As I have already established a few weeks past, I will occasionally present to you an original short story that will address and tackle some of the major issues of life that perhaps all of us, in some way, have to contend with. Your connection with this story may not be a direct and personal one. However, I am convinced that in some way you have had to face the particular issue that will dominate the plot. Whether you have had to contend with it in yourself or in someone else, the primary subject of today’s presentation is one of the major problems that our culture and nation is still grappling with. It is as old as America, and in spite of the many battles that were waged on many battlefields militarily, legally, socially, and even politically, the struggle continues. I believe that I was inspired with the idea to write this piece today to aid in the war against this common enemy that has, since the conception of our nation, been a blight on our unique and unmatched status as the greatest democracy and most powerful nation in the history of the world.
I well remember the man who along with me was a primary character in the story that you are presently reading. Charlie, as we referred to him, and I met in basic training in 1964 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Having come from two different cultures and parts of the nation, I now believe that it was the hand of God that paired us together, not just an Army strategy (as was a common practice in basic training back then). The military had a mandate to deal with and eliminate all prejudice, bias, and racism back then or at least as much as they could. I remember our drill sergeant saying to us when we first arrived at Tank Hill, “Now listen to me you trainees!,” he shouted out. “I know that where you came from in your civilian life, some of you were white, some of you were black, and then others of you were either Native Americans or Hispanics. However, in this man’s Army, none of that matters now!” He emphasized with an intimidating and mean look.
“There is but one color that matters here and it is OD green. Now as far as race is concerned, each of you trainees will be color-blind from this day forward and as long as you are in Uncle Sugar’s Army.” Having been born and reared in the Jim Crow South as a white person, who was thoroughly indoctrinated by my upbringing that blacks and whites should not have social dealings and that I was superior to them, the words of this drill sergeant, who just happened to be black, completely challenged and disrupted my total concept of life when it came to race relations. As Charlie and I grew in our relationship as basic training partners, we both came to a place of mutual respect for one another and especially for our racial diversity.
Though we did not always agree on every issue, we learned to disagree without being disagreeable and hostile toward one another. I was even afforded the chance to meet his parents when they came all the way from Washington, D.C. to attend his basic training graduation. Meeting them was both a challenge and first for me, due to the fact that the only black people that I had truly had any kind of interactions with were Charlie and the few others, I met in basic training.
The Vietnam War was in full effect and President Johnson had granted the request of General Westmoreland for thousands of additional troops when we graduated from basic training and a hurried up A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training). Our inadequate training had not prepared us for the cunning tactics of the Viet Cong guerrilla fighters when we first arrived in South Vietnam. The majority of the young men in our company who had been drafted like Charlie and me were sent straight to the jungles of South East Asia. There is something about being in battle with people when your life is on the line that quickly dissolves the racial, social, and all other barriers of divide. This was truly the case with the infantry battalion that Charlie and I had been assigned to. The words of our drill sergeant in basic training about the need of all soldiers to be color-blind became more of a practical and urgent reality now that we were actually engaging the enemy. The bigotry and prejudices that I once harbored about black and other minorities were swiftly dissipating and being replaced by a respect and belief that in spite of our racial diversities, we were basically all the same. We were all red-blooded Americans who were united together in a fight for survival. I learned through a baptism of fire as I witnessed many of my comrades in arms die and do some very heroic things in order that their buddies might live. In combat, any soldier will tell you that they are not fighting for their country, but for survival and the guys who are in the dogfight with them against a common enemy. Watching guys who I had gotten to know and respect during boot camp, who just happen to not be white like me, die and a few in a heroic and sacrificial way for me and others, completely shattered any residue of racism and bigotry that had been instilled in me through my upbringing in the Jim Crow South. Regrettably, one of the casualties of this great battle against the Viet Cong guerrillas that decimated nearly half of my company was my friend and comrade, Charlie. He had sustained a chest wound and died; I did all I possibly could to help him, though all my effort was to no avail. Even in death, this black man (who had become perhaps the best friend that I had ever had) taught me his final lesson on race relations. Knowing that he was dying, he looked me with a big smile and said with a faint voice, “Billy, don’t forget what we both have learned from one another of how to be color-blind and that race does not matter. It is not how a person looks on the outside that counts. It is how he looks inside.” With those words, Charlie died and left me an enduring legacy and victory over bigotry and racism that no one or influence has been able to vanquish since that time until now. I have remained colorblind.
The real test of whether or not I had been delivered from the bias and bigotry of my upbringing and Jim Crow’s culture came immediately after I was discharged from the Army (after my almost two year tour in South Vietnam). After enrolling in a liberal arts college and majoring in business administration, when I finally graduated with a decent GPA, I applied for a lower management position at a textile plant in the area where I was born and raised. Perhaps because I was a veteran, who had a degree, they hired me without any hesitation or hindrance. After working in my position for almost a year, my supervisor told me that he had some good news. “Billy,” he said with an expression of pride and confidence, “I’ve been watching you ever since you got your job here. I have put your name in the pot for a promotion as a supervisor. There are a few other people who’ve been working here much longer than you who also have degrees like yours, but you don’t have to worry about them. They are colored and though they applied for the position,” he asserted with a grin, “they won’t get it. We already have our quota of token of blacks in management positions here and we’re not about to hire anymore.” His racist words reminded me that I was still living in the Jim Crow South and the dying words of my buddy, Charlie, in South Vietnam. Temporarily, taken back in my mind to the very time and place of my best friend’s death, I was brought back to the present by my supervisor’s voice. “Are you alright, Billy?” He asked. “For a moment there, you seemed to be daydreaming.” I briefly paused for a while before I summoned enough courage to respond and say what was in my heart. There could be no backing down and no keeping silent at this pivotal point in our conversation. I knew that I had to stand my ground against the bigotry that was now being spewed out of his mouth like venom from a viper. “Sir”, I said as I peered straight at his face, “I cannot in all fairness in my conscience and conviction stand here and let you say what you are saying without telling you how I really believe and feel about the racism that exists not only in this town, but on this job as well.” His eyes stretched as he looked at me almost in bewilderment. Now, that I had told him the truth, I knew that I would not get the position and that they would most likely find a way to terminate me.
However, it did not really matter at this point and time in my life, as I concluded my conversation with these words that I had learned in basic training, as well as the words that my best friend had uttered as he was dying. “Sir, I was once a racist like you are, but I have learned under fire that regardless of a man’s color, we all have red blood. It is not what’s on the outside of a person that counts; it is what he is on the inside. I am truly color-blind and there is nothing that anyone can say or do that will ever change the way I see people.”
I left his office truly feeling good about myself and the fact that I had struck a blow of bigotry and racism and truly remained color-blind.