The Night of Terror
That golden evening of August 27 remains in my mind most clearly, most softly; it was such a soft and gentle evening as one finds on the canvas of George Inness, and even he could create that dewy nostalgia only when he painted one part or another of the wonderful Hudson River Valley. By choice, I took the little back roads twisting among the low hills and narrow valleys. I avoided the business section of Peekskill, but found the state highway north of the town. I had never been to the Lakeland Picnic Grounds before, and I drove slowly, looking for the entrance which is on Division Street, a three-mile stretch of country road which connects Peekskill with the Bronx River Parkway.
Yet I couldn't have missed the entrance. Hundreds of yards before I reached it I found cars parked solidly on either side of the highway, which made me wonder since it was more than an hour before the concert was scheduled to begin; and at the entrance itself there was an already unruly crowd of men. Still, they didn't try to stop me, but only jeered and thumbed their noses at me as I turned left into the picnic grounds. Only one more car was permitted to enter after mine; then the entrance was sealed off.
Just inside the grounds I stopped my car. There, a few yards
from the road, a handful of teen-age boys and girls had gathered.
There were not more than five of them and they were trying to hide their nervousness at the jeering, hooting crowd on the road. They had come up from New York to be ushers at the concert. I told them who I was and they seemed glad that I was there, but they were still frightened.
"What shall we do?" they asked.
"Who's running things?"
They didn't know, they said. It was so early they didn't think anyone had come yet. But maybe there was someone down below.
"Well," I told them, "don't let anyone in who isn't here for the concert. Just keep cool and be calm and nothing will happen." That seemed to be a refrain of mine, that nothing would happen, that nothing could happen. "I'll park my car and see if I can't find someone to take things in hand."
To understand what happened from here on, you must have in your mind a clear picture of Lakeland Picnic Grounds and of the area where the concert was set up. The entrance to the grounds is a left turn off the main road as you drive from Peekskill; the entrance is double, coming together in Y shape to a narrow dirt road. About eighty feet from the entrance the road is embanked, with sharp dirt sides dropping about twenty feet to shallow pools of water. About forty feet of the road is embanked in this fashion, and then for a quarter of a mile or so it sweeps down into a valley all of this private road and a part of the picnic grounds. At the end of this road, there is a sheltered hollow with a broad, meadowgrass bottom, a sort of natural arena, hidden by hummocks of low hills from the sight of anyone on the public highway. It was in this hollow that the paraphernalia for the concert had been set up: a large platform, two thousand wooden folding chairs, and a number of spotlights powered by a portable generator.
I looked at my watch before I drove down to the hollow, and it was just ten minutes to seven. Parking my car against a clump of trees to the side of the platform, I got out and wandered around rather aimlessly. The platform was ready, the chairs set up, the spotlights in place, and there was a long picnic table piled with songbooks and pamphlets. As I came in, a large bus had just discharged its passengers, boys and girls, Negroes for the most part, who had come early to be ushers. The bus lurched around and departed in a cloud of dust; the boys and girls drifted across the meadow, walking slowly and contentedly in the golden light of the evening. About a hundred and twenty other people were already on the scene, most of them women and small children, and they too were making a picnic afternoon of it before the concert began, some of them sprawling comfortably on the grass, some of them at the rustic tables, some sitting on the chairs. A party of boys and girls from Golden's Bridge, a summer colony, sat on the platform, their legs dangling. None of them were much over fifteen; most of them were much younger. A few of these people had come by car; many had walked to the picnic grounds from summer homes nearby. The children from Golden's Bridge had come down in a large truck which was parked now next to my car and which was destined to play an interesting role that night. Just by the good grace of fortune, half a dozen merchant seamen who were vacationing in the neighborhood had decided to come early; I had good reason to be grateful for them and for four other trade unionists who happened to be present.
But none of these, I discovered, knew who was in charge of the concert and as it turned out those in charge never reached the picnic grounds. I inquired for a while, then I gave it up and perched myself on one of the tables and settled down to wait. It was seven o'clock now, and from where we were in the hollow there was no sign of trouble.
A boy running brought the trouble to us. I watched him as he came in sight around the bend of the road, running frantically, and then we crowded around him and he told us that there was trouble and would some of us come because the trouble looked bad; and he was frightened too.
We started back with him. There were twenty-five or thirty of us, I suppose; you don't count at a moment like that, although I did count later. There were men and boys, almost all the men and boys, and a few girls too. We ran at a jog-trot along the dusty road, but still I thought that this would be no more than foul names and fouler insults, since I had never known the kind who were up there on the road to show courage unless they caught someone alone and the odds were twenty to one.
So we ran on up to the entrance, and as we appeared they poured onto us from the road, at least three hundred of them, with billies and brass knucks and rocks in clenched fists, and American Legion caps, and suddenly my disbelief was washed away in a wild melee. Such fights don't last long; there were three or four minutes of this, and because the road was narrow we were able to beat them back, but the mass of them filled the entranceway, and behind them were hundreds more, and up and down the road hundreds more. If you have never been in a trap with no way out and a thousand people grinning with malice and screaming in hate, you won't know what it was like. And now I saw why there were no more people coming into the concert. One of the forks in the road was piled high with rocks, a great barricade of rocks, and the other had a Legion truck parked across it. So we were closed in and there was no way out, and the odds were twenty to one, precisely as they required them.
I said that we beat them back and held the road for the moment, panting, hot with sweat and dust, bleeding only a little now; but they would have come at us again had not the three deputy sheriffs appeared. Our thanks to those three miserable men; they shouldered through the crowd, through the wall of alcohol-saturated air, and their gold badges gleamed in the sunset.
They hefted their holstered guns, and they turned and spread their arms benignly at the mob. "Now, boys," they said, "now, take it easy, because we can do this just as well legal, and it always pays to do it legal."
