A Salute From The Black Aces

William Wayne Weems

2014 by William Wayne Weems 

Photo of a school safety patrol badge.
Here is a Tennessee tale from the mid-1950's. At the time of this account there was a road intersection on the South side of Nashville called "Five Points". It was and is a complex interchange for ordinary city streets, and the source of a depressing number of traffic accidents. Rosedale Avenue plunges off a hill and joins Bransford Avenue in a “T” intersection just prior to Bransford’s northward crossing of the twin railroad tracks of the Nashville and Eastern Railway. Almost immediately thereafter Craighead Street crosses Bransford Avenue at nearly right angles, a broad intersection today controlled by a traffic light.

Now let us turn back the clock fifty eight years. Both Craighead and Bransford narrow appreciably, and the traffic signals disappear from above their intersection. Stop signs warn Bransford traffic to stop, no such limitations obstruct the rapid transit of cars and eighteen wheelers on Craighead. The number of businesses westward on Craighead and southward on Bransford dramatically decline, and the size of their buildings shrink. However, an astounding change comes over the empty lot on the northwest corner of the intersection.. It sprouts a 1950's Gulf service station, with two broad service bays and large plate glass windows. Jumpsuited attendants scurry around the brightly painted pumps, ready to check oil and tire pressure, wipe windshields, and put gasoline in the vehicles of valued customers at prices certain to bring tears to the eyes of modern readers. The master mechanic and station owner who ran this blast from the past kept a curious assortment of gear in the corner of his office. There was a hefty wooden pole some eight feet long with a two foot yellow flag that sternly demanded "STOP" in bold black letters on one end. Dangling from a hanger swinging at the end of a rack which held his own outerwear was a brilliant yellow full-length raincoat in an adult size. Sent off with his own jumpsuits for professional cleaning were white belts with a shoulder strap to wear over the raincoat. The vivid colors and snowy whiteness of the belts were intended to maximize visibility. A chrome police-style badge completed the outfit of a school crossing guard for the "Five points" intersection, and that outfit was worn summer or winter, rain or shine, whenever the crossing guard was on duty. The station owner was happy to keep the gear and provide a place for the crossing guard to shelter during inclement weather as a public service, but he had more lucrative purposes for his own employees and could not have them shepherding children four hours a day. That job was reserved for older children.

So that crossing guard job was mine for almost two years,1956 to 1958, the last two years I attended nearby Julia Andrews elementary school (since converted into an annex of the Board of Education).. This was an important task. Despite county school buses being serviced nearby and parked at the Fairgrounds during the summer, there were never enough of them, and they were used only on long routes. For a considerable period Julia Andrews elementary students used Nashville city buses under a special arrangement, and where city buses did not run the students walked. Notable among those who walked were the children from the Vine Hill housing projects. It was the task of the "Five points" crossing guard to corral these boys and girls at the Gulf service station, wait until the traffic died down somewhat and take a position in the middle of Craighead Street with the "STOP" pole extended, thus hopefully halting all traffic until the gaggle of children passed. Then the guard had to walk with the group to insure they made it safely past the railroad tracks (no stopping traffic there!) and did not wander across Bransford Avenue to block the intersection for vehicles descending Rosedale Avenue. Then it was back to the Gulf station for the next batch of kids. I had been tapped for this job because I lived in a nearby residential area of Berry Hill considerably removed from the suburbs surrounding Julia Andrews, I had experienced an early growth spurt that allowed me to fill out the adult sized crossing guard gear, and there were no parents who volunteered for that task. It could be dangerous. Fixed in my memory is the image of a eighteen wheeler Mack truck coming directly at me, its brakes locked and squealing. I glanced over my shoulder and saw my charges strung out behind me in a straggling line as I stood with the pole extended, the "STOP" flag on its end a warning the truck driver had apparently seen too late. Closer and closer the behemoth came, until it came to a shuddering halt three feet away. I could see every detail of the bugs caught in its radiator, and I looked up past the chrome bulldog hood ornament to the gap-toothed grin of the driver behind the windshield. Yes, there was a reason it was hard to get volunteers for that job.

