As baby boomers, we’ve seen it all before: racial tensions, looting, arson, chaos in the streets. For most of us though, whether in the ‘60s or the ‘90s or any other time, it was all seen secondhand. For Pittsburgh’s Tim Menees, decades before the current eruptions of pain and violence, it was a firsthand experience, and one he remembers as clearly as if it were yesterday.
If my roommate and I had not taken the train from New York City to Washington, D.C. that Friday night in April, 1968, we would never have seen the machine-gun emplacements on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
I had long planned to visit my soon-to-be wife Kay over the weekend, thus we boarded the train at New York’s Penn Station the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. We sat across the aisle from an African-American couple. I said something about how stunned and saddened we were.
They nodded and regarded us skeptically.
The train pulled into wartime Washington, the capital’s streets empty, its skyline glowing orange against the night sky. We heard sirens screeching, burglar alarms clanging away, and gunfire— the sounds of a city under siege. No buses were running.
Near Union Station, just steps from the United States Capitol, the Capitol’s dome was dark, and Marines with serious firepower were stationed on the grounds below.
After perhaps half-an-hour, a taxi pulled up. The black cabbie already had a passenger, an elderly black woman, but he said that we could get in and after he got her safely home in northwest D.C., he’d take us to the townhouse in the city’s New Southwest neighborhood that Kay was sharing with four other young women.
He was a large man and after escorting the woman to her door, we headed across town, past burning stores, more fire alarms, breaking glass, and gunfire. Nighttime silhouettes ran along the sidewalks, some carrying their spoils from looted buildings.
“Get down!” The cabbie ordered us, then again, “Now! On the floor!”
He was glaring at us and we dropped to the floorboards. We had stopped at a light and a car was pulling up beside us. He said, “I can protect myself, but I can’t protect you.” Translation: If these rioters spot two honkies, your ass is grass.
After we started rolling again, he said, “You can sit back up.” He then turned to evasion tactics, meaning simply running the red lights. After he deposited us at the townhouse without a scratch, he handed me his card and said, “If you need a ride to the station on Sunday, I’ll get you there.”
By Saturday afternoon, however, the city was starting to calm down, even as lingering smoke here and there curled into the air. Sunday afternoon Kay drove us to Union Station over streets patrolled by federal troops, the largest number of boots on the ground since the Civil War.