"Give us five minutes and we'll murder the n bastards," the boys answered.
"Just take it easy just take it slow and easy, boys, because it don't pay to have trouble when you don't have to have no trouble."
And then the three deputy sheriffs turned to us and wanted to know what in hell we were doing there making all this kind of trouble.
I kept glancing at my watch. It was ten minutes after seven then. I also had a chance to look at the "boys" in the Legion caps, and they were by no means boys. They were in their thirties and forties and fifties many of them in their fifties and they were not lumpen either, not in the strict sense of the word. Most of them were prosperous-appearing men, well set up, well dressed, real-estate men, grocery clerks, lunch counter attendants, filling station hands and more of the kind. Tip over any gin mill in Peekskill or Shrub Oak, and this is what you would get. Throw in a couple of hundred "decent" citizens, a hundred teen-agers whose heads were filled with anti-Communist sewage; add a hundred pillars of the local Catholic church, half a hundred college students home on vacation, half a hundred workers drawn along, and two or three hundred of the sweepings and filth of that whole Hudson River section, and you have a good idea of what we faced there that night. Liquor them up to a high point of courage, give them odds of twenty to one, put the police on their side and then you have the rest of the picture; and these were the "boys" whom the deputy sheriffs held up for just enough minutes to enable us to survive.
Not that the deputies wanted that; but it was a beginning and there was no precedent for this kind of thing in Westchester County in New York State, and the three sheriffs with the polished gold-plated badges were uncertain as to how to play their own role. For that reason they held back the "boys" and asked us what the hell we were doing there making this kind of trouble.
I became the spokesman then, and a good many of the things I did afterwards were the result of this chiefly because I was older than most of our handful and because the merchant seamen and the trade unionists nodded for me to talk. Anyway, I had agreed to be chairman and it seemed that this was the kind of concert we would have, not with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger singing their lovely tunes of America, but with a special music that had played its melody out in Germany and Italy. So I said that we were not looking for any trouble but were here to hold a concert, and why didn't they clear the roads so that our people could come in and listen to the concert in peace?
"You gimme a pain in the ass with that kind of talk," said one of the deputies delicately. The others stood there looking at us. Very clearly do I remember them. We cut deputy sheriffs to pattern in America; their bellies slopped over their belts; their faces were loose and full of hate; and they feared only the responsibility for what was happening that night and they desired only that it should happen in spite of themselves. So they said:
"Just cut out the trouble. We don't want no trouble and we don't want no trouble-makers."
I explained it again. I explained to them carefully that we were not making trouble, that we had not lured these three hundred innocent patriots to attack us, and that all we desired was for them to clear the road so that people could come to the concert.
"How in the hell can we clear the road? Just look up there," they told me.
"Tell them to get out and they'll get out," I said.
"Don't tell me what to tell them."
"Look, mister," I said. "We hold you responsible for whatever happens here."
"Up your ass," said the guardian of the law.
"We'll talk to the boys," another said.
And then they talked to the "boys," and we had five minutes. I didn't listen to what they said to the boys. I was beginning to realize that they had no intention of doing anything about them, and when I looked up at the road and saw the roadblocks and the solid mass of the American Legion, I began to realize that not only was it extremely unlikely that anyone else on our side would get in, but quite unlikely that any of us already here would get out. There was the beginning of a shock in that realization, but only the beginning the full impact would not happen until much later. It was still daylight; the world of the Hudson River Valley was still bathed in a golden glow; we were still people who had come to hear a concert. You do not adjust immediately to the fact of death; death is embarrassingly dramatic, and it does not happen in this fashion in the United States of America. Yes, there would be trouble, but nothing highly dramatic or full of dangerous content.
Let me make the point. Just as the sheriffs turned back to talk to the mob, a man came walking through. Precisely in that manner, almost as an abstraction, this man calmly walked through the mob and up to me, and precisely because he proceeded in that manner and was so much not of this world, they let him through. People do strange things at strange times. This man was in his middle twenties. He was tall; he wore a beard, a beret, and loose, brightly-colored slacks. He had stepped out of the time-worn pages of Leonard Merrick, and what he was doing west of the left bank I don't know. But there he was, and I asked him who in hell he was and where in hell did he come from?
"I'm a music lover," he said.
No self-respecting writer dares to invent such things; but they happen. "Can you fight, Music Lover?" I asked him.
"I can't and I won't." There was indignation and disgust in his voice.
"But you can and you will, Music Lover," I pointed out. "Otherwise, go back up there. This time they'll tear you to pieces."
Those with me there on the road will remember the scene and bear witness to it. Later that evening I spoke to the music lover again. I never learned his name; he will always be Music Lover to me, but when I spoke to him again he had lost his beret, his slacks were in shreds, and there was blood all over him and a wild glint of battle in his eyes.
"By God, I can fightl" he said in triumph. He had learned that, as many of us did that night, as did a Negro lad of sixteen. It was a little later, when we were organizing our squads, that this Negro lad started off the road across the fields. I called him back and he stood there, full of shame and fear and full of all the thoughts and bitter visions of Negroes who had been lynched and tarred and feathered and beaten to death and tortured beyond human belief.
"I can't fight, Mr. Fast," he said. "I can't, and I got to get out of here, I got to!"
"And if they get you out on the fields, do you know what they'll do to you?"
"I know, but I can't fight."
"You can fight," I said. "Sonny, you can, as good as I can, and that isn't much good, but we both can. So let's both stay here and fight."
I spoke to him later. His scalp was open six inches across the top, and the blood was running over him like a little river. By virtue of what force he still walked, I don't know, but he said, quite calmly,
"I'm hurt, Mr. Fast, and if you think I'm hurt bad, I'd like to lie down a little, but if you think I'm all right, I can still fight."
