I don’t know why the memory has started to surface after all this time. But it’s here and grows stronger and stronger each day. I also don’t know why I never told anyone. It just seemed easier to tuck the incident neatly away in the trunk of “don’t-tell” memories, lock it and lose the key.
Friday, September 4, 1970, my sixteenth birthday. My mother was taking me to get my driver’s license. I was so excited. I no longer had to look at my brother’s sullen face when Momma made him take me to school events or to visit my friends. By the end of the day, I would be able to do these things for myself. Of course Momma had already informed me I would have to take my little sister along. That was OK, as long as I got my driver’s license in return.
The day was hot. Summer showed no signs of surrendering to fall. The sky was clear and bright blue. I can’t recall what the air smelled like, but I chose to remember the scent of freshness seeping from the ground after a summer rain. I wore my fitted bell-bottom blue jeans and a short-sleeveless-waist-length top with a vee-neck. My mother wore a pair of not tight but fitted pants, and she also wore a sleeveless top. I think hers was a vee-neck also. I remember how young and pretty she looked that day. She was so excited for me. I would be the first girl in the family to get her license at sixteen. My mother and my aunts didn’t get theirs until they were in their twenties. And my cousin who was one year older still didn’t have hers.
Back in 1970 you went to Kelley Ingram Park, the center for Civil Rights congregations, to take the road test. You parked your car along Sixteenth Street and waited for a police officer or a pig, the name for police officers in those days, to take you for the road test. I had passed the written test on the first try. This also made my momma proud. Back then, little things made Negro parents proud since the city of Birmingham was fresh from it’s failed resistance of civil rights.
I remember his uniform was khaki colored. A silver badge was pinned on the left side of his shirt. He was a large-bellied, tall, red-complexioned man with close-cropped blond hair. His face was round. However, there were pockets of flesh protruding from the circle. His lips were thin, almost none existent; and his eyes were slight and dark blue. His small pudgy nose was perfectly centered. In the left hand he carried a clipboard with some papers attached, and in the right he carried a pencil. I heard my name called, “Deena Gossett.” I raised my hand.
The pig came toward Momma and me. He told me he would be giving me my test today. Mother pointed to our 1965 lavender Chevy Impala. I left the safety zone beside my momma and went with him. When we were secured in the car, I was instructed to make a u-turn and drive the few feet to our starting point, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As soon as we were safely away from my mother and the group of other young hopefuls waiting to take the test, he started.
“Drive to the next intersection and make a right.” His voice was firm and direct.
I did as I was instructed.
“Keep driving, I’ll tell you when to turn.” Then his voice changed to friendly and familiar.
“Now tell me young lady, do you have a boyfriend?” I smiled and said. “No sir.”
“I bet a pretty girl like you has a boyfriend?” I assumed he wanted to calm my nerves.
He probably used the “boyfriend” line with all the girls.
“No sir.” I replied.
“Turn right at the next intersection. Do you let him touch you?”
“Do you let him touch your breast?” I don’t recall taking my eyes off the road; however, I must have.
“Don’t look at me. Keep your eyes on the road. Make a left at the light”
I kept driving, doing as I was told.
“Do you let him touch you between your legs?” His voice was now suggestive and condescending. The joy of getting my license exited the opened windows of the car and bolted through the shotgun houses that lined the driving trail. Into the car came a thief not only taking my joy, but also my youthful innocence. I was sixteen-years-old, still a virgin, and knew nothing of sex. My mother hadn’t told me about what happens between a girl and a boy. Momma was a strict Catholic. She raised me to be a strict Catholic. To her, sex came after marriage. I still had the once-upon-a-time, love-ever-after idea of romance and sex. The pig sitting next to me was definitely not Prince Charming.
As filth poured from his mouth, he continued to make marks on his pad. He looked straight ahead so that to anyone watching all seemed normal.
“Do you let him lick you? I bet you do?”
Just don’t touch me. Please God, don’t let him touch me. Hail Mary, full of grace…
Then he instructed me that it was now time to parallel park. That meant looking in his direction. I had to acknowledge him. I had to look right into the face of my robber. I tried to look past him and concentrate on parking the car. However, I still could see his clammy red tongue slide throw his lips and ease from side to side. The devil blue of his eyes roamed my breast and hips like a hungry animal. He took every advantage of our eye contact to spew sewage. “You sure are pretty. Boys like to do it with pretty girls. Do you let him do it to you?”
When I finished parallel parking we sat for what seemed like hours, although I’m sure it was only seconds. The pig continued to spill garbage. I continued to look straight ahead. I guess when he realized he wasn’t going to get a reaction from me: I wasn’t going to cry, I wasn’t going to act shocked, (at least not visibly), I wasn’t going to curse, and I surely wasn’t going to give him any encouragement; he instructed me to return to Kelly Ingram Park.
I saw my mother as we approached the end of the test. She was smiling and waiting for me. Nothing seemed out of the normal. Mr. Pig was good at what he did. I got out of the car and quickly returned to the safety zone beside my mother. The pig got out of the car and told my mother I was a good driver. He awarded me my license.
I had just driven the path where Dr. King had marched for our freedom. Where a church had been bombed. Where four little Negro girls had died. Where water hoses and dogs had been unleashed on Negroes who fought for our civil rights. Where I had been violated as if none of it mattered.
I graduated from John Carroll Catholic High School. I went to Auburn University. I married my college sweetheart. I raised two children. I watched my mother die of cancer. I divorced after thirty-four years of marriage. And I never told.
Thirty-nine years later, my sister and I were having a “remember when” conversation. I don’t know why. I really don’t. But the memory unlocked itself, escaped from the trunk and spilled from my mouth like sour vomit. It was out! It was finally being told. My sister was so angry. Not with the pig, she was angry with me.
“Why didn’t you tell?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should have told someone. You don’t keep stuff like that.”
“I saw Momma. She was so happy and proud.”
“Deena, you can’t protect everybody.”
“I know. I think I’m finally learning that lesson. But what were they going to do? We were fresh from civil rights. It was a white policeman. No one would have believed me. Daddy was already having a hard time on his job for marching and picketing. ”
“You still should have told.”
But I didn’t.
I honestly don’t remember if he touched me. That memory is still buried deep inside my subconscious, and I don’t think I ever want it to surface.
I did what most girls did back then and what most girls continue to do today when they are raped verbally or physically.
Donna Gossom Thomas, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, has a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She is a retired telecommunications worker chasing her dream. Her work has appeared in The Birmingham Newsand PMS magazine.