Monday, July 2, 2012

White Like Me #3


Yes, yes, I know.  I'm running behind schedule.  The fact is, lightning did hit our computer.  You have your doubts?  How about, an elephant stepped on our monitor?  Here in the New Hampshire rain forest that sort of thing happens all the time.

In any case, here is the third and final installment of my three parter on racism in the military during the nineteen fifties, already recognized as the most promising interlude during our unsuccessful experiment with empire.  I served 1957-1959.  A couple of vignettes should help establish the period.

One member of my platoon during basic training was a sleek young black boxer from Harlem, already accomplished enough for Sugar Ray Robinson -- often enough referred to as "pound-for-pound" the greatest middleweight we had ever developed -- to have bought up the contract on the fellow and to be training him personally.  My fellow recruit was good-natured but perhaps a bit withheld; he obviously regarded the army, its rules, the entire system as designed mainly for farmboys and jailbirds, but not for him.  I'd been invited to join the army boxing team -- I didn't, wised up by having sparred from time to time with my friend for a few minutes behind the barracks.  As a courtesy he refrained from knocking my block off.  He told me my arms weren't that bad but my legs needed work.

As it happened he occupied the bunk under my own.  During basic training he had a way of mounding his clothes underneath his blanket and stealing out for a night in the nearby town, Killeen.  Whenever there was bed-check, and one of the sergeants came by with a flashlight and saw that he wasn't there, I mumbled something about his having probably left for the latrine.

Once the Fourth Armored Division was gyroed and sent to Germany we wound up in different units, if in the same camp.  Then one day word got around the camp that somebody had been killed much earlier that morning.  It was my friend.  Predictably, he'd fallen into the habit of slipping out of the barracks and frolicking with the Frauleins and returning to camp without a pass during the wee hours.  That night an officer of the guard had heard him making his way through the brush around the guard post, challenged him repeatedly, then -- when he did not surrender -- blown him away with his standard-issue .45.  This sort of thing happened all the time.  There was no investigation.

Another,  perhaps more telling incidence of military justice broke around me a few months before I was discharged.  When we got to Germany I had picked up a very old Opel, which got me to the camp every day -- as a newly married man I lived off post -- and even had miles enough in it to get Ellen and me to Brussels for The World's Fair, then Paris, then back to Goeppingen, our base near Stuttgart.  Then we bought a new blue Opel wagon, an event which caused something of a stir around the camp when word got out that we'd paid cash for it --@$1500, as I remember.  I sold its predecessor to a mild-mannered black staff sergeant from the adjacent company, for $400.

The next thing I heard was that the staff sergeant's company commander, a stocky, single-minded popoff who had supposedly won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea, was bringing the staff sergeant before a court martial proceeding for allegedly stealing the car from me.  I was called to testify.  I assured the board that the staff sergeant had bought the car from me for cash.  The sergeant got off.

The next move the company commander made was to arrange for me to be transferred to his unit from the headquarters battalion.  He intended to make me pay.  For days he kept me on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor of his orderly room.  While I was scrubbing devotedly the company commander issued word that he wanted to call a special formation that afternoon.  He'd made sure I never got the word.  Then he informed me that he was instituting a court martial action against me, for "missing a movement." as the military parlance went.

That burned me up, immediately.  Characteristically, I came back hard if not that far-sightedly.  "If you do that," I told him, "I will bring over the best defense attorney in Manhattan.  Before this is over I'll have your captain's bars.  Furthermore, you'd better leave that staff sergeant alone."

I suspect that what convinced the vengeful old reprobate was the rumor that I had paid cash for my new car.  The professional military of the period lived by time payments and borrowed money.  If I had $1500 at my disposal, God knows what resources I might bring to bear.  I was bluffing, totally, but he crumpled at once.  The next day he released me back to the headquarters company.  I hope he left the staff sergeant in peace.

Later, when I began writing novels, it occurred to me that here was an episode parallel to the plot in "From Here To Eternity."  But by then a lot more had happened to me.  I present you all with the bare bones.



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