These are only two out of the many things of the sort that happened that night; I make a point with them, that it is hard to adjust quickly to the imminence of death, which is so final and in many ways so obscene a matter.
The sheriffs were talking, and down in the hollow were women and little children, and I began to think of what would happen to them if that mob on the road broke through us and got down there. The men and boys, Negro and white, had clustered around me in the little respite, and I was supposed to do something because I had written many books in which people did things in times like this, so I asked them if they wanted me to do it, and they nodded.
"All right," I said. "We're in a very bad place but we'll keep our heads and in a little while some real cops will come and put an end to all this insanity. Meanwhile, we've got to keep that mob here where the road is narrow and high, and it's a good place to defend in any case. We keep them here because there's a lot of kids and women down below. That's our whole tactic. Agreed?"
"Agreed," they said.
"All right. Just two things. Let me do the talking and let me decide when there's a quick decision, because there may not be time to talk it over. Is that all right?"
They said yes, and our time was running out. A compression of incident and event began. First I told the girls to run back down the road, get all the women and children onto the platform, keep them there for the time being, and send every able-bodied man and boy up to us. Then I asked for a volunteer.
"I want someone to crawl through those bushes, reach the road, find a telephone, and call the troopers call the New York Times and the Daily Worker, call Albany and get through to the governor I want someone who can do that."
I got him. I don't know what I can say about him, except that he had great inventiveness and lots of guts. He was small and bright-eyed, and his name, A K, will stay in my mind a long time and I have never seen him since that night. But three times he went back and forth through that howling mob, and he did what he was supposed to do.
Now the remaining men from below appeared and I counted what we had. All told, including myself, there were forty-two men and boys. Just about half were Negro, and about half were in their teens. I divided them quickly into seven groups of six, appointing a leader for each group. Three lines of two groups each in other words, three lines of twelve formed across the road where the embankment began. Each line anchored on a wooden fence, our flanks protected by the ditch and the water below. The seventh group was held in reserve in our rear.
I looked at my watch again. It was 7:30 p.m. The three deputy
sheriffs had disappeared and we never saw them again that night. The mob was rolling toward us for the second attack.
This was, in a way, the worst attack of that night. For one thing, it was still daylight; later, when night fell, our own sense of organization helped us much more, but this was daylight and they poured down the road and into us, swinging broken fence posts, billies, bottles, and wielding knives. Their leaders had been drinking from pocket flasks and bottles right up to the moment of the attack, and now as they beat and clawed at our lines, they poured out a torrent of obscene words and slogans. They were conscious of Adolf Hitler. He was a god in their ranks and they screamed over and over,
"We're Hitler's boys Hitler's boys!"
"We'll finish his job!"
"God bless Hitler and f you n bastards and Jew bastards!"
"Lynch Robeson! Give us Robeson! We'll string that big n up! Give him to us, you bastards!"
I remember hoping and praying that Paul Robeson was nowhere near that he was far away, not on the road, not anywhere near.
"What Medina started, we'll finish!" they howled. "We'll kill every commie bastard in America!" Oh, they were conscious, all right, highly conscious.
I am not certain exactly how long that second fight lasted. It seemed forever, yet it couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes. But in that time the sun sank below the hills to the west of us and the shadow of twilight came.
We concentrated on holding our lines. The first line took the brunt of the fighting, the brunt of the rocks and clubs. The second line linked arms, as did the third, forming a human wall to the mob. In that fight four of our first line were badly injured. When they went down we pulled them back, and men in the second line moved into their places. It was a beautiful piece of organization on the part of everyone concerned, in some ways a miracle of organization. Here were forty-two men and boys who had never seen each other before for the most part, and they were fighting like a well-oiled machine, and the full weight of three hundred screaming madmen did not panic them or cause them to break. By sheer weight we were forced back foot by foot, but they never broke the three lines.
And then they drew off. For the moment they had had enough. They drew off, leaving about twenty feet between the front of their mob and our line of defense. There were more of them now, many more of them; the solid mass of their bodies and faces stretched back to the public road and along the road.
On our part, we were hurt, but not so badly that every man couldn't stand on his feet. We relieved the worst battered of the front line, linked arms and waited.
"Now we're all right," I told myself. "We're alive and this can't go on much longer. The state troopers will have to get here."
How many times I told myself that in the course of the evening! But there were no state troopers, no police, but instead a half-hysterical girl from the hollow below who panted,
"They've crossed over the hills and we've got to have some men down there!"
"How many are there?"
"I don't know. I counted twelve or fifteen."
I detached our seventh squad on the double, which left us with thirty-six to hold the road. But before they left I told one of them, the driver of the big truck that had brought the children down from Golden's Bridge, to pull his truck up the road to where the embankment began and to swing it broadside and across the road. I did this because we had been pushed back more than twenty feet in the course of the fighting. A few feet more, and we would no longer have the protection of the embanked road, and then they could simply swarm around us and it would be all over. But with the truck to back us up we could hold that embankment a long time.
As it darkened, a qualitative change came into the ranks of the fascist mob, a sense of organization. Three men appeared as their leaders, one a dapper, slim, well-dressed middle-aged man who was subsequently identified by people on our side as a prosperous Peekskill real-estate broker. A fourth man joined them, and a heated discussion in whispers started. At the same time, cars up on the road were swung around so that their headlights covered us. Though the police and state troopers were remarkably, conspicuously absent, the press was on the scene. Newspaper photographers were everywhere, taking picture after picture, and reporters crouched in the headlights taking notes of all that went on. In particular, my attention was drawn to three quiet, well-dressed, good-looking young men who stood just to one side of the beginning of the embankment; two of them had shorthand notebooks in which they wrote methodically and steadily. When I first saw them I decided that they were newspaper men and dismissed them from my mind. But I saw them again and again, and later talked to them, as you will see. Subsequently, I discovered that they were agents of the Department of Justice. Whether they were assigned to a left-wing concert or an attempted mass murder, I don't know. They were polite, aloof, neutral, and at one point decently helpful. But they were always neutral even though what they saw was attempted murder, a strangely brutal, terrible attempt.
