This is a story that happened to me when I was 26. My husband Earl and I were living in a tiny apartment in Alexandria, a suburb of Washington, DC. Earl had been drafted unexpectedly for the Vietnam War and he ended up at the Pentagon because he was well versed in computer programing. I worked in Springfield, which is a suburb south of DC. We were living there when Martin Luther King was assassinated. After the assassination, there was a large group of people destroying businesses and homes, parts of DC started to burn. From Alexandria, you could see the smoke. It was a very frightening time.
Two days after Martin Luther King’s death things seemed to be exploding and getting worse. When I left my work in Springfield we were asked to leave early so that we weren’t leaving in the dark. They told those of us who were women that we were not to go home in cars by ourselves. Earl was assigned to the Pentagon and couldn’t leave, so I was on my own.
I had a long commute back to Alexandria and a lot of the interstate was closed because of riots that were happening all over the place. I was diverted to side roads, some of them you could get through and others were closed. My anxiety grew more and more as I wondered if I could get home. There weren’t cell phones, there wasn’t any way to contact anyone, you felt very alone in your car. It took me twice as long as usual to get home.
Earl and I lived in a low-income apartment building and a diverse group of people all lived there together. Not a lot of us there with white skin, mostly people with darker skin. I parked where I usually parked and there were fifty or sixty men standing outside the apartment building, some women were with them.
They were in a very heated discussion expressing their concerns and fears, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt frightened to try and walk through the crowd. I didn’t know if that was a reasonable way to feel or not, I had never had had any reason to feel fearful before. I just didn’t know how to evaluate it. So, I was sitting in the car, in the dark and suddenly there was a rap on the window next to me. And there was this very large, dark face looking in the window at me. I jumped so that my head hit the roof of the car. It just startled me so.
He signaled me to roll the window down, I did, and he said, “Do you need some help in getting to your apartment?” and I said, “Why, I don’t know.” And he said, “Well, do you intend to stay here in your car? And I said, “Well, it doesn’t sound very practical, does it?” He smiled at me and said, “Why don’t you let me escort you to your apartment.” So, I did.
He literally picked me up and carried me, put his big hands and arms around my arms and just carried me into the apartment building. When we got inside he asked which apartment was mine. I hesitated for a short instant and then told him I lived on the second floor. And he said, “If it is all right with you I would like to escort you to your door.” I agreed and when we arrived at my door I turned to him and said, “I want to thank you.” We made this wonderful eye connection that was and continues to be the most critical three seconds of my life. I said, “May I shake your hand? My name is Juanita.” and he said, “My name is Will.”
I never saw him again. I think of him every year on Martin Luther King’s day and wonder where he is, whether he is still living. Such a gracious person and so intuitive to notice my presence what with all that was going on in the community. This was transformative for me, it put a sense of peace and love in my heart for all people. And I have never had any reason to doubt that.
"Earl and Juanita"
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.