointment. Heaven only knows how long to get another. I'm not ready to spend the rest of my life sleeping with a man who puts his teeth in a glass of water every night."
"It's only the two uppers."
"There's no only about it. You keep that appointment."
Teresa felt it happen, like it always did. Jon's blue eyes softened the hard edges of her scolding.
"Jon, I know you're worried about List Almighty, but even if it is posted today, you aren't going to change what's written on it by going in early."
"I wasn't looking for help with the logic of the situation."
"You were looking for sympathy?"
"I know. Dictionary. End of the S section."
"I love you, Jon Joseph Zachery."
"And you are a hard woman, Teresa Ann née Velmer, but I couldn't love you more."
She returned his good-bye kiss carefully. At the door to the carport, he stopped with his hand on the knob.
When he turned to face her, it surprised her, the way it always did, that she was married to this handsome man. He stood so straight and appeared to be taller than his actual five-seven frame. Broad shoulders and without a shirt, he looked almost as muscled as those men on the covers of romance novels. In profile, his nose did stick out a bit.
He gave her his mischievous little-boy grin that only used half his face. "Thanks, Teresa."
"For getting up."
The door closed before Teresa came up with an appropriate reply. He'd been irritated with her because she awoke early and didn't let him skip the dentist. Then he thanked her.
She poured a glass of orange juice, turned out the kitchen light, and sat in gloom at the table, at her table. She caressed the tabletop. After four years of living in furnished apartments, she appreciated owning a few pieces of furniture.
She sipped and thought men were complicated creatures. They never outgrew some parts of their boyhood. Aviators seemed a lot more juvenile than the officers Jon associated with on his destroyer. In flight training, most of the student pilots were just out of college. Despite, or maybe because of, the danger in flying, pilots had to act fearless.
She recalled asking Jon why flight training took so long.
"Navy flight training is like going through school," Jon told her. "Primary at Saufley Field is kindergarten. Next is basic. That's grade school. Advanced, high school. After advanced we pin on our wings. We're naval aviators then."
"That's a year and a half, right?" Teresa asked.
"About that, but there's still another six months of training in the specific jet I'll fly in the fleet. That's college."
Teresa finished her juice and thought about the night of the dog poop. Night of the dog poop. Encounter some life-altering experience, and Navy men had to trivialize it with a juvenile and profane name.
It was November 1966. Jon had just returned from a deployment to Vietnam on a Navy destroyer. At that point, they had planned for him to leave the service as soon as he completed his three remaining years of obligation. Then he would get a job as an electrical engineer and they "would live happily ever after."
The plan changed a week after his ship returned to San Diego. They had driven to Los Angeles to visit the Prescotts, Teresa's uncle Edgar and aunt Penelope. The Prescotts did not expect their daughter Christine to come home from Berkeley that weekend, but she caught an opportune ride. She entered the house while her parents and the Zacherys were still at the dinner table.
On previous visits, Christine liked Jon. She told Teresa, "He talks to my friends and me like we're adults, not kids." But in the three months she'd been away at college, she'd been caught up in the antiwar movement. "Baby killer!" she shouted at Jon and stormed back out.
Early the next morning, three of Christine's male friends trashed the Zachery car with dog poop and a garden hose. Jon heard the noise and fought with them, losing his top two front teeth. Two of the three boys were hospitalized though.
After the police and ambulances left, Uncle Edgar sat Christine down. Teresa had always thought her uncle spoiled and indulged his only child, but that morning he was furious.
"Explain yourself, young lady."
The boys she'd ridden home with were local friends, a year ahead of Christine at Berkeley. Shortly after the fall semester began, they had taken her with them to meet a group of four men and three women, none of them Berkeley students. The group had no name, only strong views. They considered the Vietnam War immoral. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen indiscriminately killed women and children. American servicemen were war criminals.
"You believe this crap?" Uncle Edgar leaned toward Christine, his hands on his knees.
Christine looked up. She looked defiant, determined, but her lips quivered, and she was close to tears.
Teresa felt uncomfortable being in the Prescott living room with the father-daughter confrontation, and she started to stand.
"Stay," Uncle Edgar commanded without taking his eyes away from his daughter. "Please."
"You called Jon a baby killer. Baby killers are cowards. What he did last night—charged into the middle of three guys, all bigger than him— whatever he is, is sure as hell not a coward."