The four men in front of the mob broke off their discussion now, and one of them, a good-looking man of thirty or so, came toward us. He wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled up; his hands were in his pockets; he walked to our line and in a not unfriendly manner said,
"Who's running this?"
"I'll talk to you," I said.
He told me he was a railroad worker, a Peekskill resident, and had been drawn into this because he belonged to the local Legion post. "I don't like commies no better than the next one," he said, "but this kind of thing turns my stomach. I'm on the wrong side. I should be with you guys instead of them. What I want to know is this-will you call it off if we do?"
"We never called it on," I said.
"Well, someone did, and now will you call it off?"
"And do what?"
"If you empty the road and let us get a police escort, we'll clear out. We got a hundred and fifty women and kids down there in the hollow and we're not going to send them into that pack of wolves."
"Let me try," he said.
"O.K. we don't want any more of this."
He went back and resumed his whispered argument with the three leaders of the mob, and now behind us the truck appeared. I dropped back to help get it across the road, and when it was in place, blocking the road, I had a quick conference with two of the trade unionists. We agreed to spar for time to do anything for time, and they pressed me to try to continue the conversation with the railroad worker. Since there was no sign of troopers or police or any relief, one of the trade unionists agreed to try to get through their lines and phone for help. But as he slipped over the embankment they attacked us again, and that was the last I saw of the railroad worker.
This attack was more deliberate. They closed slowly with all their weight, forcing us back until our three lines were pressed solidly against the truck, and they punished our front line badly concentrating their attention upon a tall, well-muscled Negro worker who had already given a good account of himself. Like yapping dogs around a huge wolf, they clawed at him and he swept them off and drove them back with his fists. This I remember, and a bit here and there, but otherwise my attention was in front of me. I had not fought this way in fifteen years, not since my days in the slums where I was raised, not since the gang fights of a kid on the New York streets; but now it was for our lives, for all that the cameras were flashing and newspaper men taking it down, blow by blow, so you could read in your morning papers how a few Reds in Westchester County were lynched. Only we would not be lynched and we drove the great, sick, screaming weight of them back, and once again there was a clear space in front of us.
It was night time now. And now, for the first time, I understood clearly the temper of that gang out there, and for the first time I realized that it was very likely that all of us would die there that evening. Our lines leaned against the truck, half of us bleeding, all of us sobbing, our clothes torn, our scalps open, our faces scarred and already it seemed that the nightmarish battle had gone on forever.
"How much more?" someone asked.
They were screaming at us in a full frenzy now, a frenzy of sick hate and bitter frustration. They were full of the taste of death. "You never go out!" they screamed. "Every n bastard dies here tonight! Every Jew bastard dies here tonight!"
And the reporters watched calmly and took notes, as did the justice agents.
I looked at my watch because it seemed that forever had gone by. It was only a little after eight o'clock, not much more than an hour and a half since I had kissed my daughter and told her that I would listen to Paul's songs and tell her all about them. She had asked, "Would he sing the one for me"? She meant "Water boy water boy," the song he had once sung to her, swinging her back and forth in his great arms. And now they were screaming for the killing of him or of ourselves. It does not seem real now that the knowledge and certainty of death should have been in each one of the thirty-six of us, but it was. There was no way out, and we were bloodied and soon we would not be able to fight anymore. I know I faced that. It appeared a curious way to die, there in that little corner of Westchester, but it was reasonable and there was a logic within it, and I know that when I spoke to the others afterwards, they felt that same logic....
Three Negro girls came running up from the hollow. It was all right, they said, it was all right because our six down below had beaten off the attack and scattered the hoodlums into the night. But their eyes widened and their bodies grew stiff at what was up there on the road, the screaming noise of it. The attack was starting again.
"Lie down in the truck, I told them. "It's all right, all right, all right here and down below, but you can't go back now. Lie down in the truck." I had seen shadowy figures moving over the hills on our left.
Then we were fighting again, and again they were clawing at the huge Negro worker in our front row. They came with their rocks and their fence posts and their knives, and again we beat them off. They had such weight and so little courage that we beat them off and drove them back and back, until there was a good thirty feet clear before us, and once again we fell back to lean panting and bleeding against the truck. But now there were three who could no longer stand, and we helped them into the truck where they lay quietly. We had no means of first aid, no medicine nor bandages and no time for such.
Now there was a sudden brilliant glare and the hills to our left stood sharp and black against a yellow background. There was a moment of silent cessation, and one of our men leaped up on the truck and cried,
"A cross is burning!"
We could only see the glare, but the symbolic meaning was not lost upon us. In this sweet land the movement had been rounded out; the burning cross, the symbol of all that is rotten and mean and evil in our land had blessed us. Our night was complete, and we would do well to kneel before the new patriots.
We didn't kneel. We locked arms, the better to support each other, and as that whole great mob rolled down upon us, well over a thousand of them now, we began to sing,
|"We shall not we shall not be moved!
We shall not we shall not be moved!
Just like a tree that's standing by the water,
We shall not be moved!"
Consider the scene: there are only thirty-two of us now, with our backs against the truck, and we and the road across the embankment in front of us are bathed in the glare of headlights and spotlights that have been rigged from the road. All the rest is in darkness, and now into the light come the "new Americans," brandishing the fence rails they have stripped from along the road, swinging their knives and billies, a solid mass of them back to the public highway, rolling down to turn in for the kill and the great lynching, which is their peculiar privilege in a land which provides freedom for all except those who do not wholly agree with the gentlemen in Washington. It is a full hour and a half now since the fighting began, and there has been time enough for the news of what is happening at Peekskill to be wired to every corner of the nation. The press is here to see the great lynching, every New York newspaper, their crack writers and photographers, but not one policeman and not one state trooper not one.
