Letter: Remembering ‘bizarre’ experience in American history

To the editor:

On April 6, 2018, the Richmond, Indiana community held a memorial service on the 50th anniversary of a catastrophic explosion in a downtown fireworks factory that took the lives of 41 citizens.

I have vivid memories of that disaster, and of that turbulent time in our nation’s history. The Vietnam War was in full swing and racial tensions in America were especially volatile, for Martin L. King had been assassinated only two days before, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

At the time, I was serving as an assistant baseball coach at Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis). With America still reeling from King’s murder, our team was in Richmond that Thursday, playing Earlham College. I was seated in the third base dugout when we were startled by a muffled, but powerful roar, disturbing the action on the diamond. Seconds later, an immense gray-black cloud arose over the trees in right field. Then the sky filled with a distant cacophony of screaming sirens of emergency vehicles rushing to the site of the accident.

We would learn later of the terrible blast that wiped out part of downtown Richmond, approximately two miles from the ballpark.

Following the Earlham College game, students at ICC left campus for spring vacation week. Coach Bright had scheduled a trip south for the ICC baseball team to play four games against southern schools in the warm spring temperatures there.

On Saturday, April 8, the players, coaches, and Student Dean Nate Wooden piled into four cars to travel from Indianapolis to Berry College near Rome, Georgia, where we would stay in a dormitory there.

As we traveled Interstate 65, we experienced an unforgettable, eerie drive through Nashville, Tennessee. As in most major southern cities after King’s assassination, martial law had been declared in Nashville. Traffic was limited, so our car caravan was among a few vehicles on the road.

At one point, there was a row of low-income tenements lining the Interstate. From our cars we could look up at the apartments to see sober black faces peering back at us. The tension was palpable, like an ominous cloud hovering over the city. I recall that only the whine of the tires on the vehicle broke the utter silence of the scene.

We arrived safely at our host school in the small town of Rome, Georgia. After depositing our gear in rooms in the dormitory, the team returned to the cars to go to a restaurant in town. Of our 25-person traveling entourage, George was the single African-American.

What happened next added to the surreal nature of the trip. As we began to enter the café, three squad cars, lights flashing and sirens blaring, squealed to a stop behind our cars. Our vehicles, brandishing Indiana license plates, loaded with 24 white guys and one black man, drew the attention of local law enforcement.

Six armed officers, with scowls on their faces betraying the tension of the moment, exited with lightning speed and, with at least three policemen pointing revolvers at us, began to grill head coach Bill Bright about why we were there.

After a brief conversation, Dean of Students Nathan Wooden convinced the officers that we were a baseball team, not freedom marchers.

That week was an interesting, if bizarre, experience during a significant period in American history.

Jim Brunnemer, Brown County

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