A lesson learned in making inter-racial relationships work.
This is how I remember it. The year was 1967 and I was a young Army officer in-training to become a helicopter pilot at Ft. Wolters, Texas. My classmates and I were preparing for Combat in Vietnam, which was about to reach its climax during the Têt Offensive of ‘68. A lot was going on in my heart and mind at the time.
After having received my first month’s paycheck as a 2d lieutenant in flight school, basic-pay, full “per-diem,” and flight-pay, I had decided that I could finally afford something that I had always wanted, a new corvette. Considering my options in the Chevrolet dealership showroom one Saturday morning (a red one, a blue one, or a white one for which I would have to wait on delivery), I met one of my fellow classmates, Marvin Adams. Marvin was in the driver’s seat of my blue option. I greeted him, not remembering his name but easily remembering his face. He was the only black officer in our class.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“Like an accident looking to happen,” I answered.
The next morning, Marvin showed up on-post driving his new, blue convertible a few minutes before the “fall-in” command was given. A moment or two later, my room-mate, Chuck McKeen, pulled into the parking lot driving my red option. I would have to wait an agonizing two weeks for the white one.
Everyone, save for two “washouts,” had recently soloed. Enduring low back pain brought-on by the physical stress of learning how to hover the OH-23 “Hiller,” a Korean War vintage helicopter some of us were using as a trainer, I had been one of the last to be signed-off as safe to fly alone. So, after a boring morning of classroom lessons and a quick lunch, we were getting ready for our first dual-flight assignment without a flight instructor on-board. Our lead instructor was allowing us to select our own “stick buddies.” Rick Gammick, the officer who was always right in front of me when we lined-up alphabetically, was my initial, automatic choice. But I happened to notice that Marvin had not been chosen. There was an odd-number of us on this particular day; one of us perhaps had reported for sick-call or had maybe had an accident over the weekend. Who knows? Anyway, Marvin was just beginning his pre-flight with a civilian instructor pilot looking on.
Rick,” I said, nodding in Marvin’s direction, “mind if we swap for the day? I want to talk with Marvin about his new wheels.
Rick just looked at me, then gave an indignant shrug, so I walked over to Marvin’s bird and spoke with the instructor who would have filled his left seat. In a few moments, Marvin and I were airborne with him doing the flying. His control-touch, I quickly assessed, was the equal of any pilot’s I had yet experienced.
On Wednesday of that same week, I was invited to the off-post apartment of another of my fellow students. I have forgotten his name, but I do remember that he was a National Guard officer from Mississippi, already a 1st lieutenant, and one of the few in our class to have his wife with him. The home-cooked meal had been wonderful, his wife being an excellent cook. All-in-all, it had been a very pleasant evening. It was until he started lecturing me on Southern protocol anyway.
“It just isn’t done,” he said, his demure, young wife looking on with a sweet smile. “One just does not make friends with negroes down here.”
Without arguing, for I judged that it was do no good to do so, I thanked my host and hostess and departed early claiming that I had some studying to catch-up on.
To make this long story a little bit shorter for the telling of it here, Marvin and I became the best of friends. We were both selected, after graduation from flight school for Aviation Maintenance Officers’ Course at Ft. Lee, Virginia. This delayed our service in Vietnam for six months, so we both missed Têt and spent a relatively safe year in-theater. Marvin was assigned to the Americal Division; I was assigned to the 101st. Though our units were separated by several miles, we saw each other on occasion that year, swapping both repair parts and plans for the future whenever we could.
Marvin turned out to be such a good friend that I asked him to be the Best Man in my wedding. On return from the war, I would be marrying a young lady in Weatherford, Texas where I had bought my white corvette. She and I often joke with our friends, even to this day, thirty-six years later, that it was the car she was first attracted to.
Over two-hundred wedding invitations had gone out to friends and family, but when the organ began to play, Here Comes the Bride, the pews in old Presbyterian church on South Main Street were less than half full. I remembered the warning, “One just does not make friends with negroes down here.
My new bride was hurt. But, to her great credit, she just shrugged it off saying, “If people I thought were my friends are that petty, I’d just as soon they didn’t come.
Years later, after a short tour of duty on the west coast and two years out of uniform completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, courtesy of Uncle Sam, Marvin and I again found ourselves in an Army school together. This time it was Field Artillery Advanced Course at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Marvin was now married with a beautiful little daughter. My wife and I had a little boy about the same age.
The war in Vietnam had not yet ended, so there were no quarters available on-post, and decent housing on the economy was hard to come by. So, my wife and I offered to share our little two-bedroom rental with Marvin and his wife, Sharon. The time passed quickly. We enjoyed living with, what we considered to be, our little extended family. Then the great news came: The war was over.
Marvin and I would have returned for our “second tours” in combat, but our orders were changed. We were both going to be assigned “ground duty” in Field Artillery units at Ft. Sill. God was good, so we both started building new homes. The Adams’ place, in a better neighborhood of Lawton, Oklahoma, was a bit larger and more expensive than ours.
With the decline in student population at Ft. Sill in the weeks that followed, rental property opened up with prices dropping dramatically. So, Marvin and his wife got their own place. But we continued to share meals together often.
At graduation time, Marvin’s family came all the way from the Baltimore, Maryland area to help celebrate. Naturally, Marvin wanted them to meet us. So, we had coffee and dessert ready for everyone at our little rental house. Our new home would not be ready for for weeks yet.
Marvin’s family, father, mother, an uncle and an aunt, were very nice people. I could see how Marvin had learned his social graces. We talked for some time about our shared experiences, laughing about the good times and speaking from the heart about the difficult. Then I said something really stupid. I allowed as how Marvin was in an excellent position in the Army, poised for early selection for Command and General Staff College and promotion to the “field-grade” ranks owing to his combat service, his academic achievements, and his race.
That’s all it took. Our house guests all liked to drop their plates of cake and cups of coffee on the carpet making their hasty departure. I tried to explain myself, pointing out the reality of Affirmative Action, and the Army’s great need for African American leadership. But it was all to no avail. By calling it the way it was, I had branded myself an ingenious glad-hander.
I lost track of Marvin shortly after that. He came by our new house once after we moved in. I was working out the garage. He stammered and stuttered some. Said he was sorry, shook my hand, then was gone.
The moral of all this is that it works both ways. Both whites and blacks obstruct healing. I learned my lesson and regret to this day my patronizing words to Marvin’s family. But how was I to know that they would offend so? They were as true then as they are today. Marvin did become a fine field grade officer, overcoming many barriers and hardships in doing so, but the Army’s great need for qualified senior African American officers at that time also had a role to play in his rapid advancement. So, was Marvin’s family a bit overly sensitive? You be the judge.
As much as individual whites and individual blacks may try to overcome the cultural divide and prejudice between us in this country, there will always be historic pressures trying to keep us apart, pressures that just won’t give up. So neither should we. To make this a better world, if that is our goal, we must all guard against internal, knee-jerk, reactions to what the other fellow, in all innocence, may say or do. We must be able and willing to forgive one another too in the process of reconciliation, a process that we have only just begun.
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