The following story first appeared in my second book, Forks in the Road, and subsequently published in Hilton Headings, a Low Country Anthology by the Island Writer’s Network, and The Island Packet Newspaper, in Bluffton, SC. It is now shared in this series for those who missed the earlier presentations.
The Blind Leading the Blind: Two Navigators
There had never been a time in my life when I had shared a meal at the same table with a white man. Dining with friends and associates is often a social event, and I was emerging from a social system where coloreds and whites, “us and them,” were channeled along different social paths by omnipresent “colored” and “whites only” signs. Basic training had changed that, but in that setting each man fed himself. Now, I literally held in my hands the awesome power to decide what and in what manner a white man would receive his basic nourishment.
Almost every day in 1951 giant medical air evacuation planes landed at Kelly Air Force base near San Antonio, Texas. They were bringing wounded warriors from the Korean skies and battlefields to the hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, located adjacent to Kelly. One day on Ward 18 we greeted a jet pilot whose face was hidden behind thick bandages. His eyes had been severely damaged in an aerial dogfight and he was spending his days in darkness. My assignment, as a medical corpsman, was to see and do for him some things he hoped to someday resume doing.
Entering his room, I offered, “Good morning, Lieutenant. Welcome home.”
He immediately asked, “What’s your name, and are you a doctor, officer, sergeant, or civilian?”
My answer was quick and impolite: “I’m none of the above, sir I’m a PFC, so I work for a living.”
His laughter was so loud that the nurse rushed to his door. It was good to see him in high spirits. When I finally introduced myself as PFC Alexander, James Edward, he asked what name I preferred: Alex, James, Jim, PFC Alexander, or “smart ass?”
I told him I preferred James Edward Alexander; and that at least once per day, it would be nice to hear him pronounce it properly.
He responded that he would call me Alex and added, “If you don’t like what I call you, just make funny faces at me; since I can’t see you, I won’t have to ignore you.” He laughed some more.
Shortly thereafter I delivered the first meal to my special patient, very much sensitive to and appreciating that my distance from Valdosta, Georgia, could be measured in miles; but there was no way to measure the nuances of the social transition taking place. This person, whose education and training qualified him to pilot a highly technical jet aircraft, was now vulnerable to and relying on the goodness of a stranger. We had traveled along separate passages to the same fork in the road. Fate dictated that we now jointly navigate our new path, but only one traveler, a seventeen year old colored boy from Georgia, could see where to steer.
Eating is a very personal function that is influenced by a seemingly endless list of options, including one’s selection of seasoning, temperature, shapes, sizes, colors, textures, quantities; whether liquid or solid, raw or cooked, meatless or carnivorous. Other variables to consider are when and where one eats, and whether one eats alone.
As I observed the variety of edibles on the patient’s tray, I asked, “Do you want me to feed you? Or should I identify your food choices and guide your hand to your plate? Or should I cut your food and fill your fork or spoon, so that you can feed yourself?” I simply could not resist adding, “Remember, Lieutenant, if you don’t pronounce my name properly, all you’ll get will be bread and water.”
His answer was acceptable: “James Edward Alexander, you’re a disgusting person who was probably run out of your home town.” I interrupted him. “OK, sir, I’ll feed you.” Before we proceeded, he said, “Alex, when we’re in this room together, please call me Bill.” Then he opened his mouth and I offered Bill the first bite.
A few days later Bill wanted to hear his girlfriend’s voice, so he held my arm, and I guided him to the telephone booth at the Red Cross lounge. Two weeks later, just before the noon meal, she came to visit. She offered to feed him, but he declined, jokingly telling her that PFC James Edward Alexander needed the practice. It was an acceptable excuse for her, while masking his real purpose. He and I had refined our dining signals: his rate of chewing; the intervals between helpings based on texture; the amount of sugar, cream, or lemon he liked in his beverage; and when and how to wipe the crumbs from his face without disturbing his bandages. I was there to properly feed his body, thus giving him the energy to appreciate her presence. She was there to feed his emotions.
Each morning as I entered the ward and greeted the nurses and other corpsmen, Bill heard my voice and would acknowledge my arrival by asking, “Is that you Alex?” One day he asked me to read to him portions of the San Antonio Light, the daily newspaper. In the middle of one article he stopped me and offered this observation and a unique gift: “Alex, I have been observing your manner; and I’ll bet that you will one day be a well-educated man. Let me help you get started. It will help me stay alert, and it will help you prepare for college.”
His bandages hid from his view the tears that welled in my eyes as I remembered the awful experience during basic training less than three months earlier when, because of my lack of scholarship, I could not complete a simple library assignment. On that day I had knelt in agony and vowed to educate myself. On this day I announced, “Bill, you’re repeating the expectations of my grandfather, and you’re offering to help me keep a promise to myself. I would appreciate your help.” He then asked me to resume reading, but warned that he would stop me when I mispronounced anything and promised to define for me unfamiliar words.
On another day as we visited the Red Cross lounge, we also shopped at the nearby PX, where I purchased a small pocket dictionary. Bill also bought for me a small notebook and a fountain pen. When I arrived for duty the next day, he had memorized a list of subjects that he thought I should know.
He started alphabetically. Antigone. I told him to spell his name. He said, “Her name is spelled A-N-T-I-G-O-N-E,” then added, “That will naturally lead you to know something about her father Oedipus, spelled O-E-D-I-P-U-S, which will introduce you to Greek mythology.”
My initial pronunciations of Antigone and Oedipus were “anti-gone” and “o-e-dip-ass” We laughed some more and extended the list to include both real history and mythology; the names of famous personalities, living and dead; important dates in history; and a long list of literary classics and music composers.
When we weren’t learning new things, we were sharing our own histories. In high school he studied chemistry and biology and performed experiments in laboratories. He practiced basketball in a gymnasium and occasionally played in the school’s marching band. There was no question that he would go to college, and so he did. Within three months after graduating from college he was enrolled in the Air Force Flight Training Program. He heard that my segregated schools did not have a science lab, gymnasium, or marching band; so I studied chemistry and biology in the same classroom, and read about experiments in used books from the white high school. Then, since our family resources were inadequate for me to attend college, twenty-one days after my high school graduation I also entered the Air Force. Our separate roads brought us to this day.
We continued our feeding, reading, and learning rituals. After a couple of months the doctors removed his bandages but shielded his eyes with specially fitted cups that allowed only a trace of light to enter his visual field. Shortly thereafter the doctors informed Bill that he was to be transferred to a VA hospital near his hometown.
Hello is the prelude to goodbye. Between our greeting and the imminent farewell we had exchanged friendship, knowledge, respect, and most profoundly, trust – that sense of mutual faith and confidence. The morning of his departure he wanted to wear his uniform rather than pajamas and robe. We did not talk much as I helped him dress. When he asked, “Alex, how do I look?” I imitated my basic training flight chief/drill sergeant and said, “I can’t hear you.” He knew the drill and answered, “James Edward Alexander, you reprobate from Valdosta, Georgia, how do I look?” I gave my approval and walked him to another ambulance for a ride back to Kelly AFB.
We had said hello three months ago; and as we said goodbye, he asked for my hand and said, “Thank you, James Edward Alexander. I hope to see you one of these days.” I replied, “If you do sir, I’ll salute you again.” And I withdrew my right hand from his, saluted, and added, “Just as I’m doing now.”