PREJUDICE & ME & THE ARMY

“It’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to take white people admitting what we did was pretty damned bad.” – Greg Iles – 2017 National Writers Series interview

There wasn’t many blacks in my ‘class’ at basic training in Fort Collins, Colorado. The two officers in charge were white. The rest of the cadre were black. Nice guys. Even the group of Texans who enrolled together dropped their initial snide remarks about blacks and accepted them as their instructors.

It was my next Army stop, Signal School, Fort Gordon, Georgia where I was introduced to the world of prejudice.

There weren’t many blacks in my ‘class’ in Signal School either and all the instructors were white. We had quite a bit of freedom and could go off base on the weekends. Two of my new friends, Chicago 1 and Chicago 2 managed to buy a car and the three of us along with three others took off on a Friday night to spend a wild weekend in Augusta. Never made it.

On the famous Tobacco Road right before we almost got past the endless shacks and lean-to’s of the share-croppers, and were not too far from the famous and very exclusive Augusta Golf Course where the Masters is played yearly, we got t-boned. Too much moonshine and the driver speeding along a gravel road that intersected the highway didn’t stop. Good thing we were packed inside a well built DeSoto. None of us got hurt but the boys from Chicago told us all to complain about factitious aches and pains. They thought they struck it rich. Whiplash! Whiplash!

We had to report to the Augusta Court House on Monday to give our accounts of what happened. When we walked in far down the lobby was a wall with a fancy words about truth and justice. When we walked to the elevator I noticed a drinking fountain marked Whites, and one across the lobby marked Coloreds. Welcome to Jim Crow country you naive young Yankee.

The two Chicagos had a rude surprise also. Not from the separation of races, in fact one of them commented how he wished Chicago had the same thing, but from the laugh of the cop when they asked if they could get the name of the driver’s insurance company. Insurance! That ole redneck didn’t even have license plates… let alone insurance.

The term colored isn’t used anymore. It is a reminder of the South of Jim Crow. But in those days it was the term whites used a lot. We would never think of called a person a Black; even though we used the term Negro, which is Latin for black. The ‘n’ word derived from Negro was used a lot by whites and blacks.

There was big time prejudice in and around Fort Bragg, North Carolina, my next and last stop in the Army. Racial hatred was as much a way of life in that neck of the woods as displaying the Confederate Flag. Bragg was named after a Confederate War general and slave owner. Yankees ranked second on the South’s hate list. Even though a large percentage of paratroopers were good old boys, troopers were hated because it was paratroopers that Eisenhower used to force integration in the Little Rock schools.

Cities and towns were divided into the White section and the Colored section and getting caught in the wrong section was not something anyone wanted to do.

Ft. Bragg and the adjoining Pope Air Base, is the largest military base in the NATO countries. It is an open installation so anyone can drive on or off it without going through MP secured gates. In addition to the 82nd Airborne Division, it was the home of Green Berets, and numerous ‘Leg’ outfits. A leg is a slang word used by paratroopers to signify anyone not a paratrooper.

And if a trooper did anything that attracted the Law’s attention, he better hope it was 82nd MP’s, brothers-in-arms, that he had to deal with. Leg MP’s had a real burr in their saddle when it came to ‘bad- ass paratroopers’. And then their was the civilian police!!! Best bet for a white yankee like me was to talk with a southern accent, yes sir, no sir, sorry sir, and pray. For a black trooper, leg, or civilian, keep quite and pray and pray hard.

One payday night a few of us from HQ’s Company were about to walk in to a pizza place incop Fayetteville when we heard a shot from across the street. Someone was on the ground and a uniformed town cop was running into a phone booth, chased by an ever growing crowd. It didn’t take long for police, MP’s and an ambulance to cart away the victim and the shooter. It took a general from the post to calm down the protesters.

The first newspaper release was that a Fayetteville cop shot an armed and dangerous soldier and a mob tried to harm the cop. The solder’s gun wasn’t found because someone in the mob took if from the scene.

Another story came out stating that there was nothing to the rumor that the victim, a Latino sergeant, had angered the cop by moving in with the cop’s ex-wife. And that the witnesses who said there was the perp didn’t have a gun were just trouble makers trying to stir up another protest. And that was the official police report, accepted and case closed. Protests!

An order was issued by the Army that any more protests would result in Fayetteville being declared off limits to all military personnel. That settled tempers down.

The sergeant recovered in six weeks and was given a medical discharge. The cop was given a two week suspension, with pay, and was transferred up the hill to a big buck part of the city. Don’t know what happened with the ex-wife.

