"Y'all kin order a drink, if you lahk," said Sharon's father. He looked to be in his forties, tall, heavyset, seriously balding. He wore crisp dark slacks and a starched short-sleeve dress shirt that revealed a deeply tanned left arm. His right arm, however, was pale as a catfish belly.
"I'm only 20," I replied. I was weeks back from Korea, where Johnny Walker Black, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniels, Jamison's Irish and good French cognac flowed freely at two bits a shot at NCO clubs. If you had the stripes on your sleeve, nobody cared when you were born. But liquor was not for me. I had seen too many smart men act stupid and witnessed dimwits become even dimmer after only a few drinks.
"Ah thought you were younger," he said. "But so what? Think some nigra waiter's gonna ask to see a guest's ID?" snorted Sharon's father.
Most of the 400 Jewish families in Columbus played golf and tennis, swam in the outdoor pool, dined in air conditioned splendor, or got falling-down drunk, as it suited them, at the Standard Club. It was an uneasy time in the South. Marches and demonstrations demanding full civil rights for blacks had begun, and integration of Georgia's lunch counters, schools and public transportation was only five years off. But Jews joining restricted country clubs—that would take longer. Much longer. So they had built their own club. Membership was open to all, but if any gentiles belonged to the Standard Club, I never met one.
I had gone to one of the city's two synagogues on Friday night; after services, Sharon's father had taken me aside to say that he had three beautiful daughters, and if I wanted to meet them I could be his guest at the Standard Club for Sunday brunch.
The first beautiful daughter was a leggy brunette starting her senior year at some New York college in the fall. Before excusing herself for a tennis match, she offered to show me around Columbus some time, not forgetting to mention that her fiancé read law at Yale and was due down in a few weeks. Daughter Number Three was nine, a shy, coltish charmer with new braces and frizzy brown hair. Number Two was Sharon, the reason for my invitation.
Sharon was sixteen, a sweet girl with a fondness for sweets and the complexion and figure to prove it. When her father found out that I was not 18, as he had supposed, he decreed that I could hang out with the family at the club and maybe come to their home, but Sharon was too young to go on dates with a sergeant in the US Army, even if he was baby-faced.
That suited me. Like every horny young troop, I was looking for love, or something like it. I had seven more months on my enlistment, and then it was back to California and college. If I hung out at the club, I thought, I might meet somebody my age, somebody who didn't have a fiancé.
And there were few young man at the Standard Club. "They all go to college in the nawth," explained Sharon's father. "Come back at all, they bring a wife."
On the other hand, about twenty suitable girls belonged to Standard Club families. Over months of Sundays, I met their fathers. Aside from a few doctors and lawyers, most were merchants. There was a grocer, a haberdasher, a used auto dealer, a pharmacist, purveyors of ladies clothing and building supplies, jobbers and cousins who had built their grandfather's dry goods establishment into the city's leading department store, and the father and son who had a huge home furnishings emporium. Among themselves, these merchants of Columbus commingled Yiddish with English, their inflection and vocabulary suggesting Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and, it occurred to me, Ab Snopes, Faulkner’s fictional barn-burning sharecropper and horse thief. Whenever I was within earshot they all seemed preoccupied with the racial dimensions of business:
"Ah told that nigra to come back when he had luhnned him some mannuhs…"
"How many tahms I got to say it, don' be givin' credit to no nigra…"
"We treated our shvartzer maid lahk one of the family, but fust time we went on vacation and left her alone in the house this meshugah sneaks some buck in the back dowah and he's intah mah likker."
At few of these men, who were mostly in their forties and fifties, invited me to have a drink, to join their family for a meal. But as quickly as they learned that I was "at the Fort" and a mere enlisted man, yet to experience college, their interest cooled. They were polite, but they did not introduce me to their daughters.
I was only a little disappointed. The longer I was around these men, the more they seemed like their Southern gentile counterparts. At Fort Benning, as elsewhere in the Army, I served with, under and alongside black officers and noncoms. I ate with black men and shared living quarters with them. I knew them as soldiers, neither better nor worse than others, and gradually I realized that Jews talking about "nigras" made me even more uncomfortable than rednecks spouting anti-Semitic slurs.
At the club Sharon and her sisters played tennis, swam and sunned with a very small group of girls. Their mother, an ample, pleasant, dark-haired woman, used the pool but mostly played cards with a trio of white-haired grandmothers. Sharon's father haunted the bar. He read the thick Sunday Atlanta newspaper and nursed three or four drinks along from brunch till late afternoon; his wife always took the wheel of their station wagon when they drove home.
