Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Small Texas Tolerance

By Jon Garrett

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  There is a tiny mobile home sitting quietly on the corner of a dark country road somewhere near the tiny town of Conroe, Texas. It is painted bright yellow, and seated on the dilapidated porch between two rusty reclining chairs is a dingy mutt of a dog; a small cloud of flies attend it. Inside Jim Donaldson, a 19-year-old meat market manager from the local Wal-Mart, sits playing video games as his 20-year-old and very pregnant girlfriend watches on. The walls are bare except for a huge collection of Rebel flags, T-shirts, and buttons -- an apt shrine to the memory of the "Old" South. I believe the name of the Hank Williams, Jr., tune playing loudly on the stereo -- by far the newest and most valuable piece of equipment in the home -- is "If the South Would Have Won." To many blacks, this is a scene from Deliverance. It is exactly how we, as children, envision our white hillbilly oppressors, when we are told stories of their horrific past deeds to keep us wary of our melanin-challenged brethren. For many whites, Jim and his girlfriend are the precise definition of white-trash, undereducated and poor, living on the outskirts of real life. I see them as basically good people, a little misguided, but with good hearts. Of course, I have known Jim since we were kids, and he is my best friend.

My best friend is an authentic, tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking, boot-and-hat wearing, swearing, Rebel-flag carrying, truck-driving, Hank Williams, Jr.-listening redneck. Yep, your eyes are not deceiving you. I swear on a stack of Bibles, it is the truth.

So, how did it happen? How did a college-bound black man become best friends with an often jail-bound redneck? That great Southern philosopher, Forrest Gump, probably said it best, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get."

Jim and I first met after I moved from the notorious all-black neighborhood Dugan, which lies on the north side of Conroe, into the white-bread suburban paradise called Robin Wood where I would spend my teenage years. It was around the time I was finishing eighth grade that I first took notice of the skinny, blonde 12-year-old who had a knack for getting himself in trouble. I was standing at the bus stop which the middle school and junior high shared one December morning, trying to get into the game of streetball that was going on before the bus came. One of the older kids, and a pretty big one at that, was making fun of the way bowlegged Jim waddled as he ran up and down the street chasing the worn piece of leather we were naïve enough to call a football. Jim ignored the taunts, so the bully went one step further and grabbed Jim by his arm the next time he ran by. Then without warning, the big kid threw Jim onto the hard ground and began walking toward him. I was ready to jump into the fray -- hey, I was the biggest kid on the block -- when I saw the most amazing sight. Jim flipped up off the ground and did a somersault catching the larger kid's head between his legs and then proceeded to pummel him. After a few minutes, the game had ceased and the whole bus stop was at attention. Honestly, I think Jim would have shellacked him all day if the kid's dad had not driven by and jumped out of his car to save him. The funny thing is that the older kid's dad was angrier at him for losing than he was for fighting. But, that did not really matter. As they drove off, the big kid in the back seat, with his father yelling at him and slapping his head, everyone already knew that Jim had established himself as a neighborhood legend.

illustration by Jason Stout

Later that day, when all the neighborhood kids were playing kickball after school, I saw Jim and congratulated him on his victory over the bully. He said he had seen me around and asked if I wanted to go play Nintendo at his house. We played Mike Tyson's Punch Out for hours, comparing the goofy faces the characters make when you hit them to the look on the bully's face when he realized Jim was going to beat him silly. By the time I left that night, 30 minutes late for dinner, we had unknowingly laid the foundation for a lifelong friendship.

After that day, we were inseparable. I lifted weights all summer, and he took up smoking. While I was playing football, he was playing hooky. I was the smart guy, and he was the smart-ass. Liquor was not in my vocabulary, but some of the older kids called him "Jim Beam." He was a poor man's Mel Gibson and I was his Danny Glover, always there to pick up the pieces when things went wrong. It was not until my junior year in high school that things started to change.

Boots and a hat became an integral part of Jim's wardrobe as he finally made it out of eighth grade after two long years. He started listening only to country music, and the word "nigger" slowly crept into his vocabulary. None of his other friends associated with black people, and pretty soon we had stopped talking to each other as well. By the end of the year, the only thing we had in common was our hate for each other. Still, it never stays cold for long in Texas, and the frost between us finally broke on the last day of school and more importantly, the first day of summer break.

I had driven my car up to the bus stop to see if I could catch my girlfriend (who happened to be white) and give her a ride home. She was not on the bus. Jim was, and something compelled me to ask him if he wanted a ride. He hesitated a little and then jumped into the passenger side of my car. Before we could leave, one of Jim's friends walked up to my window and yelled, "Why you hanging out with this nigger, Jim? He thinks he is bad cause he has a white girl." I was stunned. I wanted to rip the boy apart, but I was used to racism being from a small town, and I decided to let it slip. I was about to pull away from the curb when I felt Jim's knee press on my leg as he crawled across me. His face was fixed with an angry stare, and I could almost swear he was crying. Soon his hands were wrapped around the neck of the boy and he was shouting in the boy's face, "This here ain't no nigger! This is my best friend, and if you call him nigger again, I swear I will kill you!" By the time I managed to break Jim's grip on the kid's neck, we were both sweating profusely. The startled boy ran like a young Carl Lewis to his house up the street.

We drove around to Jim's house without either of us saying a word, and sat there in complete silence listening to the car as it idled. Finally, after a few nervous minutes, he turned to me and stuck out his hand, "I missed you man," he said. This time he was crying for sure, and when I shook his hand, he gripped mine with such authority that I thought he would never let go. I told him I missed him too and we sat in my old '78 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon for hours catching up with each others' lives. The next day we were friends again.

Do not get me wrong, this is not a fairy tale world; Jim did not change overnight. He was still prone to using the "N" word now and then, and to this day, he still prefers cowboy boots and country music to anything the city has to offer. It took me years to get him to accept interracial dating, and even more years for me to accept his love of the Rebel flag. (He likes the design -- and in his own words, "I been a rebel all my life.") We formed our own clique. His old friends tried to pick on him for hanging out with me, but they were afraid of me because I was big, and afraid of him because they thought he was crazy. By graduation, everyone at the school thought of us as brothers. We were total opposites, with different opinions about everything, but we always fought for each other.

I still remember the day I graduated. After we walked out of the stadium and my parents had finished taking snapshots, Jim came over and grabbed me by the shoulders. "You have to make it for both of us. I'm counting on you," was all he said. Then he lit up a cigarette and walked off toward his monstrous red truck, its old Rebel-flag license plate hanging precariously from one corner of the galvanized steel bumper.

There is a tiny mobile home sitting quietly on the corner of a dark country road somewhere near the tiny town of Conroe, Texas. It is painted bright yellow, and seated on the dilapidated porch between two rusty reclining chairs is a dingy mutt of a dog; a small cloud of flies attend it. Inside is my best friend huddled around a sparse Christmas tree with his soon-to-be wife at his side. Under the tree there is a large box wrapped in dull red wrapping paper. The tag tucked beneath the ribbon says: "To Jim, the best friend a guy could ever have." On the inside of that box there is an old piece of leather we once dared call a football signed by the University of Texas Longhorn football team mounted to a wooden plaque. The inscription reads: "We made it!" Longhorn Linebacker Jon Garrett graduates next semester with his Bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.

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