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.

COFFEE WITH ALI

This is a reblog of a post I did June/8/2014, right after Muhammad Ali died.

It recalls an isle of calm for me in the sea of fire. Civil Rights Protests. Anti-Vietnam Protests. Looting, destruction, and shouts of blame from both side of the political aisle.

When this incident took place, we had Hope. We knew that once things calmed down the Civil Rights would take hold in fact not just word. And we knew that we would never go to a War again unless it was really needed, and we would never allow the War to last very long.

But like the song says: ‘We were young and foolish.’

I need an isle of calm today so I brought it out and read it. So topical! Topical in that it follows my Dalton Trumbo posts regarding a man standing up for his beliefs, only to be persecuted by politicians whose only belief is pandering to the lowest common denominator. So topical! I wish today’s violent ‘protesters’ could hear the words of Muhammad Ali, a man known for his violent art, speak with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, a man known for his non-violent speech.

There was this old bulll standing in the middle of the railroad track and far away the train was comng fast. But that old bull just stood there and the people all admired the old brave bull. And the train blew a warning…anotherand another as it came full steam head on. And the people oohed and aahed because that old bull never flinched. Just stood his ground…And…

And all those people that oohed and aahed when the brave bull was standing tall in the center of the tracks, just looked around at what was left of him scattered in little pieces for a good miles, yup, all those people who called that bull brave a short time before changed their tune.

Boy, was that bull ever stupid,” they said, and walked away.’

Thus spoke Muhammad Ali talking about Violent Protesting.

Today I have Hope. I believe that when the stupidity of the politicians is removed from the equation, the genius of our medical scientists will find a cure and a vaccine for the Virus. As far as the Civil Rights issue is concerned…Hatred and genocide are embedded deep in the history of this country.

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.