And then there was the black unemployed ex-con who robbed a small on-post bank. He was caught he next day when he tried to buy a new convertible…with cash. His first night in the county jail, he thought he died and went to heaven when he discovered the cell door wasn’t locked. He did die when he stepped outside and was shot dead by the two jailers. One of the jailers said that as he brought back the black to the cell, after making him dump his honey pot, the phone rang and in his haste to answer it, he must not have locked the cell door. Nuf said. Case closed.

If I had read the newspaper much in those years, I probably would have heard of many more those kind of happenings; but if the Army wanted GI’s to read newspapers they would have made them handy.

It was a little over ten years since President Truman had forced the integration of the US Military. Whites and Blacks were still in the process of working and living together. There was stories of racial problems on the main post in Bragg, but not in the 82nd.

In the 82nd, any prejudice remained under the surface. We were an esprit de corp outfit and we were brothers-in-arms.

It made no difference what color the man was who packed the chute you jumped with…Only that it was packed right. When you were hooked up waiting to jump, you checked everything that you could see. The man behind you checked the rest as you did to the man in front of you. Again colors no difference. Our lives depending on our brothers-in-arms in war and peace.

When I was transferred to Headquarters Company, I no longer lived in a barracks room. I lived in a two- man room. Headquarters Company had it’s privileges.. My first room mate was a Black, Lil Roy. We got along good. Friends. The only thing that bothered me was his bad sounding phonograph and his endless supply of Little Richard 45’s. On and on and on. For a joke I bought him a 45 of Pat Boone singing Tutti Fruitti. We played it once and then left it in the Day Room soanyone who wanted it could take it.

Roy and I would catch the bus into Fayetteville, sit together in the bus, and at the stop we would part ways. I went into the main downtown and he went down the hill to the black downtown. After he got discharged I realized not only did I miss him, I missed hearing Little Richard, which I cured by a trip to the record shop. Music knows no prejudice…but it does have boundaries.

Duke Ellington came to town. He was one of my favorites. He played the NCO club in Bragg. I wasn’t allowed because I was only a corporal. He played the Officers’ club in Bragg. Again, I wasn’t allowed, no brass on my shoulders. His next gig, and last around Fayetteville, was a black college. No whites allowed. Damn prejudice. Once again I found some relief in the record store in town. It sold a lot of music by Ellington and other black musicians, even if blacks weren’t allowed in the store.

When I went back into civilian life and worked various jobs, I was shocked to realize just how much prejudice there was against blacks and minorities existed in the North. Wake up to the real world, you naive young man from Mendota.

There were protest marches in the 60’s. But nothing compared to today’s world wide protests. There was Martin Luther King, activist, leader, and martyr, whose speeches are honored as keystones in the fight for Civil Rights. But nothing stirred the world like the three words, I can’t breath’.

That and the eight minutes, forty six seconds of watching a cold calculated murderer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. George Floyd might not have been a saint, but he is a martyr. It is said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of Christianity. We can only pray that the blood of Earl and the other martyrs sacrificed on the altar of hate are the seeds that brings an end to hatred. Maybe this time.

What thrills me most in today’s protests is the young, young around the world, that have either never been taught to hate or have seen the wrong in such teachings.

I could write volumes on the prejudice I have encountered in my 80 plus years, and maybe I will write some of the tidbits in another post; but for now, I would like to just thank all the people who never taught me how to hate. I wish everybody could have non-teachers like I had.

Oh, and as far as White Privilege is concerned, I am all for it. I’ve been beat up by police on three occasions in my life; and without White Privilege, I might have ended up dead in any one of them.

I just wish White Privilege was granted to everyone regardless of their skin color.

And I would like to wrap this up with the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Stay Safe and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

MY GUN CONTROL (III)

 

My Gun Control Conclusion

The dining car was almost empty so I had a table all to myself. I ordered the biggest steak on the menu. Uncle Sam was still picking up the tab. I refused wine and took coffee. I was on duty. I forgot my paperback, so I sat back and watched the scenery pass, and thought about Sergeant Calvin C. Crowe. He represented a type of paratrooper I hoped was the exception and not the rule.

When I first thought about joining the Airborne, back in basic, I was hoping it would be my ticket to go overseas to Germany, instead of ending up like so many peace time GI’s in Frozen Chosen, aka South Korea. I had heard rumors of the 11th being disbanded and Crowe’s remark pretty much convinced if I made it through jump school, I would be in Fort Bragg, North Carolina – for my duration.

