Sunday, April 02, 2006


Last night we had a few friends over for dinner, among them Houston Steve and his wife Debbie.

You’ve met Houston Steve in these pages before. He’s yet another member of the Legion of Stevies that operates around these parts.

Houston Steve and his family immigrated to the United States from England back in 1958, and thereby hangs a tale.

Seems the family - Mom, Dad, four kids, and all - made the trip across the Atlantic on a Lykes Line steamer. In those days, Lykes operated vessels that carried both cargo and the odd handful of paying passengers - I can remember seeing their ads in old National Geographic magazines.

Their destination was Houston, but as New Orleans was the first port of call, everyone had to get off the ship and clear the Customs and Immigration formalities there. Houston Steve and his family then planned to travel the rest of the way to Houston by bus - it was cheaper than getting back on the ship.

So: Immigration cleared, the family headed to the depot and found the bus that was scheduled to take them to Houston. They were the first people on board, and they naturally headed for the rear, where the big seat across the back of the bus not only conveniently accommodated all four kids, but also provided quick access to the rest room.

And then they waited...and waited. And waited. No other passengers appeared, and the bus showed no signs of ever going anywhere.

Until about 45 minutes later, when a New Orleans sheriff boarded the bus, gun drawn. He then announced to the (now terrified) group of Englishmen, “Now, if y’all will get up to the front of the bus where you belong, we can finish boarding and get y’all out of heah.”

That’s right: Houston Steve and family had unwittingly transgressed the local Jim Crow laws by parking themselves in Negro Territory.

The Inadvertent Freedom Riders moved; the bus filled up with passengers; the trip to Houston continued uneventfully.

Picture the irony, though. Here is Houston Steve’s mother, here in America, with a gun pointed at her neck for the crime of sitting in the wrong part of the bus, remembering that the last time a gun was pointed at her it was in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

Welcome to America, vintage 1958.

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