Christine looked back at her hands.
"What the hell were you kids thinking?" Uncle Edgar asked.
Christine didn't want to answer, but he pushed.
The group, she said, met once or twice a week. They went over news accounts of the war. They talked about doing something, picketing the Naval Air Station at Alameda, maybe. But that's all they did: talk. During the ride down to LA Friday, they discussed the "all talk, no action" bunch. It was time they did something. If the group wasn't going to act, then the three of them would. They came up with wording for signs each of them would carry outside the Alameda main gate. Next week they would act. They agreed on that, and then Christine got out of the car and entered her home.
"Look at Jon, Christine. Look at what you did to him."
Jon's upper lip was swollen and purple. Blood spots dappled the front of his T-shirt.
A week after the fight, Jon sat next to Teresa on the sofa. "I've been thinking," he said.
Cold fingers squeezed Teresa's heart.
"Before the encounter with Christine's friends, I didn't pay that much attention to all the protest going on in the country. It's in the papers and on TV all the time, but it didn't have anything to do with us. Now it does.
"Some of it I understand. Dr. King, for instance. The Emancipation Proclamation was 103 years ago. It's time it becomes real. I understand that protest. I think Dr. King is right about many things, but he would have us fight the domestic problem and forget about the foreign one. Our country has enemies foreign and domestic. The foreign enemies aren't going to let us say, 'Hey, Foreign Enemies, we've got some domestic problems to solve. Don't attack us for a while, okay?' I don't think he's right about us getting out of Vietnam and concentrating only on fixing race issues."
Teresa realized she'd been holding her breath.
"In the newspaper accounts and on TV, I don't think the protestors know what they are protesting," Jon said. "It's more anti-establishment than anything. These people scare me. They seem to want to tear the country apart, not fix it. And nobody seems to stand up to them and tell them they're wrong. It's like the country doesn't know what to do about these protestors."
Jon took both her hands. "I can't climb on a soapbox and try to shout these protestors down. What I think I need to do is to stay in the Navy, but I can't do that unless you support the decision."
Teresa couldn't think of what to say for a moment.
"I'm not just knee-jerk reacting to what happened at the Prescotts, if that's what you're thinking."
She'd been thinking just that. Finally, she said, "Jon, have you really thought this through? You've never liked being in the Navy. And you did enough, already, on the Manfred. You say it's not a knee-jerk reaction to the fight with Christine's friends, but it seems like it to me."
"I think I'm being objective, Teresa. I have thought about it. And you're right. I never wanted to be in the Navy in the first place. Pop pushed me in. Being a junior enlisted man was not fun, and I agonized over staying to get the Navy college scholarship. Being an ensign on the Manfred wasn't pleasant either, and I looked forward to getting out. I was going to be an electrical engineer, and we'd have four babies. But these protestors scare me. Christine went from a friend to an enemy in the seven months I was gone. The protest business seems to involve most of our generation. What's going to happen to our country when these yahoos take over? I just feel like I need to do something. Staying in is what I can do. It's not much maybe, but it's something."
Teresa sighed. "You have to do what you think is right."
Then he told her he wanted to apply for aviation, and she got angry, feeling as though he'd suckered her in with the "stay in" part. When she bought that, he hit her with aviation. Aviation was dangerous, even in peacetime. He wanted to drop bombs on North Vietnam, and the newspaper articles about the strikes into the north all reported US aircraft losses.
"You have to do what you think is right," she said again. Then she went into the bedroom and cried.
For weeks she prayed that he'd be found physically unfit for flying, but those prayers were not answered. Eventually, she found the bedrock on which Teresa Ann Velmer Zachery stood. God would not give them anything they couldn't handle. In the end, many times, you just had to trust in God and go forward.
Fourteen months and a second baby later, they were in Pensacola. Jon had completed kindergarten, and now they awaited List Almighty.
The list would tell them where they'd go for the next phase of Jon's training. Jon wanted jets. Helicopters or propeller planes would not do. It had to be jets. And jet training was in Meridian, Mississippi.
Wherever they were ordered, the move would happen fast. The Navy organized the flight-training program, as if all the students were bachelors with little or no household goods to move. If one was married, had two small children, and lived in a rented, partially furnished, three-bedroom house, as she and Jon did, the Navy expected that person to be just as mobile as a guy who lived in Bachelor Officer Quarters with all his belongings in one seabag. The next couple of weeks were going to be interesting.