So they came in for the kill, and the singing stopped them. You would have had to be there to understand that; those of us who were there understood it when it happened; it was no miracle to us, but logical and reasonable for I think that at that point all of us stopped being afraid and stopped praying for a way to get out of that hellish valley. We simply stood there in our three lines, arms locked, singing that fine old song which, more than any other, has become the anthem of the democratic forces of America.
Many, many times, for as long back as I can remember, I have heard people singing that old hymn, but I never heard it sung as it was sung that night, swelling out over the lunatic mob, over the road and over the hills, full of the deep rich voices of men who had fought so well. It was a moral enigma to the Legion heroes. They saw a line of Negroes and whites, arms locked, ragged and bloody, standing calmly and singing-and the singing stopped them. They halted a dozen feet from us, and their screaming stopped. They stood there in silence, watching us and listening to our song and trying to understand what sort of people we were that has always been a difficult thing for them to understand. And then one of them threw the first rock.
They didn't want to touch us now, or they couldn't, so they turned to the rocks. They moved back and gave themselves more space for throwing. First a rock here and there, then more, and then there was the heavy music of them as they beat a tattoo against the metal side of the truck. We continued to sing. A rock as big as a grapefruit thudded into the belly of the Negro next to me, the one who had fought so well when they clawed onto him. He doubled up and rolled over and we helped him back to the truck. A Negro lad of seventeen or so received a rock the size of a baseball full in his face; one moment his face, and then a bleeding mass of broken teeth and smashed nose. The white man on my left was struck in the temple and collapsed without a sound. You didn't have to look; when you heard the fleshy thud, the sound of bone and skin breaking, you knew that someone was hit and that there was one fewer to stand on his feet and face the mob, and it was happening very quickly. The volley of rocks had become a rain, and it was just a miracle that so many missed us and crashed against the truck behind us. First I counted how many of us were hit, and then I stopped counting and dropped back to the truck and put my head together with one of the seamen.
"Five minutes more of this," he said, "and we'll be finished." A rock had caught him in the groin and he stood bent over, his face wracked with pain.
I had a notion, something I remembered from the war, and I told him about it quickly. What mattered were the women and children down in the hollow. We would do them no good if we became a heroic pile of corpses up here on the road. As long as we
could hold this section of embanked road, it was quite proper for us to stay here. But it was now evident that we could no longer hold the road, and therefore it was incumbent upon those of us still standing to get down to the hollow, where perhaps we could hold the mob off a while more. Minutes mattered, for we still believed that at any moment the state troopers would turn up. Yet if we broke our formation they would be on us and we wouldn't have a chance. Now suppose, I suggested, that we use the truck as a moving shield, a reverse tank tactic, that we make a group in front of it, running slowly, while the driver takes it down to the hollow in low gear.
"Let's try it," he agreed. "We can't stay here."
While I explained it to the truck driver the seaman whispered our plan along the line. Suddenly the motor roared.
"All right let's go!"
There were about twenty or twenty-two of us still on our feet. We dashed around the truck as it lurched forward, backed onto the embankment, and then swung onto the road. And then, because the driver had forgotten to switch on his lights an understandable error, considering that night he drove off the road, missed it completely, and sent his truck lurching and careening across the meadow into the night. It was the one bit of insanity needed to complete the nightmare that evening had become. One moment the truck was with us; the next, we were standing exposed on the road with the howling mob flowing down on us.
We ran down into the hollow, and as long as I live I will remember watching, as I ran, the careening truck, going off across the meadow, in and out of ditches, over humps, for all the world like a heavy tank. How the driver kept it upright, how he avoided breaking every spring, I don't know but later he was able to drive the truck and the wounded men in it, as well as two badly beaten fascists he picked up, to the local hospital.
Now we ran, and we held together as we ran. As we swung around the curve of the road below I saw the amphitheatre for the first time since I had driven in earlier that evening, the platform with the women and children on it and huddled close to it, the two thousand chairs standing empty and unaware of the audience which had never arrived and never would, the table of songbooks and pamphlets and all of it bright as day in the brilliant glare of floodlights. These floodlights lit the whole of the meadow, and as we swung around at the bottom we saw the mob of screaming, hate-maddened fascists break over the hillside and pour down into the light.
For just a moment we stood there trying to gain our breath, shoulder to shoulder for the warmth and comfort of each other, watching the front of that mob break onto the flat. I don't know what the others thought, but it is most likely that we all thought something of the same nature. To me it was the end, which had been inevitable through the night, and I didn't care much anymore. I knew only hate and loathing for the unreasonable facsimiles of human beings who were bent, with such sick intentness, upon our death, and who had sought us out here to pursue the filthy legend that was drummed into them by radio, press and church. Didn't they have families, homes, ways of decency, any good, any warmth that they should dedicate themselves to this kind of horror? What else did I think? I thought that as long as we were able we should keep them away from our women and children, and it must have been that the others of the handful of us who were left thought the same thing for we knew what we were going to do and we did it without any consultation or deliberation.
We drove into them. Close together, like a wedge, we charged into that mob and fought our way, half-insanely, deep into their heart. This was our moment, our one moment. Until then we had defended and held and taken what they had to offer, but now we were as full of hate as they, and our hate took hold of us, and if the odds were one thousand to twenty-one, then you can take good cheer; for this was a measure of the courage of this kind of swine when they have no guns in their hands and when they are not backed by the police. For after two or three minutes the mob broke and ran; they didn't like the taste of it in reverse, and the odds were large but not large enough, and they broke and ran and all of us who were there saw it and will attest to it.
