Beers and Freedom
It was twilight, those few moments when it is neither day nor night. Passed the cemeteries on Mineral Point, turned left at Glenway. The parking lot at the Village Bar looked lonely, so I pulled in for the simple pleasure of a cold beer at the end of the day.
The lights were dimmed. The rail was near empty, save for two guys huddled at the far end of the bar. One was tall, wearing sad eyes and an Amish beard. The other man carried a quiet dignity in his white shirt and dark suit. The tall fella was white. The guy in the suit was black. Sat down next to them and nodded. “Hi. I’m John.”
The tall guy smiled, “I’m Abe. This is my friend, Martin.” Martin nodded and took a sip of his beer. Abe continued, “We’re just visiting Madison.”
Martin spoke up. “Abe tries to visit Wisconsin once a year because of the Iron Brigade.” I must have looked confused. Abe looked up slowly from his beer, as if it were a struggle, and held my eye. “The Iron Brigade lost a greater portion of men than any Union force. Mostly Wisconsin farm boys.” Abe’s sadness was palpable.
“Such sacrifice,” Martin sighed. “I honor Wisconsin for Andrew Goodman.” Martin took a sip and continued. “He attended your university briefly. He was murdered in Mississippi.” We all went quiet for a moment.
“I’m from Illinois.” Abe brightened up. “They used to call us ‘Flatlanders’ up here.”
I chuckled and took a sip. Not being shy to talk race, sex or religion, I asked the two if they had heard about the brouhaha concerning Henry Gates and the Cambridge cop.
Martin smiled. “We’ve been out of contact a while.” They shared a laugh. Abe turned to me. “Tell us about it, friend.”
“Well …” I began, “a white policeman responds to a call of a burglary at an older black guy’s house. Turns out that this older guy is at Harvard …”
“A Negro student at Harvard. Well, fancy that!” smiled Abe. I turned to the gaunt guy. “He’s no student, Abe. He’s a professor.” Martin slapped his hand on the bar in delight. “Perfect!” he exclaimed.
I took a swig. “The officer asked for identification from the professor. Then, according to some reports, the professor called the cop a racist, and the cop got mad.”
“The policeman got mad, eh?” Abe said.
“He was Irish,” I explained. Both nodded knowingly.
“Interesting.” Martin turned to me, elbow on the bar. “The cop got mad because he was called a racist? Was a time they bragged about being racist.”
I told them that the other cops, one black and one Hispanic, both sided with the white officer’s account. “A black AND a Mexican policeman?”
Abe was astounded. “Are you telling me that Mexico is now part of the Union?”
“Kind of,” I replied.
I described the arrest of Professor Gates, and the national controversy it triggered.
“Well, sir, I used to be a lawyer. It’s a bold thing for the state to arrest a man in his own home,” said Abe. “On the other hand, was a time if a Negro yelled at a white policeman, there would be a beating. Or worse.”
Martin winced and chimed in. “It’s no crime for a colored man to be angry, and good reason. But there is comfort that he wasn’t lynched for whistling, like Emmet Till.” Abe nodded in agreement. Martin paused to sip his beer, then mused, “Got my doctorate in Boston. Harvard professors can be insufferable.”
Martin eyed me. “I assume the authorities sided with the white police.”
“Not completely.” I paused a moment. “The uh … mayor of Cambridge and the governor of Massachusetts … are black.”
Martin looked surprised. Abe laughed and slapped him on the back. “Well, how about that, Martin!”
I played with the condensation on the glass. “Even the president weighed in. Invited the professor and officer to the White House to share a beer with him and the V.P. You know, to find some common ground.”
Martin looked up. “When I was a young man, they would not let Marian Anderson sing at Constitution Hall. And now we’re visiting on the White House lawn. Wonderful. ”
I agreed. “Yup. There they were. Two black men and two white men, sharing a beer, just trying to work things out.”
There was silence for a moment. Then Abe spoke. “Friend.” He put his large hand on my arm. “You said two black men and two white men. Are you telling me we have a Negro vice president?”
I turned to Abe. “No sir, the vice president is white.” I took a sip and let the statement hang.
Abe and Martin looked at each other in slow realization. Then a tear formed in Abe’s eye. Martin offered Abe his kerchief, and turned to me,
“The president of the United States is a black man?”
“Yes, Martin, he is.” Martin’s eyes welled too.
There was silence. Then Abe spoke. “Gentlemen, a toast!” He cleared his throat. Martin joshed, “Keep it short, Abraham.” Abe smiled, “Look who’s talking.”
Abe took his glass and pronounced, “As a great man once said, ‘Let freedom ring!’”
Martin laughed and nodded, “And as another great man said, ‘To a new birth of freedom!’”
Abe and Martin laughed as they threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and lifted their beers.
I raised my glass with them.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write firstname.lastname@example.org.