Stranger in a Strange Land


Jim Austin didn’t need long to figure out he’d moved to a different country.

He was a brand new graduate, a budding journalist with a fresh degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He responded to our ad and on the phone he sounded promising; I hired him. We had never seen Jim and he had never seen Texas, but – expecting good things – we reserved an apartment in his name.

When he arrived in his Chevy Vega, his first stop was at the office of the Wood County Democrat in Quitman, his second was at the apartment and, finally, the drugstore for toiletries before coming back to the office. It was summer and he left his toiletries, including a stick of Right Guard deodorant, in his car. The car with cloth seats that, if it survives, still smells like Right Guard.

He had a new career in a new part of the world. It was different and exciting. He and I covered everything that got covered in Wood County – local government, sports, beauty pageants, cop shop – for the twice-weekly paper. Lots of hours, lots of fun and… 35 years ago … lots of energy. He grew into a reporter.

Summer crawled along, turned into football season and, as winter approached, we got word of a Ku Klux Klan rally planned for a Saturday night out in the woods between Winnsboro and Harmony. Jim was all about covering it. We were unable to wangle an invitation but we found the location and Jim, our rookie from Pennsylvania, decided he’d just sort of ‘stumble upon’ it. Fine with me; good friends were hosting a dinner party for four couples, gently-prepared beef tenderloin sounded much better than an a cold evening in the woods northwest of Harmony. And if the evening in the woods turned ugly, well, I had a family.

Jim took the camera and headed out; I went over to Lance Road for dinner, wine, gossip and to hear Willie Nelson’s newest Album, ‘Without A Song.’

Along about 11 p.m. the doorbell rang. We pushed away from the table, turned down the volume on Willie (We’d heard “Autumn Leaves” and “Harbor Lights” three or four times by then) and answered the door. There stood Jim with a story he had to tell and we, the eight of us, were to be his audience.

Honestly, I don’t remember his story. What I remember is Jim, not too long removed from a university setting in western Pennsylvania, standing under the light on Larry and Jan’s front porch, eyes wide, trying his darndest to be a calm and veteran newspaperman, but with an urgent need to tell the story. In Pennsylvania, he had known of the Klan, of course, but seeing a rally on TV is not like absorbing the intensity, the animosity of a rally; not like hearing it and smelling it. Jim was awash in it.

Jim is now all grown up and, following a number of years at three or four newspapers, is director of publications and website for Pepper Hamilton LLP, a law firm with offices all over the northeast.

But I’ll bet you he, too, still tells the story about his night with the Klan.

You are absolutely correct. I do still tell the Klan rally story. In fact, my son's girlfriend (they're both seniors at La Salle University in Philly), just last week asked to interview me for a class project she's doing, and when we got to my time in Texas, that was the first story I told her. It was indeed a shocker to me in many ways. Not the least because it was so radically counter to what I had experienced, not just from my time growing up and in college, but from the people of Quitman and East Texas in general.

As you undoubtedly recall, my East Coast sensitivities were shaken a bit at first by things like rodeos and cowboy culture, but underneath it all, as I settled in I got to like the country, and I liked the people I was starting to get to know. They were good people, for the most part, living good lives.

But that rally -- we had more than our share of crazies up in PA too, but to see and hear that kind of pure hate and vitriol proudly on display - that was new to me at the time. The robes, the torches, the "white power" chants, the burning cross -- it was like a documentary of a time long ago, come to all-too-real life. I also was shocked at the number of people there. I know the KKK crazies were from all over the country, not just East Texas, but the number of locals in the crowd, including families with young kids, that shocked me. Also, while virtually all the speakers at the rally were older guys, most of the other Klansmen - the "security" guys walking around with rifles, even a couple of young women, were my age or even younger. One young lady in particular stood out to me. She was drop-dead gorgeous; I assume they brought her to the rally to recruit young men. Very attractive until she opened her mouth, and started talking about the "mud people" and how they needed to be put down like rabid dogs. So much for the Klan being a vestige of the '60s.

I also remember how angry the sheriff (Editor's note: sheriff at that time was Bill Edd Jones) was that the Klan was rallying in his county. It really ticked him off (which actually made me feel good). He grilled me a for a good while about what I had seen, whether I had gotten any names, and he wanted copies of all my photos. I think I still have some of those photos up in the attic somewhere. I'll have to pull them out, if nothing else just to prove to my kids that it was real.



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