But most of the time it was a grind, getting up far earlier than most students and bicycling down to "Five points" every day, no matter what the weather, then changing into what passed for "high visibility" gear in the 1950's. As I recall it some parent on an early shift took over the afternoon guard duties for a while, leaving me only the morning watch. I had always observed considerable car traffic with teenage occupants heading north to Central High School for the day, and there was something different about a few of the vehicles that came down the hill on Rosedale Avenue. The exhaust of those cars sounded loud, their hood ornaments had been removed, and they had novel hubcaps, primarily Oldsmobile three pronged spinners and the smooth "moon" covers. Many of the male occupants wore black leather jackets. I enquired about these unusual cars to one of the service station attendants, a recent Central High dropout. "Yeah, " he said, "They come down Rosedale, they are likely from Woodbine, or 'Flatrock' some call it. Lots of guys there hot rod their cars, put on glasspack mufflers. You say they wear black jackets? I been too busy to notice." Yes, I was often close to the passing hot rods. Although their occupants ignored me, my job was to keep a wary eye on all vehicles, and I did notice that many of the males wore black jackets. The attendant fixed me with a curious look. "Ever see every guy in a car wearing black leather jackets?" I thought I had. "Then you have probably seen some of the 'Black Aces' " he replied. I cocked an eyebrow, and asked "They a gang?" "Not really" the attendant said, "more like a club". His employer drawing near, his voice quickly descended to a whisper as he added "a sex club."

After that revelation I cornered the attendant as often as I could to get additional information about the "Black Aces". One forgets at this remove in time just how puritanical that era was. Sexual matters were seldom discussed in public, and never in the media or in front of children, although allusions were everywhere. Children were often left woefully ignorant of the "facts of life" by their parents, though girls were usually informed better than boys, lest they freak out by their natural transitions at puberty or (horror of the pre-"pill" era) blunder into teen pregnancy. Boys were left clueless as long as possible, lest they try to share what knowledge they had with the opposite sex. A tall and gangly only child, I had found very few girls who considered me worth a second look, so ... like many males of the era ... I got most of my knowledge and misinformation from conversations with my peers. The attendant confirmed the "Black Aces" seemed to have the requisite number of female members, so obviously not all girls were the chaste and dainty creatures my Mother told me about. I could forget about joining the "Black Aces" when I got to Central; the guys were mostly good looking upperclassmen and I would be too plain a freshman. He wasn't a Burt Lancaster himself, so he had no personal experience with such things; the only detail he had heard was that on say, a Friday, a girl club member would sport a striking piece of clothing of a vivid color and her male counterpart would do the same. Then on the following Monday, if they had achieved intimacy during the weekend (not his exact words) the girl would wear a color he had worn on the previous Friday and he would halfway stuff in a pocket of black clothing or a black jacket a piece of women's attire (say, a scarf) of the color she had worn. The membership of the "Black Aces" would then spend an enjoyable start of the school week trying to figure out who did what with whom. I observed that sounded like a woman's game, and I had thought a group of male hoods with a name like "Black Aces" might seek less involved paths to shared pleasure with the opposite sex. Perhaps in other areas they were over the top, mused the Attendant. Not being a club member, he wouldn't know. But they needed the girls for a sex club, and I should remember when it came to relations between the sexes, the females almost always set the rules of the game, and I would see he was right. And how right he was.

Musing over these matters I was walking back toward the Gulf station on my last crossing guard run of a bright spring morning. I stopped at the railroad tracks to roll up my "STOP" sign and fasten it to the pole with the rubber bands I always kept in the raincoat pocket for that purpose. Then I caught a glimpse of something on the railroad track. It was a single woman's nylon stocking of the pre-pantyhose era, complete with black seam running down the back. I eyed it cautiously, but it appeared to be clean and complete, with only a few marks from a garter belt fastener near the top. It was a long size ... the girl who had worn it was probably as tall as I was. I wondered if she were a member of the "Black Aces". Then inspiration struck. I picked up the hose and tied it at the top to the end of my pole, so It draped down like a pennant. Slinging the pole over my shoulder I began to walk back to the service station, whistling a tune. At that point I heard a familiar rumble, and turned to see three hot rods in trail rapidly descending Rosedale Avenue. It appeared each of these autos had male occupants in both the front and rear seats ... and it looked like all of them were wearing black leather jackets. I had never seen such a convoy of likely “Black Aces”.

