Tuesday, June 12, 2012

White Like Me II


So now we proceed, our familiar collection of monsters except holding forth from another galaxy.  Back now in Photoscenic New Hampshire, after driving for days through a hurricane that thankfully degenerated into a nasty tropical storm.  Like two days of plowing through a car-wash, with 18-wheelers jack-knifed and crumpled into the cement retaining walls along I-95 and an incessant downpour that never really let up, so that a few seconds forging through an underpass was cognitive bliss.

After two days we landed in D.C. for a short visit.  Research for my next novel, in and around the Supreme Court.  Finally arriving at the Mother Ship in Bradford, NH, where the storm that had been stalking us up the East Coast overtook us again and blew the guts out of our computer.  But we are finally on line, as you might surmise.

Most followers of this blog seemed captivated by my barracks story last time around.  One, the courageous investigative reporter and biographer -- and professor -- Joan Mellen admonished me about getting into race and/or sex as subject matter.  She is undoubtedly right, but when did I ever listen?

The next incident I remember from my army days involving color came about once Basic Training was over and I was stationed for several months in what was then Camp Gordon -- now Fort Gordon -- in Augusta Georgia.  I was training to become an 053, a radio operator.  Our classes were held in a big grid of one-story buildings; we were expected to double-time in the fearful August heat between classes, our "Tessie-rolls"  -- rolled-up raincoats -- under our right arms and paired off according to height, the tallest pair in front and the rest of the trainees in descending order.  Very military.

It happened that the classmate who was exactly my height was a black draftee who had just gotten his PH.D. in physics at the University of Chicago.  I had studied the subject a little in both high school and college, and during the breaks he brought me up to speed as regarded developments in quantum mechanics and uncertainty theory.  I definitely wanted to hear more, and so I invited him over for dinner one Saturday to the one-room apartment in which my new wife -- we had gotten married perhaps a month earlier -- and I were starting out.  Essentially, the place was an abandoned gas station, with a huge plate-glass window facing -- yes, really! -- the original Tobacco Road and a bed and a couch and a primitive little stove.  The place was literally crawling with field mice, and after lights-out we lay in bed together and listened to the traps my wife had set all over the block-linoleum floor snap shut.  Once we had counted down, and were sure each contained a dead mouse, we turned to our newlywed obligations.  This was no honeymoon for the squeamish.

My fellow draftee got off the bus from Camp Gordon at the appointed time, and I ushered him into our flat and mixed us a couple of drinks.  My wife had come up with hors d'oeuvres.  The conversation was just getting interesting when my red-neck landlord happened to pass the big plate glass window, and peered in, and immediately all but kicked the door open and joined our party.  "Git that nigguh outta mah house!" he roared; all of us stood up.

What happened during the next few minutes promised a race riot.  Hillbillies literally brandishing pitchforks stormed through the surrounding weeds; GIs who were renting in the upper reaches of the building -- both Northerners and Southern youngsters who were obviously rethinking Jim Crow after months in the desegregated military -- clambered down the fire escape steps to help us out.  The local sheriff rolled up in a battered prowl car, a heavy-set fellow who attempted to explain to my wife and myself that "Understand, boy, the red birds do not congregate with the black birds in this world.  The nigruhs, they don't want that neither...."

I had by God invited this fellow over for a meal, and I was determined to show him hospitality.  Our guest had another idea.  Lynchings were still common in the Eisenhower-era South, and he obviously had another notion as to how he wanted his life to play out.  I had a car, a dented green Buick sedan with lots of portholes, over a decade old.  Perhaps I might give our guest a ride into Augusta?  There was a blacks-only nightclub where nobody would give him trouble.

I suspect I learned a lot more about Race in America that evening than my guest did.  But there was more to come, once we were deployed to Germany.

As you will discover.