The steak and two pieces of apple pie ala mode were good but they didn’t keep me from thinking about my future. Maybe I should have joined my two high school buddies and enlisted in the Navy, even if the hitch was for four years. See the world and not have to do a silly thing like jumping out of airplanes. 

I didn’t want to, but I had to go back to our cabin. I didn’t meet anybody on the way and the rumble of the train reminded me of the Hitchcock movie where the old lady vanishes on the train.

I stood in front of the door. I don’t know if it the funk I was in, or if I saw too many cowboy movies, or if I thought I could hear snoring; but whatever, I unsnapped my holster and pulled out the ‘45. I checked to make sure it was locked and loaded and slowly pushed down the door handle, using my left hand. Then I pushed the door open quickly. The gun pointed straight ahead.

Damn! I was staring right into the eyes of Billy the Kid. He was standing by the table. He was holding a ‘45 pistol. In my side vision I saw Sergeant Calvin C. Crowe asleep on the lower bunk. He was snoring.

I realized that my thumb was pressing on the safety, my finger pressing against the stiffness of the trigger. I also realized I was staring down a barrel of destruction. Not that I thought the lad had any idea of shooting me ; but his eyes told me he was scared and might shoot me in fright, and I wasn’t going to let that happen if I could help it.

Oh, Billy,’ I said to myself. ‘Oh, Billy, don’t press down on that safety lever. Please. Please don’t.’

What seemed like a long, long time was over in a few seconds. The kid hollered, ‘No! No!’ and he threw the weapon down. It hit the table with a loud crash and bounced to the floor.

Crowe broke out of his nap and sat upright. It took him a couple double-takes to realized what had happened and he quickly dove for his weapon, all the time shouting ‘F@#k! F@#k!

Crowe’s swearing and Billy’s crying brought me back to my senses and I stuck my weapon back in the holster and picking up my paperback off the chair seat, sat down and opened it pretending to read. My mind did not register on the print but gripping hard on the book hid the shaking of my hands. I just kept thinking over and over how close I came to pulling the trigger.

What a trio!

A teenager from the tough streets of Philly trying to explain between sobs that all he did was take the gun off the sergeant’s belly because the man was sleeping, and he was afraid it would fall on the floor. ‘I just was looking at it. I wasn’t going to do nothing with it. Just looking, honest.’

The man in charge, a rodeo rider from Calgary, mumbling the same apology over and over. ‘I didn’t sleep very good last night. I never thought I would fall asleep though. I don’t think I was out very long. Not very long.’

And me, fresh out of Basic and an Army school, a small-farm lad from Minnesota, only a few months out of my teenage years, trying to look calm by trying to read a book. I must have carried my act off because the other two believed it. If they only really knew that I might have been the most shook-up of the trio. ‘Why don’t both of you go down to the dining car and have some chow? Do you good.’

They both claimed they weren’t hungry; but it would be a long time before they could eat again, so I pulled the porter’s cord and ordered two cheeseburger baskets and a couple cokes. For a couple of guys who weren’t hungry, they sure wolfed down the food as soon as it came.

Crowe said that he needed a real drink as he finished off his coke. I reminded him he was on duty and he muttered about falling asleep on duty.

I worked my ass off for these stripes,’ he whined, ‘And now…Blink of an eye and I lose them. Hell, they might even slick-sleeve me. Kick my ass back to Canada. Who knows.

I don’t blame you, Ostertag. When you write the report you got to…’

Whoa there, Mister Sergeant. When I write the report? I’m not top- rank here. When you write the report…’

Yeah, you’re right. When I write the report.’

Well,’ I said, ‘The report should be be short and sweet. Mission accomplished. Boring trip. Nothing happened.’

‘What you mean…?

What I mean, sergeant,’ I said, ‘The report should reflect it was a boring trip, nothing happened. You go off on some tangent to say something happened, but nothing came of it, and the three of us will spend more days in Repo while the Army red tapes the whole thing only to find out nothing happened.

‘Just let the three of us get on with our lives. The kid wants to go home. You want to get to town and buy your new Hog. And I want to go to jump school.’ And if they really believed that, I should have won an award for acting.

Crowe reverted to his normal egotistical persona. He handcuffed himself to our desperado before we exited the train and pushed Billy into the back seat of the MP car that met us at the depot. I got in the front like before.