Jets were more dangerous to fly than helos or props. Flying onto and off the carriers at night posed the greatest risk—or challenge, as the pilots called it.
Part of her wanted to say a prayer that Jon got jets and Meridian. Part of her wanted to pray for anything but jets. Another part wanted to pray that he'd wash out of flight training.
A tear ran down her right cheek and hung on her chin.
In you, oh Lord, I place my trust. Please bless Jon with Meridian, but Thy will be done.
When he'd first told her about wanting to apply for aviation, he'd made her angry. Now that jets were close, the fear of losing him left no room in her head or heart for anger.
And teeth, Lord. Permanent ones, please.
She didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and she did some of both. Then seven-week-old Edgar Jon sounded off, and there was no time for laughing or crying.
She looked at the framed eight-by-ten needlepoint hanging on the wall behind the table. Her best friend, Rose, had made it for her.
Toughest Job in the Navy:
The period after "wife" was oversized. Only Rose would say, "Go ahead, knock the chip off my shoulder," in needlepoint.
Teresa went to do her duty.
Chapter TwoHarry Peeper gripped the steering wheel of his DeSoto. It was a quarter till two on Thursday morning. Fifteen minutes to the target. Cruising at the speed limit. No Meridian cops in sight. No other cars either. Driving north through town, he didn't even know what street he was on. The navigator knew. The navigator told him when to turn. Harry hated not knowing the lay of the land, and he especially hated having to depend on the backwoods peckerwoods the Klan saddled him with for the mission. The mission had all the signs of a monumental goat rope. He'd learned how to recognize an impending major screwup in the Army.
Harry glanced at Ford, riding shotgun. He was barrel-chested, slope- shouldered, rancid with a never-takes-a-bath smell coming off him, wearing bib overalls, but he was alert. His head swiveled, checking the sides, rear, and front, and he was quiet. Chevy sat in the back with the real shotgun, and he wouldn't shut up. His mouth ran constantly. He wasn't even talking to anyone, just babbling. Jesus.
"Goddamn nigger, dentist, civil rights, son of a bitch."
In the Army, Harry worked motor pool jobs, including his first year in Vietnam, when he repaired trucks at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. As the end of his tour approached, he began to worry about what he'd tell the guys at Boxley's Saloon back home about what he did in the war, so he extended a year for infantry. He was a good mechanic and a good soldier too, but he never got to prove it. The Army kept his infantry unit around Saigon, and the area had been cleared of VC by two large combined-force operations the year he worked as a grease monkey. As an infantryman, he went on plenty of patrols and night ambushes, but he never fired his M-16 at a Communist. When he returned to the States, Harry refused to talk about his experiences in Vietnam.
His ability as a mechanic landed him a job with Germaine Cadillac in Jackson. Two weeks after starting work, he was invited to a Klan meeting in the garage attached to Sam Germaine's home. Sam liked military things as much as Harry hated the memory of the Army. At work, everyone called him Mr. Germaine. In Klan meetings he was Captain Sam. Harry thought that first meeting sounded like a bunch of old-fart blowhards, all talk and no action. But he attended a second meeting, because he didn't want to risk the good job he had. During the second meeting Captain Sam talked about civil rights agitators in Meridian who needed to be taught a lesson. He asked if anyone was interested in the job. One never volunteered in the Army, but Harry stuck his hand up.
"What you got in mind, Cap'n Sam?" Harry asked.
"I got a plan. It's simple. All you have to do is follow it. Take the job, and I'll brief you."
It did sound simple. A colored Meridian dentist was way too vocal about his support of the civil rights movement. A shotgun blast through his living room window at 2:00 a.m. would teach him to keep his mouth shut. Captain Sam had the route to the target house marked on a map, along with the escape route.
"I never been to Meridian," Harry said.
"You're an honorary sergeant," Captain Sam said. "You get two soldiers, Chevy and Ford Henley. They know Meridian. Here's another map showing you where to pick them up. Mission is next Thursday. Also, I got a line on a moonshine-runner car. I'll loan you the money to get it. If you're gonna be doin' missions for us, you oughta have the right kinda wheels."
Excerpted from Sundown Town Duty Station by J. J. Zerr Copyright © 2012 by J. J. Zerr. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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