I knew these vehicles would turn on Bransford and bounce across the railroad tracks before me at a relatively slow speed due to the approaching stop sign at Craighead. In the same whimsical mood that led me to lash up my novel banner, I quickly came to attention, did a smart right face, and raised my pole high. With a smooth motion I bought the pole into a horizontal position so that the stocking dangled at windshield level of the oncoming hot rods, but over the opposing lane. I remained at attention, my expression blank. I more than half expected the occupants of the oncoming vehicles to ignore me, as they always had before. I was wrong. The driver of the first vehicle gave a snappy hand salute, and the others in his car quickly followed suit. They all held the salute as their gaze remained fixed on the stocking during a slow "eyes left", never saying a word. Then the second hot rod rumbled by, the occupants performing the same saluting ritual. Finally the third auto slid past, as before everyone within holding the hand salute during a "eyes left" until they were abreast of the stocking, then dropping the salute and snapping their heads back to the front. As the hot rods crossed Craighead I raised the pole, slung it back over my shoulder, and continued my trek. None of the participants in that curious ritual had said a word or as much as cracked a smile, and I was sure I had just met at least a few members of the "Black Aces". I never recognized any of them again. Looking back over a twenty year involvement with the US Military I would have to say the stocking salute described herein was as precise as any such ritual I witnessed later.

Of course, by the time I finally got to Central High School the "Black Aces" were said to be a thing of the past, although I noted that upperclassmen wouldn't talk very much about the matter. And in certain circles there definitely seemed to be echoes of that group's ...er, "different" views about privacy in intimate matters. One particular incident comes to mind. Study hall was in those times a daily use for the large auditorium at Central High School. I was sitting under the balcony in that auditorium in one of the hard back wooden chairs, trying to make some sense out of a homework sheet of algebraic equations (and failing miserably), when I caught snippets of a far more interesting conversation a couple of rows up. Three football players were standing in the aisle talking to a tall and very statuesque young lady with a platinum blonde beehive hairdo. She was seated with three other girls and appeared annoyed, twirling her pencil compulsively. But you promised, urged one of the guys, promised once you tried us all you would let us know who was the better lover. Bitter personal experience led me to suspect he was "cruising for a bruising" by calling this girl out in front of her friends, but this was one of the dudes who often wandered the halls with we lesser beings wearing a perpetual sneer on his face, so it seemed obvious he expected her to reluctantly conclude he was the best she ever had. Instead she pointed to a quiet junior across the aisle and said "XXXX is by far the best lover I ever had". The reaction of the guy so named was astounding; his face turned beet red and he slumped in his chair, almost as if he wished he could disappear. What's he got that I don't have? wondered the questioner, walking right in to the next zinger. The girl testily replied he had better tools and he knew how to use them, which set off a ripple of laughter across the auditorium. Suddenly the speakers appeared to realize every eye in the auditorium was on them, and they quickly scattered before a monitor could report them, the questioning football player departing with a face as red as the slumped down junior they left behind. I cannot now be sure whether this was the same day a unknown individual hurled a 30 pound sack of lime (used for marking the football field) from the auditorium balcony to the rows of seats below, but I think it was. The sack hit the hard back of a seat at least a row away from the closest individual who might have been an intended target, bursting asunder and spreading a large cloud of lime dust that forced the evacuation of the study hall.

"So", readers may muse, "is that it?" "You mention a scandalous sex club, and all you can offer in the way of exposition as to what you actually witnessed is that bit of bizarre mummery with the salute?" Hey, in the 1950's such things all too often were it. Remember, back then we were agog over 15 inch black and white televisions, and boys of my age were universally encouraged to channel their primal energies into constructive hobbies like carving raised relief with wood burning tools. Heaven knows for homely young men such as myself there were few enough opportunities to explore their sensual horizons, and my Mother threw away my wood burning kit after I carelessly laid down the hot burning iron while it was still plugged in, almost (she claimed) burning the house down. But somewhere out there is a male reader even older than I whose high school photos might have rated him an audition at a Hollywood studio. If he reads the submission above it will be with derisive snorts, musing “ What does this clueless fool know about the Back Aces? I was there when the old Black Knights gang started this co-ed play group, and it is obvious he is entirely ignorant of its more notorious activities. There is no mention of the drunken revels, the illicit sexual stimulants, the frenzied nude dancing until dawn that prominent adults paid us so much just to watch?" Ah, good reader, you are the true and intended audience of this piece. Recall your own mortality, how many of your contemporaries whom might have been made uncomfortable by your own memoirs are now beyond such embarrassments, and contemplate what a true tragedy it would be to carry such titillating memories with you into the grave. Set pen to paper, and you need not name names ... except your own. Worried about the hereafter? Confession is good for the soul. Set fingers to your keyboard and share your secrets with eager and sympathetic readers. As a prominent tabloid paper ceaselessly reminds us, enquiring minds want to know.

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