Piece of cake, Sarg. Piece of cake,’ he assured the driver, who hadn’t asked us how things went. ‘Sarg, did you have to go to a special school to get in the MP’s?’ The sergeant said he enlisted to be an MP and volunteered airborne at the school.

We were dropped off at MP HQ and Billy was whisked away to the stockade without being able to say goodbye. After we checked out and waited for the jeep to go back to Repo barracks Crowe asked the desk MP about putting in for a transfer to the MP’s. He said he thought he would make a good one. And he had the wings and rank already. ‘And,’ he added, ‘Experience.’

Yeah,’ the top NCO said,’You got it all, don’t you?’ He looked at me and asked if I wanted to transfer also.

I’ll pass,’ I said, quickly.

The next week I was busting tail in jump school. About midweek, Patricio, the mail clerk intercepted me when I came in the barracks to tell me some kid had  come to the barracks to say thanks and goodbye to me.

Must have made a hell of an impression on him,’ Pat said, smiling, ‘When I told him you were in jump school, he said he would lay odds you graduated first time cause you are some baaaaad ass.’

Billy the Kid also promised he’d look me up when he was old enough to enlist again. He left a piece of paper with his address in Philadelphia in case I get up there. He said he wanted to fix me up with his good looking sister.

I never heard from William P. Fuller again. And I sure wasn’t going to reup just to hang around to see him, if he ever did come back.

As far as Mr. All- Canada was concerned, I saw him once from across Slave Market Street in Fayetteville. I waved, and I knew he saw me; but he ducked in the nearest bar to avoid me. I didn’t bother to cross over and follow him in the bar; although I really would have liked to rub it in his face that I not only got my wings, I got them on the first try in the jump school. So much for his prediction that I would have a hard time to make it.

A few weeks prior to my getting my discharge, there was a Division rodeo competition. I went hoping to see if Crowe was as good a bronc rider as he bragged he was. I was disappointed when he wasn’t one of the competitors. I did see him though as I rode my motorcycle out of the parking lot. He and several other MP’s were waving their night sticks around conducting traffic. He did transfer to the MP’s. His ‘experience’ must have been the tipping point to get accepted.

When I got back home I got rid of all my guns, three long ones used for hunting, one hand gun used to try and hit the broad side of the barn. Never missed not having them. Hunting wasn’t the same anymore. My old hunting grounds were suburban lawns. Besides after my experience with Billy the Kid, shooting an unarmed Bambi or Thumper would not be much of a challenge. After all I had faced ‘the most dangerous game’.

For several years after I had the occasional dream of staring at the barrel of that gun, seeing the look in that kid’s eyes. I still think of how close three people came within a hair from having their lives changed – for the worse.

And I am eternally thankful that I managed to use my gun control to prevent it from happening.

And that’s a wrap

VFW: NOW AND THEN

vfw

    The VFW National Convention is being held in North Carolina and that old Draft Dodging Donald Trump was a main speaker. Brings back a lot of memories, some good, some bad, some funny, some sad.

    Most of my military service was spent at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, so it doesn’t surprise me that you need your birth certificate if want to use a public restroom in that state. During my time down South, there was restrooms for WHITES and restrooms for COLOREDS, even though there was no segregation on military posts, which was the biggest industry in the south.  But no such signs  in downtown Fayetteville either. The city was divided in two sections, the upper section for WHITES, the lower for COLOREDS. Being in the wrong section of town could result in severe bodily harm, especially if caught by the town police. No need for stinking signs.

    And as far as the VFW and it’s companion, the American Legion, is concerned, well, I never got over how they treated the Korean War Vets when the first tried to join. These Vets weren’t allowed because the action in Korea was not a war but a”conflict”. Granted later on they changed their attitude and today I guess you don’t have to be a Vet or even a relative of a Vet to join. You pay your dues in cash, not in actually having anything  to do with the military.

    In November of 2014, they changed their national charter and recognized the fact that some of the vets are women and every post must accept them as full members, not just auxiliary members. Real progressives. And this year they welcomed a proud draft dodger, Donald Trump, who has often bragged on how he avoided going to Viet Nam like the suckers of his generation.

    Mr. Trump rode the college deferments and finally his dad’s money found a doctor who claimed young Donald to be 4F because of bone spurs on his feet, a fact never brought up while riding the student deferment and which never stopped young Donald from playing athletics or marching around in a military prep school.

    He’s on record stating John McClain was no war hero because McClain was captured. And he also said that during the Viet Nam War, he was fighting his own war, trying to get as much sex as possible but avoiding STD’s. Big mouth Chicken Hawk.

