Anniversary with the missus in Rome. The sights, the sounds, the food. The escape from all the crazies taking over our small town in Georgia. We boarded and took our seats. I’d just lit a smoke to calm my nerves when these kids hopped on–most of them colored, ducking their heads as they came aboard, louder than any jet on the runway.
One kid, with a round face and piercing eyes plopped down across from us. I nudged Alice, who’d already tucked away her purse. He was a lanky sort and all over the place, with a pack of some sort strapped to his back. Not a still muscle in his body.
He was a baby, maybe seventeen, eighteen tops, but even in fear he had a hold of himself. But that backpack, I had to ask.
“What you got there, kid?”
Alice tugged at me, astonished that I would chat up a young black boy. No matter that the country was headed into the sixties upside down, schools and politics mixing and mingling the races, she was old school and made no secret of her discomfort having flying over the Atlantic with them.
The kid saw her reaction and that smile of his went wide.
“A parachute. Just in case. Nearly smashed to smithereens on one of these things going to California. This time I came prepared.”
“Yeah, well let’s hope you don’t need to use it.”
“Yeah because I’ll tell you straight. I got a lot to accomplish over there in Rome.”
I searched his face. Something familiar to it. I nudged Alice, then it came to me. “Say, you’re you that kid, that uh, Cassius Clay, right?”
He was busy mocking one of his teammates. He was something, that Clay. It takes a special sort to wear a parachute on a commercial flight and make the others look like fools. But it wasn’t hard to spot the leader of the pack. He spun around to me so quick I couldn’t react.
“That’s me. About to become the greatest in the world, if this big sardine can doesn’t kill us all first.”
“Well, isn’t that something. I sure hope you pummel some commies for us, you think you can do that?”
“If I make it over his big pond, I’ll pummel anyone who’s crazy enough to get in the ring with me.”
Take off was a riot, with young Clay over there rocking on his haunches until we were up in the sky. Thought he might rip the armrest clean off his seat.
I kept peeking over. He was a brash sort, cocky as I’d ever seen, but fascinating all the same. The kid had a mug that was likable. As a judge I see lots of faces back home. Most lack respect and manners. Happening more and more these days, matter a fact I just had fourteen college students thrown in a jail cell for protesting segregation on campus. I’d locked up the local NAACP leaders and the chairman of the student committee. Things were getting more out of control in the world, but it met its end in my courtroom. I was hell-bent on keeping things in order, doing the best I could do anyway.
Now here comes this kid, that face, had me nodding and smiling along too. A kid about to go over there and whoop some Reds. Imagine that, me, The Honorable Clayton Anders, Chief Judge of Craddock County, looking to impress this teenager who had a whole lot of lip on him.
When I told him what I did back home he didn’t even flinch.
“Well your honor, I’d like you to find this plane innocent of any wrong doing.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Here here. I think we can manage that. So you think you have a chance, at the gold?”
‘Maybe if you put that smoke out,” he said with a cough.
Alice was appalled, me yakking it up with a negro. I knew she thought that he lacked manners, hadn’t said “Yes Sir” or No Ma’am” not even once. But I was enamored. He wore charisma in his smile, held you captive in that light burning from his eyes. You just had to be near it.
Later, I turned again to this loudmouth kid with the movie star looks, and in my best bench voice, said, “I know you can do it, kid. Make us proud. Make America proud.”
He nodded. Then his eyes fell to the newspaper in my lap. JUDGE RULES AGAINST SCHOOL DISTRICT SEGREGATION.
For the first time the wattage in that smile dimmed. That kid turned serious in a flash.
“I’ll do my best, your honor,” he said, then lighter. “Hey, maybe after we get back we’ll go get a bite to eat and a Coke together? Go somewhere nice and celebrate, you know?”
Alice gasped. But he held my gaze, his eyes like a matador. That put me down for the count. That kid, going over there to fight for the gold. And I’ll be damned, he wasn’t a kid at all. I managed to blink, gave him a nod then got back to my reading as he turned to his teammates.
It was that simple. We were all Americans on that plane. He was young and looking to change the rules, rules I’d upheld and honored every day of my life. Sure, part of that scared us, scared the hell out of Alice and me. And it could’ve been the altitude, but on that plane, up above the Atlantic with these kids who were on their way to represent all of America in the Olympics–old, young, white and the black, well, I felt both a swell of patriotism and a twinge of guilt.
They would judge him there, in the ring, just as I’d judged so many of them in my courthouse. I just hoped they would do a better job.
I watched him the rest of the way—unable to keep my eyes off of him, I couldn’t help but think how I might be riding with a future star, a kid who might go over there and win the gold medal, be a hero. And yet he couldn’t sit at the counter with me to eat a cheeseburger.
And so that kid had me thinking. Had me thinking about work. About laws. About men. He was something that Clay. If he could change an old coot like me, on one flight over the Atlantic, well, he just might change the world.