I AM IN THE back seat of my father's Buick Special, for the long drive to Grandma's house. The trip started with gaiety in the dark hours of the morning, but as the day wears on it becomes a nightmare. It is 1958. I am almost eight years old, quenching my thirst with bladder-busting cold drinks while riding through the hot, dusty South in an unairconditioned car with my two younger sisters.
Mom is seated attentively next to Dad. He is usually all-powerful and in control, but today, for some reason, he is uptight. And it isn't just because of the chicken-bone fight in the back seat, either. With every request from the kids to stop, he seems to speed up. With every child's moan, Mom encourages self-control.
"Try to hold it a few more miles," she says, but she never explains why we can't stop.
It's obvious to me now, setting off on a similar trip in June 1987, what frightened my father so long ago. At that time, in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas -- hell, all over the South -- those backroads were simply too dangerous for parents to stop to let their little black children pee.
In those days, there was even a travel magazine -- called the "Go Guide" -- which offered the addresses of black-owned hotels, motels and tourist homes across the United States. There was a huge demand for those listings, especially among black traveling salesmen and conventioneers. The reason: So many black travelers were just not making it to their destinations.
Now I am on the road again -- traveling a path made smoother by the passage of federal civil-rights laws and time. I came back home to Louisiana because I wanted to see what had changed during the past 30 years. Dad insisted that I had been too young to know how bad life really was back then been for black people in the South, that I had been more concerned about getting the last fried-chicken leg than getting to our destination before nightfall. So I asked him to go with me to provide authentic historical perspective.
"I remember you were just a little baby, riding in a basket on the back seat of the car, on our way to see your grandmother," my mother recalled before we left. "The car broke down in Hope, Arkansas, and do you know the white people there would not let us heat up your bottle? My baby had to drink cold milk."
During the 1950s and into the '60s, Mother would spend the evening before the trip frying chicken and boiling eggs. We thought it was because Mom knew we liked to eat and ride at the same time. The truth was harder to swallow.
"After riding all day, I'd say to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could spend the night in one of those hotels?'" Mom recalled, "or, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could stop for a real meal and a cup of coffee?' We'd see the little white children jumping into motel swimming pools, and you all would be in the back seat of a hot car, sweating and fighting.
"And look at you all now," she said as Dad and I prepared to depart. "Using credit cards to reserve hotel rooms in advance, and you can stop and eat wherever you please."
Dad, who is a businessman in Shreveport, piloted the trip at the wheel of his new, ivory-colored Mercedes 420 SEL, with cruise control set for the speed limit, classical music on the tape player, seat adjusted to a comfortable recline, self-adjusting airconditioning, tastefully tinted windows and me, riding shotgun in my leather seat with a map in my lap.
Our first stop was a town in Arkansas called Dermott, population 4,000, where my father was born in 1924. He was hoping to find someone who had known his father, Dr. Hezekiah King Milloy, a dentist who had one of his three offices here.
Sure enough, Buster Perkins, a black businessman who owned a dry-cleaners in McGehee, eight miles away, had known him well.
"A fine dentist, an outstanding man," Perkins recalled, much to my father's delight. "He was a good looker -- kind of like you two. A sharp dresser, yes sir, and he drove a green Plymouth with a rumble seat."
"Do you remember what happened to him?" my father asked. Perkins hung his head. "I've heard the stories," my father told him. "I just wondered if you knew what really happened?"
"He was shot, right?" Perkins said. "It was l935, I believe." My father nodded knowingly. "The white man came into his house and shot him in bed. They said he was sleeping with a white woman, but I don't know that for truth."
Other elderly townsfolk said that Dr. Milloy had argued with a white store owner, who then set him up to be slain by spreading rumors that he was involved with a white woman.
"You know they had what they called the 'eyeballing' law, and they would arrest you just for looking at a white woman," Perkins said. "Nowadays, they ride up and down the street with 'em, stay with 'em, marry 'em."
"I just don't believe my father messed around with white women," my father said sternly. "He knew the risks. He was a smart, sophisticated man. No hat in hand. No Uncle Tom. Besides, nobody saw him with a white woman. No black person saw him. People can only say what they heard."
"Now that's the truth," Perkins agreed.
My father was 11 years old when Grandpa was killed. His brother, Herbert Kay, was 16. They had walked into their home and faced a room of blood-stained walls. Nothing would be the same for them after that. One day the family was living pretty good, enjoying the ever-increasing income of the only black dentist for three southeastern Arkansas towns.
Suddenly, the economic depression that had been raging around them hit home like a ton of bricks. There was the funeral, the sight of his mother crying, his brother falling apart, then trying to pick up the pieces and relocate under their grandparents' roof in a town outside of West Memphis called Earle.
When we heard that the man accused of killing Grandpa was in his 90s and still living in McGehee, Dad thought about paying him a visit.
"I'd like to let him know that was a human being he killed," Dad said. "Let him see that the son and the son of the son live on." That's what he would like to have done. But we weren't sure if that's all we would have done -- so we bade McGehee farewell.
"Back in the old days, a black man with a new car would drive real slow on a road like this," Dad said as we passed the cotton, bean and rice fields en route to Earle. "The police would be looking for a reason to pull you over, humiliate you in front of your family or, if you were alone, just brutalize you."