For my own part, I saw it narrowly. A man, screaming filth, swung a fence post at me; the same Negro who had stood in our front line until a rock in his stomach doubled him up, caught the fence post and tore it aside, and then I closed with the man and we went down with others on top, and it was very close quarters for striking, but I crawled out somehow, hearing a voice yelling,
"They're killing Fast, God damn it!"
They weren't killing me, but I lost my glasses there. I came out with my shirt in shreds and blood all over me, but already they were running and we had a brief taste of how good the offensive feels, even in our microcosmic nightmare of a war. And a few of us had enough presence of mind to shout,
"Hold back! Hold back! Get to the platform!"
We ran to the platform and linked arms once again very tired now, very hurt not one among us unhurt and stood there, swaying a little, bleeding, but making a tight semi-circle with the women and children behind us. And the women and the girls, thinking that we were dealing with human kind cut out of the mold of human kind, began to sing the Star Spangled Banner, but the patriots of the burning cross had no respect for this particular song, and while the girls sang they picked up their courage and rushed us again, and again we beat them off.
At that point the lights went out. Someone had broken the line from the generator, and the sudden change accentuated the blackness of the night. While we fought, the lights went out, and then, when we had beaten them off, they seemed to go crazy in an utterly pointless frustration. They attacked the chairs. We couldn't see them, but through the blackness we heard them raging among the folding chairs, hurling them about, splintering and smashing them. It was not only senseless, it was sick horrible and pathological and sick, as so much of their behavior was that night.
Then one of them lit a fire about thirty yards from our semicircle around the platform. A chair went on the fire, then another and another, then a whole pile of chairs chairs which did not belong to us but to the Peekskill businessman who owned the picnic grounds. Then they discovered our table of books and pamphlets, and then it was, that to crown our evening, there was re-enacted the monstrous performance of the Nuremberg book burning which had become a world symbol of fascism. Perhaps the nature of fascism is so precise, perhaps its results on human beings are so consistently diseased, that the same symbols must of necessity arise; for standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the "American" way of life seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging the books into the fire as they danced. We were half in the darkness but they were lit by the fire in such a manner as to suggest a well-set stage, where this dance, so symbolic of the death of civilization, was performed after careful rehearsal.
We watched that through and then the fire died down and darkness came again, and then, suddenly, up in the direction of the road, an army flare arched up into the sky made a balloon of bright light, hung there, and then swept slowly and gracefully to earth. The screaming died away. The shouting stopped. There was a terrible, wonderful new silence all around us in the darkness, and the silence lasted and lasted.
I looked at my watch. It was a quarter to ten.
And still silence, broken only by the half-hysterical sobbing of women and the whimpering cries of the little children the children of four and five and six who had been brought early, so that they should miss no chance to hear Paul Robeson sing his warm songs.
And then a voice from the dark cried, "Hello hello, there!" It was our scout, A K, back from his third trip through.
"What happened?" we asked him.
"I don't know. I was watching them for a chance to slip through, and suddenly they pulled out. It was whispered among them, and they pulled out all of them. The meadow is empty."
"Where's the truck? Did you see it?"
"Yes, it got back to where you had the big fight, across the meadow, and there were two badly hurt fascists there so we put them in the truck along with our people, and the driver's trying to get through the roadblock to the hospital. I told him not to try, but he was afraid some of our kids would die, so he's going to try to get them to take down one of the roadblocks and let him through." K added, "He thinks maybe that because there are two of their people in the truck they'll let him through."
(I discovered afterwards that they would not let him through, whereupon he drove his truck in low gear over the rockpile barricade, made it, and literally smashed his way through them to the road and to a hospital. We did not see the driver or the truck again that night, but I had the story from him a week later.)
"What are those flares?"
"I don't know."
"And did you call Albany the governor the troopers the police the newspapers?"
"I've been calling since seven-thirty," K said. "I called them all three or four times. They know. They've known all night."
"Of course I'm sure. I spoke to the troopers myself. I gave them all the details and they promised to come. But from the way they spoke, I'm sure they knew already."
"All right," I said, "all right. You've done a job. Take it easy now."
A few others held a conference then. It was not easy to sit there in the dark. Some of the women began to plead with us to let them go, to let them take their children out of there. The tension was at the breaking point. We had to be firm and sometimes harsh with them, but we decided that no one would leave the platform until some civil or military force from the outside came through to us. We had survived on the basis of discipline and unity, and we were determined not to break that discipline and unity, come what might. There was one woman, I recall, whose husband had gone up the road with us just before the first fight began, and now he was missing, and she pleaded with me to let her go out into the dark and look for him... .
And then we saw a pair of headlights. Slowly, searchingly, the car drove down into the hollow and toward us, stopping only a few feet away. The car was a small coupe. Three men got out. They walked toward us, leaving the headlights of the car on to light their way.
A few feet from me they stopped, nodded at me, and stood there quietly for a moment. I recognized them now; they were the well-dressed men with the notebooks who had watched the fighting on the road up above and taken notes as they watched.
"You did all right," one of them said suddenly. "You did a damn good piece of work up there. I take my hat off. It was damned fine discipline all the way through."
"What in hell do you want?" I demanded. I was in no mood to be pleasant to anyone now.
"We thought we might help you out. You got some pretty badly hurt people, so if you want us to, we'll take a few of them to the hospital."
"Go to hell!" I said, but then one of our men was plucking my sleeve, and he pulled me back and whispered, "I know them. They're government men, justice agents. You can trust them."
