Life in rural Virginia in the '50s, '60s and '70s

Just Like Hugo’s


 

How in the world could I have let myself be talked into a situation like this again? There I was crouched on the floor behind the passenger’s seat of a car, peering over the dashboard trying not to be seen. For all I knew, my friends were inside having a good old time, while I was stuck outside hoping not to be discovered or killed. I only had two white friends and they came to me telling me about this brothel they’d stumbled upon just a few miles down the road from where we worked. They wanted to go and they said I should come with them. So here I am hiding in the back of a car because my friends brought me to a place called the S&S Truck Stop. They waited until we got here to warn me that the place was full of racists, but they thought they could convince the owner to let me in. As soon as we arrived, they started making their plans. First of all, this wasn’t a truck stop at all, it was just a run down old house out in the middle of nowhere. The only thing that remotely made it like a truck stop was that it had a parking lot and there were trucks parked in it. But they were pickups, not tractor trailers or semis, just ordinary trucks driven by local yokels, with a few cars scattered about. The place seemed to be pretty busy, there were a lot of men moving about, people leaving people arriving, we sat and watched for a while. “You stay here Stan, we’ll go in and talk to the owner. I’ve been here before”. That was Joe Planko talking, “These people are all a bunch of racist rednecks and if they see you out here, there’s no telling what they’ll do. Get on the floor and stay low until we get back”. Some great idea this was turning out to be.

I’d arrived in Brunswick, Georgia only two months earlier and had already been called the N-word three times by then. I was fresh out of Navy boot camp and had been assigned to the Naval Air Station Glynco for Air Traffic Control Class "A" School, I’d told the recruiter I wanted to be an air traffic controller. The first n-word came the week after I arrived. I was walking into McDonald's at the time and a white man was coming out. He took one look at me and said “G*dd*mn N-word!” and kept walking. By the time my friends got to me I already had him on the ground banging his head against the pavement. My three friends, who were all white, separated us and told the man he’d better get out of there and forget what happened if he knew what was good for him. Well that’s what I wanted to do. What I really did was step toward the man as if I were about to pounce on him, but gave my friends enough time to get to me to hold me back. The next time that term was used on me, a white woman said it and all because I’d smiled and nodded at her. I can’t recall the reason for the 3rd time, I only know it was a man and by then I realized this was going to be a long three months if this kept happening.

I grew up in Virginia and this was the first time I’d ever been called that name. I was amazed that I had to actually leave the state for it to happen. These people in GA didn’t pull any punches, they’d get right in your face and let you know what they thought about you. They seemed to want you to know they were racists. Racial discrimination back home came at you more at an angle. The non-direct approach made it less obvious, but just as effective. For example, you might not get that car loan you applied for or the house you wanted might suddenly become unavailable. Maybe you’d find out that the land you just purchased didn’t perk, so you wouldn’t be able to put in a sewer system. I remember once when two young women from Alexandria bought an investment property near my home town. We met for an interview after I applied to rent the house and they seemed excited about the prospect of having me as a tenant. When I went by to sign the lease agreement, a man came by to welcome me to the neighborhood, even shook my hand and watched me sign the lease. As soon as I left he made his move, he threatened to burn down the house if the women let me move in. The two ladies called, crying and apologetic. They told me what the man had done and said they had no choice but to break the lease, of course I agreed. The worse case of perceived racial prejudice I encountered back home was what happened in a little corner mom and pop store out in the country, near my job. I went to this store every day for lunch and ordered a deli sandwich. This particular day when I arrived back at work I took a bite into my delicious sandwich. I noticed it had more mayo than usual and decided to take a closer look at it, that’s when I saw half of a fly right at my bite mark. I gagged at the thought of where the other half was by then. I opened the sandwich and found two more dead flies inside. Who knows how long flies had been part of my daily diet. As I thought back, I realized that every time I ordered a sandwich there the lady would take my order and then begin swatting flies. I just thought they had a lot of flies. I didn’t realize they were being used as a garnish. With these types of tactics, it was hard to prove that race had anything to do with what transpired. Maybe the woman behind the counter just didn’t like me personally, she just thought I was a smart mouthed jerk who deserved a fly in his sandwich. Maybe, just maybe, the land really DIDN’T perk and race had nothing to do with it, who knows? But if that’s the case, it sure makes for a boring story to pass down to your grand kids.

 

Most of my stay in Georgia, minus a few negative encounters, I found myself having a great time. My friends and I occupied our time most weekends on one of the nearby islands, camping out on either St. Simons or Jekyll. Our main mode of travel was by motor scooters. We went everywhere on them. Two of my classmates and close friends were female lieutenants in the Philippine Navy. We drew lots of attention whenever we putted around together on our scooters and it wasn’t always positive. The girls were in Georgia to train along side us in hopes of becoming controllers. In the U.S. Navy, enlisted personnel are trained as controllers, but in the Philippine Navy only officers could be air traffic controllers. Once the two girls and a friend and I hopped on our motor scooters and rode all the way to Jacksonville, Florida just to spend the weekend on the beach. Riding in a car was rare for me since I’d arrived in Brunswick, so I jumped at the chance whenever the opportunity arose.