When Dad caught a glimpse of a pickup truck closing in from the rear, his eyes flashed and he leaned forward for a closer look into the rear-view mirror. Suddenly, he seemed to catch himself and loosen up.
"They love those baseball caps and rifle racks, don't they," he said with a wry smile, still maintaining his gaze into the mirror.
When we pulled into a Ramada Inn in West Memphis for the night, I thought about what my mother had said, how ridiculously painful it must have been for blacks to have once been barred from public accomodations.
But there was no sign of that now. Two young black women, Lisa James and Shirley Brown, greeted Dad and me at the reception desk and went out of their way to make us feel at home.
Having traveled on business and vacations a fair amount, I'm not impressed by motels. I have been known to leave the shower curtain open. But for my parents, who lived through a time when a motel room was a forbidden luxury, it's different. They don't steal soap or towels. But they do collect door keys as souvenirs.
The next day we ate breakfast -- served by a white woman -- and didn't think twice about it. But then, as we approached the town of Earle, white women came up again.
"A black kid from Memphis was riding his bicycle along the sidewalk and ran into a white woman," Dad recalled. "The police beat that child half to death, took him to jail and confiscated his bike. A friend of the family was a custodian at the jail and after some months had passed, he asked if he could have the bike and gave it to me. That's how I got my first bike," he said sadly.
The town where his grandparents had lived without ever being able to cast a vote was now 75 percent black and had recently elected a 30-year-old black man as mayor. But the changes had come too late for Dad. Besides the water tower that he used to climb as a boy, and a couple of friends still left in Earle, there was precious little for him now. Grandma had died years ago. The house where he was raised had burned down.
"Ready? Let's go," he said.
The excitement mounted again as we headed for St. Louis, the final stop on our father-and-son journey. There had been no high school for blacks in Earle. So Dad moved to St. Louis to live with an aunt. The migration of black people from the south to the north was already underway, war was coming, and as a Vashon High School freshman-to-be, Dad found himself just one in a multitude being unloaded at Union Station.
Freed of the daily anxiety of rural racial oppression, Dad excelled in school. The stories he told on the road to St. Louis even had a touch of humor.
"You know what misery is?" he asked. "Misery is living a block away from a bakery, being so hot at night that you have to sit outside on the front steps and smell fresh-baked cakes -- and not have a dime in your pocket."
But he knew more than misery. He took a cooking class in high school, learned how to bake, and got a job at a bakery.
His neighborhood had black gangs with names like the Termites and the Bonecrushers that could be as terrifying as the Ku Klux Klan if you were caught in their neighborhood. But he also had access to a "talking box," which brought the neighborhood together for the sensation of a Joe Louis fight.
"It really helped relieve the frustrations of the time, when the Brown Bomber would beat up a white man," Dad said.
Among the people we saw here was the woman Dad took to the high school prom.
"We went as virgins, and we came home as virgins," Gwen Rucker told me.
"Remember the jitterbug and the Chicago hop?" he asked. She chuckled.
"Your dad was a 'hot papa,'" Rucker said. "Not uncouth like some guys, a real gentleman."
"Remember how poor we were?" Dad asked. "People came to school in crocker-sack dresses and burlap shoes."
"Everybody knew about cornflakes and water for breakfast," she added.
It was odd to me how so many of them turned out to be doctors, lawyers and businessmen.
"It was the Depression," Dad said. "Nobody who made it through that wanted to experience anything like that again."
My father had many jobs -- he shined shoes, baked bread, clerked in a war-bonds office and worked on the fuselage assembly line for the McDonnell Aircraft Co.
With money saved and other money borrowed from relatives, he was able to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he majored in business and edited the college newspaper. While there, he met a woman who had started college at 16, graduated at 20, and was working as secretary to the dean of the business school.
She would become my mom.
As we reach the end of our journey, I can't help but reflect on my parents' lives. It was incredibly rough. So many black people -- like my grandpa -- just didn't make it through. And when I think about how recently all of this happened, how people are alive whose parents were slaves, I say on the one hand, black people have an excuse for any behavior they chose to exhibit. On the other hand, if people can survive the perils of those days, there is no excuse for not doing better in these new times. Or is that naive thinking? Generations have been wiped out and crippled by the disease that is racism. And the effects will linger for generations to come.
"Don't be bitter," Dad tells me when I seem to sulk and frown. "Remember, if my father had not been killed, I would never have gone to St. Louis, and never gone to Tuskegee. That means I never would have met your mother and become your daddy."
Maybe, maybe not, Dad. I know what he means, and what he wants. He doesn't want hatred to eat away at my insides. That's why he and Mom waited until "Roots" was shown on television before they told us that Grandpa had been murdered. Until then, they had told us that he died in a car accident.
Despite the tragedies, the hardships and sacrifices, Dad had pressed on. The way the family banded together, the way aunts and cousins treated each other like brother and sister, was the key to his survival.
I'm proud of my dad, and thankful that he passed on to me some of the lessons he learned the hard way. I wonder sometimes if it would have been better for me to learn them the hard way, too, instead of comfortably in the new world my dad and so many other black men fought to build.
But today, I'm happy to be riding in comfort with my dad along a road where we both feel free.
Courtland Milloy Jr. is a Washington Post columnist.