"Because right now they got no stake in this either way. Didn't you see them earlier tonight. They're neutral. This is just a big experiment to them, and they're neutral. Some of the kids are bleeding badly and one may have a fractured skull. If they say they'll take them to a hospital, they will."
"How do you know them how do you know who they are?" I pressed him.
"Because I been working in this county long enough to know. I've talked to them before, and I tell you they're Justice Department agents. Anyway, we got to take a chance because the kids are badly hurt."
I went back to the three agents who were standing calmly and quietly where I had left them. They were the calmest, most unruffled trio I had seen that night, and now they stood there with their hands in their pockets, looking at our circle of battered, weary men.
"How many can you take?" I asked them.
"Can you get through?"
"Don't worry about that. We can get through, and we'll get your men to the hospital."
So I turned back to our line and said, "Look we can take three of the worst hurt of you to the hospital. It's all right, and there's nothing to worry about. So if you think you're hurt pretty bad, step forward."
At first no one of them moved. They stayed where they were, looking silently at these three dapper, composed gentlemen. The first to break it was a young Negro. He let go of the men alongside of him and walked over to me. "What the hell," he said softly, swaying from side to side. There was blood over his face and the whole front of his shirt was soaked with blood. He bent his head and there were two cuts on the top, one a gash from forehead to ear, the other about two inches long. I nodded, and they helped him into their car.
A second Negro came forward now. He lifted his swollen, bleeding lip to show me the smashed, gaping cavity in his mouth. I nodded again and he joined the first man in the car. The third was a white youngster; there was something wrong with his shoulder. "I think it's broken," he said.
The three Justice men got back into the car, swung it around and drove off, and once again we were in the quiet darkness. I went back to the line and stood next to the others, wondering how men with broken shoulders and broken heads could go on fighting the way they had and not complain at all.
Now three more of the army flares went off, arching into the sky and filling it with white light, and then settling lazily down to earth. (I learned later from J N, who passed by on the road up above at just about this time, but who did not know that we were down in the hollow, that the state troopers were using the flares to search the underbrush for bodies.)
None of that light reached us. Still in the darkness, we waited the minutes through, one after another; and then suddenly the silent scene in the hollow erupted into action and motion.
First an ambulance which came roaring down into the hollow, siren wide open and red headlights throwing a ghostly glare. Then car after car full of troopers and Westchester County police. All in a moment there were a dozen cars on the meadow in front of us, and the place was swarming with troopers and police...
Properly, that should have been the end of it. Not that the police had come dashing to the rescue in the traditional "Jack Dalton" fashion; quite the contrary. We learned subsequently and beyond any shadow of a doubt that the police and troopers had been aware of the events at the picnic grounds for hours and had been in easy reach, but had been deliberately withheld so that the tragedy might run its course, and only when it became fully evident that the carefully-planned mass lynching would be frustrated, did they decide to enter the picture; yet in spite of this we considered that now there would be some surcease, some letup.
Not yet; one more chapter in that night of horror had to be played through, and it began with an officer of the troopers who stalked up to us and demanded,
"Who in hell is running this show?"
"It's over," I said to myself. "They talk like that because that's a cop's nature, but it's over." And then I told him that he could talk to me.
"Who in hell are you?"
"My name's Fast Howard Fast," I answered, gritting my teeth.
Now the line had broken; our discipline broke for the first time that evening, and the people crowded around the trooper and me and then they were thrust back by other troopers, and the one who was speaking to me snarled,
"Damn it, keep them in their places, sitting down!"
"Sit down!" another trooper shouted. "All of you, sit down. No body moves!"
"What's this all about?" I asked the trooper officer. "Are you going to take us out of here or not?"
"I'll ask the questions."
"Look we've had a tough time here."
"You'll have a tougher time if you don't God damn well do as we say. Who are you anyway?"
I told him I was the chairman of the concert that never took place.
"Who's running it?"
"They never got here."
"Are you in charge?"
"As much as anyone, I guess."
"All right," he said. "You keep these people where they are.
If anyone moves, if anyone tries to get away from here, there'll be trouble. Understand?"
"We've got little children here. Don't you understand what we've been through tonight?"
"You're looking for trouble, aren't you?" the trooper said.
"I'm not looking for any trouble, trooper. We've had enough trouble. We want to get out of here."
"Just do as I say and keep them in their places or there'll be hell to pay."
So I went through the crowd and along the line and told them that. "A little longer," I told them. "We stuck it out until now so we can stick it out a little longer, I guess. Just take it easy."
In a way that was the hardest part of the evening. Not so much the sitting there with a dozen state troopers stationed in front of us, legs spread, fingering their clubs but to stay there after I learned what was behind it. And that was soon enough.
They let me walk around, and one of the Westchester police was willing to talk. Briefly, he told me that one of the fascists William Secor, his name turned out to be had been knifed and had been taken to the hospital, and a rumor had just come through that he had died. I often thought that it was only on the basis of this rumor that the police had entered the hollow at all, but I have no proof of that. In any case, if Secor was dead, every one of us who had held the road against the attacks would face a murder charge. That was why we were being kept here this way so that they could get a report from the hospital and if necessary pull us in on a murder rap.
(There was no knife among our men. Later, it was proved that Secor had been knifed by one of his own gang in the drunken frenzy of their attack.)
I went back to our people. "I don't understand it," I said. "There were no knives in our group."
"They had knives, plenty of them."
"Can they make a murder rap stick?"
"If they want to hard enough I guess they can frame anything."
"After what happened tonight, can they try forty of us for murder?"
"They can if they want to, and they can get a conviction if they want to. They set this up, didn't they?"
