Hey all, another story with some help from my “guest author” – my dad, who left me a couple of stories that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, before the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
The other day I was watching the news, something I rarely do anymore, and it got me to thinking about relationships, and that got me to thinking of this next, actually, the third of the four stories that he wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and had been in the technical training as a radio operator (and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing.
Outside of the military, this was just before the whole civil rights thing really got underway, and being in basic training in Mississippi, things became apparent to my dad there that hadn’t been apparent where he’d grown up, in northern California.
At the time, the Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to train them. While in the outside world (as in ‘Civilian life’) the color of your skin mattered a great deal, and there was prejudice at pretty high levels, especially in the south, inside the military, it didn’t seem to matter so much, as long as you could follow orders, and one day, dad, unaware of what life outside the airbase was like, found out just a touch of what prejudice was really like by seeing it firsthand.
So with that, let’s go to a hot August afternoon down at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad and his friend had some rare time off and wanted to leave the base for an afternoon at the movies. They both left the base with thoughts of the movie, popcorn, and cokes on their minds.
They learned that they had to change their minds. I’ll let dad tell the rest of the story, unedited, in his own words:
I had a friend down there. His name was George, and I could see it was a really different experience for him than for me, for he was black and I was white. I’ve never had that sort of a problem before. We wanted to see a movie in our free time and I even said I’d pay for it. We went downtown and went up to the ticket seller, and I offered to pay for the tickets. She’d let me pay alright, but we couldn’t sit together because of the color problem, so we separated, and he sat in one row and I sat in the next one up. When we got out of the movie I wanted to take him and buy him a coke, but we couldn’t even do that. We never went downtown again, though we did keep in touch for several years.
And it got me thinking – I learned something from dad about what was important in friendships. Years later my wife and I were invited to my friend Al’s wedding. She’d grown up in a very segregated part of the country, and I hadn’t. (Dad, as mentioned above, had been in the Air Force and we’d been stationed all over the world.) I had told her about Al, and I’d told her about his friend Oscar, who, with his looks (well north of six feet tall, black, sculpted shoulders, and the last time I saw him, shaved completely bald) was able to use his looks and physique to his advantage in his profession.
As we were heading for the wedding, she asked, trying to remember my description, “Now Oscar’s the black one, right?” –
And I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Al, and had to tell her, “Um, they’re both black, why?”
Where she grew up, things were different.
When she grew up there, things were different.
For me, I’d known Al and Oscar since junior high school, and – well, Al was Al, and Oscar was Oscar.
And the color of their skin didn’t matter a bit.