Arizona

Chervis Isom

Chervis Isom

Age 23 in 1963

Chervis Isom had grown up in a segregated world, where Jim Crow laws forced separation of the races. The summer of 1961, when he was 21, was the first time he observed those laws being applied against someone he knew and respected. As he says, “It turned out to be a life-changing summer.”


He pointed to large, raised letters near the end of the dusty eight inch steel pipe. With one swipe, I brushed them clean. “Made in Belgium,” I muttered, as if he needed my translation. Then he stalked away. I studied the dozens of identical pipe stacked in the yard. The electric grinder he had given me, now hanging from my hand, seemed wholly inadequate for the job I had been told to do.

As I dithered, trying to figure out the best way to begin, I noticed the colored guy—they called him Arizona—watching me. His neutral face showed no emotion, but I knew he must have been amused to watch a college boy flounder in ignorance and incompetence.

How do I begin? I wondered. Is there a place to sit? If I sit on the pipe, will it roll? There must be a trick to this somehow. Arizona watched quietly. After a few moments, I looked at him. “You done this before?”

Quietly, he eased over and said, “You gotta block this pipe so it don’t roll, son, like this” and he showed me how to do my job.

“Now you get that grinder going, those filings gonna fly ever’where. Try not to breathe that s**t—and cover yo’ eyes best you can.”

Then he was gone. I began the tedious work of grinding off the offending letters that I assumed would somehow make the pipe more saleable. I hated the job, of course, a summer job at a pipe distributorship, but it would earn me enough money to pay my tuition in the fall for my senior year.

When I reported to work that first morning in the summer of 1961, the foreman had me clock in and then he turned me over to the two yard men, tall and lanky guys responsible for loading and unloading the pipe from flat-bed trailers and physically handling the pipe to be stored in the yard. They were Billy and Lamar, two young men in their early twenties from the hill country of North Alabama and redneck to the core, both of them.

The foreman made a quick introduction of the two white men, ignoring the small, wiry colored man more than twice their age who stood close by, dressed in the same green work uniform. After we had shaken hands and they demonstrated their inability to get my name straight, one of them said, “Thi ‘shere’s Arizona,” waving a hand in the colored guy’s direction.

I stepped over and extended my hand to Arizona. “Glad to meet you,” I said.

He raised his eyes and hesitated. The rednecks raised theirs too. Arizona dropped his eyes and reluctantly extended a grizzled, limp hand, as if the first time he had ever touched a white man. My efforts at courtesy were rewarded by two hostile stares from two clearly agitated white men and the shuffling of one deeply conflicted and embarrassed colored man.

In time, I came to think of Billy and Lamar as the white boys. They were ignorant and proud of it, and arrogant with authority. Billy was in charge of the yard and Lamar was his flunky. Arizona had worked there for years. His job was to do the white boys’ bidding which involved mostly common labor. He never volunteered, never suggested a solution, afraid perhaps that his eagerness would somehow be translated as implied criticism of Billy or his know-how. But in time, I came to see that he could handle any problem the white boys called on him to do. What a waste of talent, I thought. He’d been working at the pipe plant for years and knew how to do it all. I watched as the white boys screwed it up time after time, and then in desperation called on him to step in and fix it. He did what he was told and he did it well. It took me only a few days to discover that Arizona should have been the boss of the yard, telling the white boys how to do it.

But that’s not the way it was in Birmingham, not in 1961, when the Jim Crow laws then in effect segregated the races in every aspect of life, and the customs of the time reinforced the assumption of white supremacy. That summer job was my first observation of those laws and customs being applied against someone I knew and respected.

It turned out to be a life-changing summer.

*       *       *

There’s an art to unloading pipe from a flat-bed trailer. And there are dangers as well.

When the first tractor-trailer lumbered into the yard on my first day on the job, Lamar yelled for me to leave my grinding chore and come help. I ran into the yard. Billy was there on a forklift mobile crane, waiting for us to get in position. Arizona checked the wedge blocks that chocked the lower level of pipe in place before removing the side stakes and loosening with a winch bar the web straps that wrapped the pipe. Then Lamar scrambled onto the pyramid load and secured the cable around the middle of the upper pipe, what they called “hooking” the pipe. Then he got out of the way and Billy, by a single cable, lifted the pipe from the load. One end of the pipe shot skyward as he lifted while the other sagged in place. It fell to Arizona to provide the counter-weight to stabilize the pipe as Billy lifted it from the trailer. Then Billy slowly swung the boom and lowered the pipe to me, rotated the forklift and proceeded slowly onto the yard with me trailing behind and struggling to hold up my end of the pipe. When there, we laid the pipe on the ground, and continued the process until the stack of pipe had been relocated.

