at Chicken Willy's
by Al McSweyn
The times, they were a changing, and we, young and dumb, did not see it coming.
It was early summer of '64 and we were four just-graduated high school seniors looking for something to do on a late Saturday night. Typical of most small southern towns of that era, sidewalks were rolled up promptly at 5:00 pm - or so we felt. If we had dates for the local theater, which closed at nine, we had to have the respectable young ladies home by ten. Then Drew, Larry, James Edward and I met at the only café on the outskirts of town that stayed open late.
We had heard about Chicken Willy’s establishment and knew it was primarily for the black community. Located about ten miles west of town off several small roads, through the cattle gap to a large old barn, it was the one place in the county you were not supposed to go – a bootlegger’s joint. If you were white, you could get a beer and stand behind the bar or go to the back room where a crap table was located.
As we nervously entered through the side door, a tall black man said, “Hey, white folk, buy me a beer.” Ignoring him, we eased our way in. Promptly making our way to the bar, we ordered four beers. “Falstaff or Jax?” asked the man behind the bar. James quickly responded “Falstaff,” like he knew what he was doing. I eased behind the bar with James beside me, Drew and Larry on the end.
From my vantage point I absorbed the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the dimly lighted premises. About a dozen black couples were on the small dance floor. A three piece band with sax, guitar and drums played in the back corner. I still remember the name painted on the front of the bass drum – “King Neptune and the Sea Biscuits.”
The old saying, “There is always one more imbecile than you counted on,” held true that night, and Larry was definitely up to the challenge. He and Drew played drums in the high school band. The elderly silver-haired drummer looked as if he were going through the motions in his sleep. When I saw Larry approach him, I knew this would be our demise. Twice Larry asked if he could play the drums; no response. The third time Larry said, “Here, take my beer.” In one fell swoop the drum-sticks and Falstaff changed hands.
James Edward motioned for me and we headed into the back room. Just as you would envision a typical movie scene, about a dozen or so men, white and black, dollar bills clutched in hand, some chomping on cigars, were gathered around the table. Almost immediately from directly across the table a rather heavy-set tall man said, “James, how’s your mother doing?”
“Fine,” replied a startled James Edward. We immediately headed back to the bar.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“My mother’s doctor . . .” he faintly replied. The gig was up; it was time to depart.
As we exited, the young black man again commented to me, “Hey, white folk, buy me a beer.” I had only taken a couple of sips from my beer and handed it to him, never losing a step.
This was our last outing together. Drew and Larry went to college, James Edward to Nashville (where he became a police officer), and I eventually to the Navy and Viet Nam. Chicken Willy passed several months later and so did his establishment.
When I returned home to Mississippi some five years later from service, the state had changed profoundly, as had my own values. Prohibition and segregation had both been abolished. My mind and heart had been tempered in the cultural melting of the service. When you work and live side by side, depend on each other daily, break bread together, the value and worth of each individual slowly sinks into your conscience.
The one thing I do miss from that time – a good cold Falstaff or Jax. Today’s beers just don’t seem to taste as good as the ones back then.
No names have been changed to protect the innocent . . . because they were all there.
N. A. McSweyn was raised on a small farm in rural Copiah county, Mississippi. He served four years in the Navy during Vietnam aboard the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier. Al retired from Bell South in 1990, and is happily married (forty-two years!) to Celia Elizabeth Scott from Port Gibson, Mississippi. He and Celia currently own and operate Porches Restaurant in Wesson, Mississippi [ PorchesOfWesson.com ] where they draw from their parents' and grandparents' heritage for their restaurant theme: “Traditional Southern Dining with an Imaginative Flair.” When customers ask Al if he is the restaurant owner, he tells them, “No, I work for my wife.”
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