I didn't want to believe it. Here we were alive. All evening we had fought against the most monstrous and inconceivable mass lynching ever attempted in the northern states of America, not simply a riot or a mob demonstration, but a calculated attack to kill
two hundred people, and because we had kept our heads and kept our courage, we had frustrated it; and now we were alive when no one of us had had any real expectations of emerging alive; and now the police were here and the state troopers and all the fine legal protection that an American citizen comes to expect as his right, his lawful right in a democratic republic and now we were being held so that a charge of murder could be brought against us, so that we could be framed into a great mass spectacle for the type of animal who had planned and executed the business of the night.
It was hard to believe then, but it is not hard to believe now. The "monstrous" has become the accepted pattern of life, and frameup runs like a thread through the lives of all progressive Americans today, and the gibbering, conscienceless stools sit in the witness chairs all over the land, and their lies drop like spittle from the mouths of idiots; but it was newer then and the blood was not dry on us yet from the fight we had been through, and it was, therefore, the harder to believe and accept.
There were twenty minutes then, and each minute was long and full of hurt, and I stood there waiting and thinking and trying to relate that night to all I had read and heard of Germany, and to tell myself, "This is how it happens, and all over the land people sleep and they don't know and don't particularly care. But it happens this way because decent people cannot learn from watching it happen somewhere else, and because the workers are fed the wormy crust of anti-Communism, and because the sell-out is the new god of the land, and because somewhere a great horror is in the making and it is necessary to instill terror, so that we may accept horror as the pattern of our lives....
Cars were coming back and forth now, and the hollow was alive with action and with blue uniforms and with gray uniforms, and the fine, jack-booted palace guards of Thomas E. Dewey were strutting all over the place, showing their slim waists and handsome profiles, and there was a conference taking place too among the big brass of the little army which had descended upon us; and then the local Westchester cop, the one with a core of something human left inside of him a small town cop from a small town nearby nodded at me, and I went over to him and he whispered,
"It's all right now. This guy isn't going to kick in. In fact, he just got a little bit of a cut in the belly and they don't know who cut him, so you can stop worrying."
I went back and spread the news around and we began to smile a little. There was a sudden change in the attitude of the state troopers; they became courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, just as the book says they are, those fine gray guardians of the law and the people of the sovereign state of New York, and the big brass of them came over to me and put his hand on my shoulder, nice and warm and friendly, and said,
"Look, Fast, what we want now is to get your people out of here, and we're going to get them out so that not a hair on anyone's head is harmed, and I guess you've had a tough night of it, but it's over now and you can just stop worrying. Now I want you to separate them into groups according to the town or place or resort they came from, and my troopers will drive them home in our own cars."
(I wonder what order had come through then? From the murder rap to this, but perhaps Albany began to realize the quantity of the lousy smell arising from that hollow near Peekskill.)
I did as he said. Our people were tired and worn, but their spirits were not broken. The women were very good and very patient, and the little children began to doze now in the arms of their mothers. The first part of the nightmare of Peekskill was approaching its finish.
Things moved quickly after that, and we were shown how efficient the state police could be when they had orders to be cooperative and efficient. Car after car was loaded and driven away. In less than an hour the hollow was cleared and the men and women and children who had lived through that first horror of Peekskill were either at home or on their way home.
At the end a handful of troopers remained, myself, a Negro woman, the wife of an old friend of mine, and two white women. Since they were all three bound for Croton, they had waited for me; and I asked the troopers to stand by until I discovered whether my car was all right.
It was and incidentally one of the few cars there that night which was not smashed beyond any hope of repair. We got into the car and drove out. I had to drive slowly since my glasses were gone, but I managed all right, and in a little while the women were home.
(It is worth noting that as we drove out of the picnic grounds, troopers were beating the underbrush for bodies; for reports of missing people had come in from all over Westchester missing people on our side. Also, as we drove out, I saw for the first time the crazy wreckage of smashed cars along the road, and realized that those who had come to the concert and been turned away had not escaped unscathed.)
It was past midnight when I reached home and put my car in the garage and went into the house. Mrs. M was still awake; the phone had been ringing all night, with constant inquiries about me where I was, whether I was alive or dead. Mrs. M didn't say much, only,
"Thank God, you're alive."
She didn't ask me what had happened; through the night the telephone had given her a good idea of what had happened, and the only inquiry she made was about Paul Robeson.
"I think he's all right," I said. "I don't know yet."
(It turned out that his car had not been able to come within a mile of the picnic grounds, and that he was safe.)
Mrs. M looked at me, at my blood-caked shirt, at the blood on my face and hands. Then she said good-night suddenly and went up to bed. It was not pleasant to be a Negro in the Hudson River Valley that night.
I poured a drink of whisky but I couldn't touch it. I sat for a while at the kitchen table, looking at the drink, tried to taste it again but couldn't. The phone rang.
It was J N, and I was a little surprised at the relief in his voice when he heard mine. He told me of his own adventures that evening, how he had been with my friend, the Negro whose wife had left the picnic grounds in my car, and how they had gone out to see if they could find the bodies at least, how they had called the hospitals nearby and located eight of our people in hospitals but were unable to get the names of all of them, how they drove past the picnic grounds when the fascists were pouring out by some prearranged agreement, I suppose, with the authorities and how since all was dark below, they concluded that we were gone, and how they had gone back once again, after we were out.
I was still wrapped in the awful isolation of our fight on the road and in the hollow, our separation from the world of reasonable, civilized human beings. I asked him whether people knew of what had happened in Peekskill.
"The whole world knows," he answered.
But still it didn't seem possible. I went upstairs and looked at the children. The night light was on in my daughter's room, and she opened her eyes when I came in and smiled at me and said, "Hullo, Daddy," and then went back to sleep.
I took my clothes off and got into a steaming hot shower.
"Well, it's done," I said to myself, "tonight is over. Whatever else happens, tonight is over, and I'm through with Peekskill. Let them build a bridge over it."
I was very tired, and all I wanted was to get to sleep.