The problem, of course, was that Lamar couldn’t find the center when hooking the pipe and Arizona and I had to use pure muscle power to wrestle the pipe from place to place.

As more loads came in, occasionally I would be told to hook the pipe. I learned early to call on Arizona. Though I was totally inept, I too was his boss and he was at my beck and call, although I never gave him an order. I simply asked him for his help. Unbelievably, he would invariably hook the pipe in the exact middle, and when it was lifted by the crane, I could follow the pipe stabilizing my end almost with my thumb and forefinger. That’s how easy he made the job.

One day, in the middle of the summer when too many trucks had come in, Lamar had taken a shortcut. He failed to check one load to ensure the chock blocks were properly secured before untethering the straps from the load. The load shifted. Lamar bolted to the side. Billy backed the forklift away. We all knew it could dislodge any moment and come crashing down. Lamar shook his head, refusing to go near it. If there was ever a dangerous job to do, they sent Arizona to do it.

Billy looked at Arizona and gave a signal. Arizona hesitated, a cloud passing over his face, and then, as he moved to correct the problem, he waved me off. “Them pipes coming yo’ way.”

I don’t know what happened or why. All I know was the pipe shifted and instantly the entire load exploded onto the tarmac, spinning, bouncing and surging like a Tsunami, with lightning speed and a thunderous racket. I ran like hell.

Afterward, we stood around looking at the scattered pipe and speculating how nobody was hurt. Actually, I wasn’t surprised the boys weren’t hurt. They got out of the way before it fell. And Arizona had waved me off. He must have ducked underneath the trailer when the load gave way. Where else could he have gone? We all expressed wonder we weren’t hurt, but only Arizona had truly been at risk.

I had no doubt the white boys liked Arizona, in their own cruel way. How could anybody not like him? They teased him unmercifully in a good natured but unfair way because he couldn’t tease back.

Apparently, Arizona had a severe case of hemorrhoids, because at least once a day one of them would sneak up behind him and “goose” him in the seat of his pants. He would invariably scream “son of a b****” and flail the air with his fists. But the assailant always backed out of the danger zone. Then Arizona would compose himself and grin. One day, it backfired. Arizona and I were painting a wall. Lamar quietly came up behind us and gave Arizona a goose. He screamed and whirled with his brush before Lamar could back out of reach, and slapped him with a gray stripe across the face. We all got a laugh at that one, even Arizona.

Another incident was particularly cruel. It was a rainy, foggy morning and we had gotten damp in the yard. We found some work to do in the metal building. The boys suggested that the gas stove be lit to warm up the place. Arizona was afraid of the heater, but of course it fell to him to light it. He squatted before the heater with great caution, a lit match in his hand, stretching his arm as far as it would go into the heater while leaning backwards and turning his face away. Lamar had quietly moved behind the metal wall adjacent to the heater. He carried a steel rod, and, just as the flame caught, Billy gave the signal and Lamar slammed the wall. Bang! It sounded like the building had blown up. Arizona sprang backward and fell all over himself scrambling out of the building. The boys whooped and hollered. They thought it was a great trick. After a little while, Arizona came back to the warm heater with a sheepish grin to more teasing.

I couldn’t decide whether I hated the boys for being bullies, or whether I felt sorry for them for their crude insensitivity and ignorance, or both.

But it wasn’t just the boys and their cruel behavior that bothered me. It was the Jim Crow laws that required, even in an industry like the pipe shop, separate restrooms for white and colored. But there was nothing equal about the colored facilities. Segregation reminded colored people every day that whites viewed them as inferior, even where men sweated together in the workplace.

That’s why the more I saw of Arizona the better I liked him. He never complained about the way he was treated, never groveled or wheedled, never showed fear or anger or any of the emotions he must have felt in his position of subservience. What amazed me was his ability to grin and bear it. His self-discipline was inspiring. It was almost as if he were able to transcend himself, like a monk.

I tried to find common ground with him—something to talk about. Having long followed rhythm & blues, I spoke to him of my favorites—B. B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, from my Nashville days, along with Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Willie Dixon. He knew the sounds of these artists. I learned he liked jazz as well, and we talked about my favorite disc jockey in Birmingham, Lewis “Luigi” White, who was known for his jazz hour. I wondered if he too were white, impersonating a colored voice like the WLAC guys from Nashville, though his voice, unlike theirs, was as smooth as velvet. But no, Arizona assured me, he was colored.

