Bob Bestler

‘Best Picture’ at Oscars brings back memory in which Jim Crow reared its ugly head

I finally went to see “Green Door” after it was named “Best Picture” at Sunday night’s Oscars.

The honor was controversial, mainly because it upstaged Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and the more militant “Black Panther” in an awards show dominated by diversity.

I’m not a movie critic, but I loved “Green Book” for several reasons. Based on the real-life experiences of renowned concert pianist Don Shirley (played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), it took a sobering look at the Jim Crow laws of 1962 and did it with pathos, anger and more than a little humor. Importantly, it shed light on a time in our history that we should never forget — and it brought to mind a scene in my own life that I will never forget.

Shirley, preparing to play for a country club audience in Birmingham, Alabama, was told he would have to eat dinner in a small storage room because “that’s the way it’s done down here.”

It took me back to the year 1960 when I was driving home to Minnesota on a 30-day leave from El Toro Marine Air Base near Santa Ana, California.

To help pay for the gas, I had enlisted a buddy, Ron, who was going on leave to Davenport, Iowa, and a friend of his, an African-American named John. John was mustering out of the Corps, heading home to Des Moines.

On the second day, we pulled in to a truck stop somewhere in Texas. It was around 5 p.m. and Ron and I suggested we have supper before we head off for another all-night drive.

John hesitated. “Why don’t you guys go in while I fill up the car. You can bring me back something.”

No, we insisted. Let’s all go in and have a good meal. It took a while, but we finally persuaded him.

The place was pretty full, but there were three seats at the counter. We sat down and a big guy behind the counter came over, leaned down and quietly asked me, “Are you planning to eat?”

I made a bad joke and he said, “The colored boy will have to eat in the kitchen.”

What? Are you kidding? You must be kidding. Colored boy? He’s a U.S. Marine.

I’d heard of such bigotry, but I came from Minnesota. My small hometown was lily white; the closest I got to African-Americans before the Marine Corps was reading about Jackie Robinson, a hero since I discovered baseball.

In a flash, Ron hopped off his stool, cussing as he started to remove his belt for a fight.

John stopped him from making real trouble.

“No,” he said, pushing both of us toward the door. “Let’s just get out of here.” Suddenly it was clear why John did not want to go inside. He knew he was in Jim Crow land and he knew the protocols he was supposed to follow. We didn’t.

So we drove on a few miles to Oklahoma, where we stopped at a small grocery store, bought some luncheon meat, bread, chips and sodas. Goodby, Texas.

Late the next afternoon we pulled up to John’s home in Des Moines. His mom fixed us a great meat-and-potatoes meal before sending us off to Davenport.

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