Attacked by the State Pesticide Helicopter
A normal Saturday morning
In 2019 what happened to me and my brother long ago would be considered as a hate crime. In 1968 we were simply two frightened children who suspected that race played a part in what took place. The incident is seared into my memory in great detail as if it happened yesterday instead of 51 years in the past. It was a Saturday morning in June and I was 10 years old. My brother Bill was only eight. I had my piano lesson with Mrs. Chatton, who lived about two blocks away at 10:00 AM and Bill would walk with me. It was an ordinary Saturday, with warm weather and not a cloud in the sky.
As we began to walk we could see a helicopter nearby. Every late spring or early summer these helicopters showed up to spray pesticides on the state-owned property in the county. We were told that the land across the road from our house, which stretched all the way to the highway was state land. There were no houses on it just grass, weeds and bushes. Sometimes my friends and I cut through it as a short cut to the store. Earlier in April, of that year my brother and I took the short cut on Easter Sunday morning and saw animal footprints. We believed it was proof of the Easter Bunny's existence. We were so excited until we were later told the Easter Bunny was only pretend.
Danger looming from the sky
On this Saturday in June, as my sibling and I crossed the road at the church near our home, we saw the helicopter swoop a little lower. We did not think much about it but suddenly it was right over our heads. We could see the faces of the pilot and another man and they were laughing. When it came down right at us my brother shouted "run." He took my hand and we began running as fast as we could with the helicopter in hot pursuit. It was actually swooping down and chasing us. It only stopped.
When we were about halfway to the music teacher's house we had to cut off of the road and go up a long driveway. it was only then that the helicopter backed off and left us alone. There is no way to put into words how frightened we were as two black children, seeing that helicopter so close and those two white males laughing at us. We did not know if they were going to spray us or drop-down and chop us with the blades. I made it through my lesson and we walked home in peace and told grandma and great-grandma what happened. There was no Internet to share the tale and no 911 to call. The local law enforcement in that county was 30 miles away. besides we were eight and 10 and no one thought about such things as they do today.
About 30 minutes later, my brother and I walked to the store with some cousins and this is when the cruel aftermath of the situation reared its ugly head. The store was about three blocks in the opposite direction of the music teacher's house. After we had walked about a half-block I began gasping for air. I would stop while everyone else walked on and it felt as if my chest were burning. This happened to me all the way to the store and back home. Neither my brother or our cousins noticed a thing. When we returned to the house, I had these episodes about every four or five minutes until close to bedtime.
I thought perhaps some of the pesticides had gotten on me, but my brother was right beside me through the ordeal and he was not having any issues. Either we were sprayed and my brother simply did not have the same reaction as I did, or perhaps I was having what we now know as a panic attack. I do not remember any smell from the chemicals on our clothing being wet, so perhaps in my anxiety, I inhaled more of the airborne substance than Bill did. I do know that I have had respiratory issues ever since, Nasal congestion, sinusitis, allergies, postnasal drip, and infections have plagued me for over 50 years.
I understand that most people reading this story would say the two men in the helicopter were jerks and race had nothing to do with it, and perhaps that is true. They may have chased any children who were walking by that day. Because however, we were black, and they were white, the question of whether it was a hate crime always lingers. My brother Bill drowned in 1993 so this story, although troubling, is a fond memory of the day he took my hand and ran with me.