And we watched the women saunter down the dirt road adjacent to the plant as they walked to and from the store to their houses in the settlement, company houses that had been thrown down among the grit and grime of the industrial area. There was one woman in particular we watched. She was tall, dark and heavy-boned. Twice the size of Arizona, she sailed slowly, languorously, sensually, as graceful as a cruise ship and as regal as a queen. Arizona would smack his lips and express the thoughts he might have expected me to anticipate from him. I laughed and teased him about how he wouldn’t survive five minutes with her, that she would crush him like an egg shell, but he cackled and took it in good cheer.

*      *      *

Colored people had always been a mystery to me. I had grown up in a segregated world. I had never really known any colored people, except for the few I had met on my paper route. While I had been taught as I grew up that segregation was required—it was the only way they said that whites and colored could live together peacefully in the same city—I had become aware that the “separate but equal” principle had been a lie. There was no equality at the “white only” chilled water cooler which sat next to a bare water tap marked “colored.” Nor was there any equality on the city bus. The whites dropped their money in the fare box and sat down in the nearest empty seat. The colored paid at the front, then disembarked and went to the back door to again mount the steep steps to the normally crowded back of the bus. All that had been made clear to me by experience.

And I had read any number of books that had confirmed the truth of what I’d been taught. But until my summer at the pipe plant, I had never gotten to know any colored person except in a superficial way. My summer was coming to an end, and I felt that somehow I wanted to express to Arizona my thanks for his help and support and my admiration for him as a man.

The last day I worked at the plant, I told Arizona I wanted to have a drink with him after work. It was not possible that I could invite him to join me at a beer joint. Nor could he invite me. Jim Crow laws prohibited us from drinking together anywhere, anytime.

So after we clocked out, we sat in my car outside the gate of the plant and tuned in to WJLD. I had bought a pint of cheap whiskey and we sat there like two old friends, passing the common bottle between us, listening to the Blues, until the bottle was empty.

At first, we laughed and teased and joked, but after a while, the whiskey loosened his tongue. I asked him about his personal life. He was fifty years old. He had been married for many years, he said, and he and his wife had raised four children. He told me about each child. They were all grown and living up north. And then, he spread his grizzled hands in his lap, and stared into his empty palms. “With these hands,” he said, “and not much else, I put my kids through school, four of ‘em.”

The whiskey was gone by then, but we were lit with its warm afterglow, encircled by the yearnings and hunger of the Blues.

I had a mild buzz. My summer job was done. I’d saved enough money to pay tuition for my senior year in college. I would return to school next week where I would read more books. My whole life so far had been thrust in an upward arc. The future looked good. I should have been content. But instead I was wound as tight as a tether around a load of pipe.

Arizona stared blindly to the west, toward the red-rimmed horizon as the sun sank fast beneath the gathering darkness. He looked like a tired, old man. Suddenly, I understood the brutal truth of his life. Arizona would continue to work as a laborer under Jim Crow until he physically couldn’t do it anymore. And then, what? I realized his dreams were as empty as the bottle I clutched in my lap.

My stomach churned and burned, but it was not the whiskey. It was the injustice I had witnessed all summer.

I was desperate to say something, to try to make it right. But I was just a college boy, leaving a summer job and returning to school and an easy life. What could I tell a grown man that would make any difference?

My thoughts jumped around. Here we sat, in my car, near Tenth Avenue North, only a few blocks from my first paper route I delivered nine years ago. It seemed like a lifetime. I reflected on all I had learned in the past few years about the South and my city and our strange racial attitudes. It’s true, I had learned a lot. I’d come a long way in some respects, but it had mostly been an academic journey—until now.

We sat quietly. There was no reason for Arizona to speak. The Blues had told his story his whole life.

As for me, I had something to say. Now, I had to get the words in order—and force them out of my mouth.

I gathered my courage the best I could, took a deep breath, placed my hand on his shoulder, and stuttered, “Thanks, Arizona. Thanks for all your help.” I gasped another breath. “You’re a good man—the best.”

That was all I could manage to utter.

Three months at the pipe plant watching Jim Crow at work—that was the real lesson I had finally learned. And it had broken my heart

This story is Chapter 45 of Chervis Isom’s book, The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, Alabama, During the Civil Rights Era, 2014 – available at http://www.thenewspaperboy.net/ It is republished at Kids in Birmingham 1963 with permission from the author. See an interview with Chervis Isom, here.