 

So there I was in the back seat, on the floor, peering over the dash, waiting for my friends to come get me so I could have access to a “house of ill-repute”. It goes by another name but I won’t mention it here. I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy and these things happen. Sometimes you find yourself in some pretty awkward situations. But this awkward situation reminded me of something else, what was it? I’d found myself in a large parking lot surrounded by people who didn’t want me there on another occasion, where was that? Oh yeah! It was Hugo’s Skate Way back when I was still living in Fauquier County. I’d let two other of my white friends talk me into going to Hugo’s that night, even though we all knew there was no way I’d get through the front door. They convinced me that the party was on the outside anyway and we’d have just as much or more fun as the folks inside. After a lot of convincing, I said sure, I’ll go. We went. We parked. We watched. We waited. We got out of the car. Just like here at the S&S Truck Stop, there were a lot of pickup trucks there. There were a lot of men hanging around drinking, a lot of moving about. I stayed close to the car, leaning against the front fender, just taking in the activity. Just about everyone in Fauquier County knew that blacks weren’t allowed inside at Hugo’s. It wasn’t posted on any sign, no one had to tell you. If you were black, you just knew it, but every now and then an outsider had to learn it the hard way (Johnson v. Hugo’s Skateway, 1992). I wasn’t an outsider, so no one should be surprised that in my entire life, I’d never been inside Hugo’s establishment and had no desire to ever darken its doorway, pun intended. But none of that factors into the influence of your friends and what you will let them talk you in to doing. So we ended up in Hugo’s parking lot.

What I found somewhat odd about Hugo was that he seemed to be a “walking contradiction”. On the one hand, he was renowned in the county for being a racist who refused to allow blacks to enter his entertainment establishments, but on the other hand, he was a philanthropist who single-handedly funded the construction of a fire station for the community. By contrast, he didn’t seem to be a racist when it came to his well drilling business, he drilled many wells for black people in the community, providing clean drinking water for those families. He must have given good deals and reasonable prices to blacks, otherwise my father would never have gone to him to have our second well drilled after the well he’d picked, shoveled and dynamited by hand began to run dry. Dad could have easily gone to Leazer’s well drilling company a mile away in Remington. There could be only one reason he hired Stribling to drill the well, money! As far as the entertainment business was concerned, he seemed to be a huge racist. But when it came to community service and his service related business he was apparently open to all and fair-minded. That means, in the morning I could have my well drilled by a philanthropic, community minded entrepreneur and that evening be asked to leave or be arrested at the local skating rink, all orchestrated by the same person. So yes, you could say the man was a walking contradiction.

 

Of course, my friends decided just standing around outside wasn’t enough, they were going to mingle about a bit. They knew people, I didn’t, I stayed by the car. They left and I waited. That’s when some drunk decided he wanted to cut somebody. This guy pulled out a Bowie knife and began threatening anyone who walked his way, flailing his arm’s around, slurring his words. Since I was standing still, not moving, I guess, as with other predators, the guy just didn’t notice me. He noticed my mingling about friends and immediately went into attack mode. I minded my own business, the guy was too drunk to do any real damage anyway, I quickly jumped in the car. The boys easily evaded his moves and ran back to the car, they jumped in and we high-tailed it out of there at top speed. As we left I kept my head down and peered out the rear window, watching to see that we weren’t being followed by an angry mob. That was my complete and brief experience at Hugo’s Skate Way, I never went back. Hugo’s was eventually sold in 2005

“Over three decades, in 1978, 1989 and 1990, the skating rink was in the news over race discrimination charges.
In 1978, the FBI investigated charges of discrimination in admission and the U.S. Justice Department found that Stribling had no right to say the business was private, and that he had illegally barred blacks”

(Zitz, 2005)

.

With the S&S Truck Stop now looming in front of me, I was quickly awakened from my day dream by the sight of my three friends in the doorway. They were either struggling to escape or were forcibly being pushed out the door, I couldn’t tell from this distance. Either way, they stumbled down the rickety steps and headed, at full speed, toward me and the car. Joe jumped in behind the wheel and started the engine. He barely waited for the other two to get in before he floored it and peeled rubber down the road. As the truck stop faded in the distance, the boys breathed a sigh of relief. One of them finally spoke up and said, “Whew! We barely made it out alive! We went in, sat around a while, talked and laughed and had even picked out the girls we wanted. Then we told them that you were out here and asked if you could come in too. The owner jumped up from behind the desk and said ‘Not only can that ni**er NOT come in, but we’re gon’na kick you boys’ asses for bringing him here in the first place, now get the hell out!’, that’s when yu saw us coming through the door”. As I listened to my three best friends in the world rehash what all had gone on inside, I peered over the seat through the rear window. I watched down the road to make sure we weren’t being followed by an angry mob. No one was following us, so I leaned back and drifted off to sleep… Yep, this was just like Hugo’s (Z-z-z-z-z-z).

Sources:

OpenJurist, 974 F. 2d 1408 – Johnson v. Hugo’s Skateway, Retrieved on 2/21/2014 from: http://openjurist.org

M. Zitz, 2005, The Free Lance Star, “One Last Spin” Retrieved on 3/3/2014 from: http://fredericksburg.com

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