"You don't play golf?" I asked him, after a few weeks.
"Not much anymore," he replied. "Tough getting a decent tee time, less you're part of the in-crowd," he added, sounding bitter.
Little by little it came to me that no one at the club spoke to him except the help and his own family. One Friday night before dinner, I asked Sharon about it.
"They all think they're too good to waste their time on Daddy," she replied.
"I don't understand," I said.
"Because he travels, he's on the road all week."
I still didn't get it.
"He's got his own business, same as they do, but he travels three states and he's on the road Monday to Friday," she said, as though that made everything clear.
One Sunday I asked Sharon's mother.
"Your husband has his own business?" I began.
"Yes, he's in retail distribution," she smiled. We rarely spoke, but Sharon's mother always treated me with kindness, filling my plate with second helpings before I could refuse them, shushing the nine-year-old if I had started to speak.
"What is it about his business that bothers people at the club?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she responded, then excused herself to make coffee.
Later I asked the nine-year-old, "What does your Daddy do for a living?"
"He's in sales or something. He drives around all week," she said. "I guess."
Now I was really curious. The Yellow Pages yielded no listing for a business with his name, so after one Sunday brunch I told Sharon that I didn't feel like getting any more sun, and went inside to find her father working on a Bloody Mary.
"Please don't be offended," I started, "But I'm curious about your business."
"Florida, Georgia and Alabama," he said. "I make a circuit through one state each week, hit each customer every other time, so it's about six weeks between calls. Used to do a lot of business by mail, but it's fallen off, last few years."
"What is that you sell?"
"I'm in the health care field, disease prevention," he replied. "'S'cuse, me I need to use the rest room."
I sat at the bar for nearly half an hour till I decided that he was not coming back. Later I spotted Sharon's father drinking alone under a patio umbrella.
Friday night I went to synagogue an hour before services and waited for the rabbi. He was from New York, I suppose, a man my father's age, and when he opened the door, I said hello and got straight to the point: "I've been hanging out with Sharon _______," I said. "What does her father do for a living, do you know?"
The rabbi shot me an appraising look. "Sales, I think."
"And nobody will tell me what he sells," I said. "What's going on? Why doesn't he have any friends at the Standard Club? Why won't anyone talk to him?"
"Is that true?" said the rabbi, dismay clouding his face. "How unfortunate. You know, I think I'll ask my wife to invite them for dinner after the High Holidays."
"Rabbi!" I almost shouted.
"WHAT DOES HE SELL?" Now I was shouting.
"They're fine people," he said, as though I had not asked a question. "This town is too small. Everyone knows everyone else's business. I'll have a word with the president of the congregation. It's wrong that the others ostracize him." He turned to greet a family arriving for services.
"It was good of you to bring this to me," he said, when they had passed.
"You're not going to tell me what he sells?"
"Maybe I'll use this in my Yom Kippur sermon," he said. He shook my hand, suddenly excited. "Yes, yes, that's what I'll do. You have performed a great mitzvah!"
The dignified black man in a starched white jacket behind the Standard Club bar may not have known about mitzvot, but he certainly knew about Sharon's father.
"Rubbahs," he replied to my low-voiced query.
"Condoms. Pro-full-lack-ticks," he intoned, drawling it out. "Most anywhere in the South, yo pulls into a gas station and uses the restroom, theys a machine. Two rubbahs for fo' quarters, somethin' lahk that."
"That's it? He sells rubbers, prophylactics, so nobody talks to him?"
"All they evuh talks about heah is bidness an' nigras. Cain't talk bidness about restrooms and rubbahs with womens and chilluns around. Use to be, he play golf, just the mens, but every hole, somebody tell a rubbahs joke. He don't play no mo'."
Now I knew why her father had been eager, at first, for me to date Sharon. The local boys must taunt her about his business. Probably the girls, too, I realized. And her mother, whose only friends were three grannies. A family of pariahs! I wanted to offer sympathy, tell them that I knew how it felt to be snubbed—but I had no idea what to say. Maybe I would only make things worse. I stopped going to the club, broke contact with Sharon and her family.
Soon after that I was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on temporary duty. After I returned, several weeks past Yom Kippur, I went to a Friday night service. A new rabbi was on the pulpit, an older man with magnificent Southern diction, drawling deeper even than the merchants whose generosity paid his salary.
I still wish that I had heard his predecessor's Yom Kippur sermon.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.