Saturday, May 26, 2012

White Like Me


Here in Florida the sticky waterless spring is deepening into summer.  Our bags are packed.  When next I rant, it will be from the hills of Photoscenic New Hampshire.

The Trayvon Martin shooting and the embroilments of its legal aftermath have started me musing about race in America.  Race relations during my lifetime.  It's been a choppy graph.

In 1960 a novelist named John Howard Griffin published a book called Black Like Me.  Griffin, a susceptible white man, had dyed his body black and floated around the Jim Crow South of the later fifties.  He had been insulted, condescended to, and brutalized hour by hour as he hitchhiked through the Old Confederacy, and hearing it from an educated Caucasian had quite an impact on genteel white America.  Martin Luther King was rising.

During the same decade, the fifties, I put in my two-year hitch in the U.S. Army.  The spring of 1957 I went through basic training in the reconstituted Fourth Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas.  Roughly half of my fellow trainees were black.  The Negros of the period, as they were then called, probably spanned a cultural range wider than their white counterparts.  The few I had known in college were a select culling -- one of my classmates, Cliff Alexander, went on to become Secretary of the Army, and another, my friend Nat Lamar, was no doubt the most promising novelist of his generation.

The draftees in my platoon during basic were unquestionably more representative.  But across an enormous social range.  One mild soul with whom I boarded the Army bus in Minneapolis that carried us to Texas was an accountant in civlian life.  We hit a rest stop in Arkansas, where he was not only refused counter service but denied access to the washroom. He'd have to hold his water. The South was rising again.

My sharpest memory of interrace conflict during our training months involved a face-off I managed to get into in the barracks after hours.  I was already in my middle twenties. The days of double-timing for miles and tossing fragmentation grenades over barriers produced a definite craving for sleep by nine PM, when the lights went out, and as I lay on my upper bunk the blaring rock and roll coming out of the transistor radio of a black teenaged kid across the aisle was keeping me awake, night after night.  In time, I blew.  After asking -- semi-politely -- that this harebrained jitterbug turn the frigging thing off, I swung down clad solely in my boxer shorts and went for the radio. 

The kid reached into his locker and grabbed  an entrenching tool, a heavy stubbed foldable shovel that would have served nicely as a mace, perfect for laying my head open.  A few steps before I got squarely into range, through the last of the twilight, another black recruit, a huge but amiable fellow I later learned was a Christian minister in the deep South, slipped in between us and gripped each of us by the wrist and hoisted us both off the floor.  We dangled like chickens in a poultry shop.  "Now, mens," he recommended in his deep, soothing voice, "does you really have to fight like this?  They catch you, you wind up in the stockade fo' years.  Ain't hardly worth it, seem lahk to me."

We both stopped wriggling.  The minister dropped us.  The jitterbug slumped over and turned the radio off.  I slouched across the aisle and swung back up onto my upper bunk.  The Lord had been served.

I'm still a hothead, but that was a lesson I never forgot.  It tuned me up for the incidents later on.
Stay tuned.

As always,

Burton Hersh

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