Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Bowling Green, IN is now little more than a wide spot on IN highway 46 between Terre Haute and Bloomington. It has a church, a scattering of houses--some abandoned, and a few weary old closed-up store fronts. A century ago, though, when the KKK was running roughshod over Indiana, it was an infamous “sundown town,” signs at the boundaries saying, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Head in this Town.”

Indiana has always been racist, and still is. In the 1920s it had the highest % of KKK members of any state. In 1925 over half the Indiana legislature and the governor were KKK members. Yes, that was long ago, but in the 1960s, IN was the only northern state in which George Wallace won the presidential nomination. Racism here was not so long ago, especially if you listen to local folks talk about our first half-black president.

For its first century, the state constitution was openly racist, with anti-miscegenation laws, of course, and also requiring segregation, requiring blacks to register, and refusal to allow new blacks to immigrate to the state. All that in the state constitution. Many of those provisions were still in the state constitution in the 1960s.

My home town was and is as racist as the rest of the state, yet we are very proud that Abraham Lincoln was born only a county away, proud of having had a major stop on the underground railroad, and proud of the Indiana soldiers who wore Yankee blue in the Civil War, including my great-grandfather, John White McFarland, who lied about his age, at 14, to get into the army. [1]

In many ways, the state went backwards in race relations in the decades following the Civil War. Progress in such matters is not automatic and never secure.

White racism, of course, is never quite single-issue. The Indiana Klan was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, too. Current white supremacists add gays and “Mexicans” to their hate list. Being a white European Protestant straight male myself, I see nothing wrong with white supremacy, except for being immoral and unchristian. 

It was sundown on Tuesday when we drove through Bowling Green, returning from a Christmas visit with our daughters and their families, and the “low tire pressure” light came on, followed very quickly by an awful noise from the right front of the car. Highway 46 just past Bowling Green is picturesque, meaning there are no shoulders, only deep ditches full of trees that come right up to the narrow ribbon of concrete. I had no choice but to turn into a narrow gravel driveway and up beside a work shop. A man was using a table saw in the shed.

I asked him if we could park there until the AAA could come. He said “Sure.” Then he said, “Let’s take a look at it.” Mr. Query is the sort of guy who when he says, “Let’s take a look at it,” means “I’m going to fix it.” “It will take a long time for AAA to get here,” he said.

We emptied the extremely full trunk and got out the spare “donut” tire and only then learned that the factory had not included the lug wrench, jack, and tool kit the owner’s manual says is there in the spare tire well. So Mr. Query got two jacks, a piece of plywood, and a lug wrench from various places on his “funny farm,” so called because he has a marvelous menagerie of bantam roosters, guinea fowl, little donkeys, ponies, a cow, and a delightful puppy named Jax, who really wanted to welcome us by peeing on our luggage as it sat beside the car.

As he changed our tire, our host made sure that we go to church and also entertained us with stories of his first grandchild, now 18 months old. He refused money, of course, until we said he should take it to use for his church or folks in need.

We didn’t talk politics. Would he have helped us so readily had we been black or brown or gay or had a rosary or Star of David hanging from our rear-view mirror? I don’t know. I do know, though, that sundown in Bowling Green was good this year, and that gives me hope for 2017.

1] 14 is a pivotal age for men in my family named John. That was the age when my father quit school and when I was “called” to be a preacher.

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