    And  then there is the man Trump choose as a running mate, Mike Pence. Pence’s voting record shows he voted against every bill that came before him that would help our military personnel, those who are serving and those who served.

    So much for the VFW working to improve the lot of those who are serving and those who served.

    And so much for my rant. Here’s my memories of a VFW National Convention I worked. 

 

In the late 60’s, early 70’s, the Secret Service was hard pressed because of the decade of assassinations, remnants of the Civil Rights Movements, and the division of the country over the Viet Nam War. In 1972, the VFW held their national convention at the Minneapolis Auditorium. The first day, the main speaker was the strongest voice against the war, and the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Senator George McGovern, who got a lot of boos.. The second day, the main speaker was the Vice President Spiro Agnew, who got standing ovations. Both men were highly decorated WWII veterans which was favorable to the VFW; but both men were lighting rods to protestors, a fact that was not appreciated by the VFW. The security was as tight as it could possibly be, both inside and outside the Auditorium. The Republicans were so paranoid about the safety of Spiro Agnew, they even enlisted volunteers from CREEP, which didn’t go well with the professionals like the Secret Service.

And I got the gig of being the sound man for the convention!

Like I said, it was the 70’s, and men’s hair was longer than usual and real facial hair was common, not these 5 o’clock shadows that is in style today. I had a beard and stash for a short time, and it during this time that I worked the VFW Convention. When one of the officers of the VFW saw that I was going to be the sound man, he went to Mark, the head stagehand of the Auditorium and a veteran of the Korean conflict, and demanded that that damn ‘hippie draft dodger’ be sent home and another man found to be the sound operator. Mark assured him that I was a vet, a paratrooper, with an honorable discharge, and not a ‘hippie draft dodger’.

The sound board was set up in a vomatorium about center of the house. When I went out to the board the first day, there were two Minneapolis policemen and two young men, in expensive suits and red, white, and blue ties, CREEP volunteers, standing in the audience entrance of the vom,. The CREEP boys tried to keep me out; but I was wearing a pass, and the policemen told them I could enter. I had no more than sat down at the board when a well dressed man came into the vom. He introduced himself as a Secret Service agent. His first order was to tell the two CREEP’s to take a position at the door outside of the hall. He then asked if one policeman could stand outside the door and the other inside the door. He looked at my badge, smiled, and asked kiddingly if I had a dangerous weapon hidden in my beard.

There were many speeches before the day’s main speaker, Senator McGovern. All the speeches were welcomed with a lot of loud applause, except the Senator’s. At the end was soft, polite response, in spite of the fact that this man had volunteered for WWII, flew 35 missions over German occupied Europe and had many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. They didn’t like his political stance.  He was led down the center aisle while the band was playing, INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER. The party took a left and eventually came into the vom where I was stationed. By now there were many others in the vom, some with mics, some with cameras.

As the Senator passed by, I stood and held out my hand. He shook it and smiled when I told him I liked his speech. He went out the doors and I turned to sit back at the sound console. A man with a camera was standing on my chair. I gave him a slap on his leg and told him to get off my chair. As he got off, his legs got tangled and he ended up laying on his back on the floor. I looked down at him and asked if he was allowed to stand on the furniture at home. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Secret Service Agent looking at me. After the show, when I went to check out in the stagehands’ room, I kind expected that something would be said about the incident. But nobody said a word about it.

The next day was like the first, except that the main speaker, Spiro Agnew, was received with great applause. I had a terrible time trying to get him heard. He was speaking very low, and I had the volume cranked up as much as I could without causing feedback. Suddenly a man, shouting he was Agnew’s press agent, came running at me. He accused me of deliberately sabotaging the speech. I told him to back off and watch. I turned the volume knob up just a hair and feedback went through the house. I backed it off and shouted at the man, “See! Tell your boy to speak up if he wants to be heard! Now get the hell out of here!” He took the hint and left.

The Secret Service agent laid his hand on my shoulder. I turned my head expecting something bad to happened. But he just stood there and shook his head. “Well,” he said, “At least you didn’t knock that guy on his ass like you did to that guy yesterday.”

Believe me, I was very happy this agent was one with a sense of humor.

Ah yes! Those were the days when the VFW disliked draft dodgers as much as I do, then and now.

 

P.S.: If my experience working the VFW Convention in 1972 seems familiar, it’s because I told the same story, along with others dealing with working with the Secret Service in my post, ON HER SECRET SERVICE. The times just seem ripe for a retelling.