Sometime around noon, February 20, 1968, I stepped off a Delta airlines Boeing 727 and into the airport in New Orleans Louisiana. It was the first time in my life that I had ventured out of the northeast, and greater Boston in particular, in my life. It was only three months prior that I had dropped out of Boston University knowing that I was not yet ready for college life. I was not sure what I was ready for so I decided to enlist in the army, staying one step ahead of the draft board which would have been hot on my newly designated 1-A status. But even with the Vietnam war roaring, I had no thoughts of going there. I wanted to fly and had managed to get myself into the Army’s aviation program for helicopter pilots. First, however, I had to go through the army’s basic combat training which, for officer candidates, existed at Fort Polk Louisiana. When I left Boston the temperature was a chill 23 degrees and was greeted by the low 60s in New Orleans, short sleeve weather for me. A short lay over in New Orleans was followed by a flight to Lake Charles on Trans-Texas Airlines, or as the locals euphemistically called it, “Tree Top Airlines” from its TTA logo.
The Lake Charles of 1968 was sort of a non-descript place. It contrasted northern cities with its wide concrete boulevards, corrugated steel roofed buildings, and in inherent slower way of life. But just below the surface of this typical American town of the south were smoldering embers of a highly change resistant south. There was an uneasy tension between black and white which shown through but the still existing Jim Crow laws. But my 18 years of life had no experience with such things. My experience with blacks to that point was limited to my schoolmates at the boys school in New Jersey I had attended over the previous two years.
About mid-afternoon I boarded a bus destined for Leesville Louisiana where the army would claim me. But at the beginning of that bus trip I watched out the window as the landscape passed by me. At a bus stop along the way I was introduced to the old south when I observed a pair of water fountains, one barely a foot away from the other. But above each was a sign, “white” and “colored.” My virginity was taken and my mind indelibly imprinted with the sight. I had had the good fortune to be brought up by parents who believed racial equality was a given, not an argument. But still, I did not yet realize, how much racism has been infused, thought unwittingly, into my spongy mind.
The US Army in 1968 did not have time for racism. It had been integrated in the early 1950s, and whatever racism existed in any single soldier, was considered unacceptable by the army in general. While the US population in 1968 was roughly 12% black, the army was at least double if not triple that number. During my entire basic training, and all training afterward, there was never a hint of racism either between my fellow trainees, or in the case of the all southern drill sergeant cadre, them towards the black trainees. And such thoughts would have quickly faded had it not been for the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing race riots that occurred in the neighboring Leesville. Fort Polk was closed, all leaves of absence cancelled. But at least on the fort, there was no tension between white and black troops. Still, we were all stunned by the events in Leesville.
A little over a year later I was station in Yongsan Korea when I became aware of a group known as the Black Panthers. There existence, and reason for existing, came to me from a white soldier who was sadly misinformed, However, I was uneducated to the facts and took his word that they were in Korea and looking to knife white soldiers while they slept. But rather than seek out the truth, I allowed myself to believe his lies. But then, I had believed the old government pronouncements, J. Edgar Hoover to be exact, that Martin Luther King was a dangerous person.
It took another year plus for my ideas to be corrected, while I was stationed in Livorno Italy. At that time I saw a black soldier reading a book named “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” by Sam Greenlee. My memory says that the title actually used an even more derisive epithet, but I cannot find any supporting evidence. Regardless, my shock must have registered well on my face because the soldier informed me that it was about race relations in the US. He went on to educate me about the true reason for the existence of the Black Panthers and other black radicals of the late 1960s, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis. The FBI went to great lengths to associate these people with violence when the truth was something entirely different.
As the years went by, I learned that what the south had been doing overtly, the north had been doing covertly. The great lesson of all this was, I needed not look at the south as the home of racism, it was always all around me, had I only known what I was seeing.