This story was originally published in my second book, Forks in the Road. Because of this month salute to veterans, I reflected on one episode at the beginning of my twenty-year career in the United States Air Force. It began on June 22, 1951, three days short of the first anniversary of the Korean War. Eight other members of my high school graduating class joined me at the Induction Center in Columbus, Georgia. The first two days were filled with physical and mental exams to determine our fitness to serve. And then, this is how it began . . .
Pair of Aces
By the third day the most important change in our vocabulary was the way we cited the time of day. I didn’t yet know why, but military time is given in four numbers. So, instead of us getting up at 4:30 a.m., we were roused out of our beds, at 0430, and before the minute hand made a full circle, we had cleared linen from our bunks, eaten breakfast, and formed a ragged formation for the march to waiting buses. Less than 12 hours ago I raised my hand and took the oath of enlistment, promising, as I had done as a boy scout, to do my best.
Almost four years after President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that ended racial segregation in the Armed Forces, we newly inducted Southern boys marched to the waiting troop train in separate racial formations. A sergeant, who took great joy in telling us that he was near perfect, was in command. “You White fellows fall-in over here, you Colored boys fall-in over yonder.” Another noncommissioned officer stood at the train entrance with his roster and clipboard. As each man boarded, he was told to yell his last name, first name, middle initial, and the newly assigned serial number. I stepped forward and reported: “Alexander, James Edward, AF – – – – – – – -.” That was my first violation of a military order. The sergeant told me so. “Dammit boy, I didn’t ask for your whole horsepower [entire name]. I said middle initial. What’s this James Edward crap?” Shaking, I responded, “But that’s what my mama named me, sir.” The U.S. Government had just given me a number with eight digits to wear around for the next four years and had restricted the other five letters of my middle name which had I carried for 17 years.
The train waited on side tracks to transport new airmen to Texas, and a contingent of sailors and marines to Memphis and California. A slender Colored airman, a college graduate, was charged with supervising the activities and conduct of Colored troops aboard the train. In the next coach, he had a counterpart among the all-White riders.
Remembering the stories of how World War II soldiers played cards and other games while aboard troop trains and ships, I called out and inquired if anyone remembered to bring a deck of cards. I got several affirmative answers, and seats were rearranged to facilitate card playing. Almost every Colored person I knew played bid- whist, but I wanted to learn a new game—poker. Only one other traveler was interested. The facts were clear: somebody had to make contact next door, and since I was the one who wanted to learn, I knew who would have to cross the platform that joined the racially segregated coaches. The decision was made. There was no time or need to plan a strategy, probably because such a process involves weighing advantages and disadvantages, other considerations and time. I wanted to play poker right now, so the time to learn was right now. I found something to keep the door ajar so that “my side” could monitor my safety. I turned the knob. I had crossed the Rubicon and was face-to-face with as many White airmen as there were Colored servicemen behind me. At that moment, using the experience of playing high school quarterback, I assessed my situation and hastily selected an option. In a matter-of-fact tone I announced, “We need two poker players.” More than a hundred eyes scanned my body. I didn’t know if their gaze searched for my sincerity, expressed their hostility, or if they were just wondering if I was crazy. No one spoke. I broke the silence and said, “Look, I want to learn to play poker, so which two of you want to help teach me?” A few of them rose from their seats. Now was the time for evaluation: are they advancing toward me as friend or foe, and if it’s foe, how quickly should I get my little ass to a safer place? I turned my attention to a short, skinny lad who appeared to be my age. I said, “What about you “Ass-less,” wanna play some poker?” A smile came to his face. I heard him say, “Ass-less, by God, I been called a lotta things, but never Ass-less.” There was laughter among the riders. Someone else blurted out to the young White boy, “Ass-less, damn if that Colored boy ain’t right. Where is your ass, boy?” When the roar subsided, Ass-less answered me. “I ain’t too good at poker, but hell, it sounds like I know more ‘n’ you, so what the hell.” He prepared to follow me. Someone else shouted out, “I’ll play if Y’all don’t play that draw shit. I play stud.” I didn’t know the difference. I told him, “We’ll play what you know.” At least 12 of us went to the rear.
Both doors were now propped open, and after giving up their seats to make room for card games, some of the Colored airmen went next door, where another game got underway, Colored boys and White boys getting to know each other. Ass-less said he’d teach me the game, so I could really learn, because, he added, “That stud playing jackass is my cousin, and I taught him to play. He don’t know jack-shit. Besides, he cheats.” We rearranged more seats. Those of us from Valdosta exchanged glances of recognition with some of our hometown visitors, and before long I was learning an important lesson. A strange new kind of segregation was taking place. White and Colored players from the same city played together, confirming that color is the least important consideration when you’re among “your own kind.” Ass-less and I played together. He was from a city in Florida. In this setting we each felt comfortable enough to recognize “our kind.”
As our train headed toward Birmingham on that June morning, the coaches seemed like rolling ovens. We opened the windows, and within 15 minutes the purpose of separating us by race was nullified. Everybody was black. Our seats were downwind from a billowing smokestack atop the coal-burning engine. The filth was so immediate and permeating that one White observer said, “Well now, I’ll just pretend I’m Colored.” His former schoolmate promptly told him, “The Colored folks sure as hell don’t want no White trash. Matter-of-fact, who does want you?” The newly created relationships moved to different levels. The lies started, tales were being told, and reasons for being on the train were revealed. A White boy from Daytona Beach, Florida, said he just wanted to kick somebody’s ass. The cops had told him if he kicked one more ass in Daytona Beach, they would kick his ass. So, he confessed, “Since I’m gonna kick somebody’s ass anyway, it might as well be a North Korean’s ass.” As the talk continued, the similarities of experiences multiplied, and something else became quite noticeable. Young men across the racial spectrum used one particular-four-letter word. It seemed to liberate us from parental constraints of politeness and boost our assertion of mutuality.
We were put on a train, and we’d been told when to get off. We were captives playing cards who didn’t need to concern ourselves with time. Time passed like the deal. We moved slowly through Birmingham, where we increased our load of new servicemen, then headed for Memphis. When someone felt sleepy, he napped where he sat. Ass-less snored. Throughout the next day, players shifted to games consistent with the stakes they could afford. I followed my mentor’s instructions. He was better than he admitted. In the afternoon I became more adventurous and advanced to the cars closer to the engine. To my surprise, each coach was converted into a casino. Colored boys and White boys shot craps, played poker, and there was in progress one game of “Georgia Skin,” a game my daddy warned me to never learn to play. In Daddy’s words, “If you start at midnight, you’ll likely piss on yourself before dawn.” Somebody invited me to play a game called Tonk. I hesitated because Ass-less, the only instructor I trusted, was placing his ante a few cars back. We were on the outskirts of Memphis. A Colored marine taught me the rules of the new game, after I observed that he was the biggest winner. I reasoned that he must know something, or how to cheat and not get caught. As my fortune increased, I proposed higher stakes. The train stopped. About ten minutes later we started rolling again. Someone noticed that the coaches carrying the airmen had been disconnected, and that those of us now riding up front would make the trip to Camp Pendleton in California, along a different route. I was busy winning. The message was of no importance to me. Suddenly I heard myself shout, “Oh shit!” I had heard another thing clearly, “…a different route.” Not only had I ventured from my assigned seat, my seat was heading to Texas on different tracks. The money in my collection was not so important now. I leapt from the slowly moving train and headed in the direction of the disjoined coaches. I was not going to be absent without leave (AWOL). The train was traveling around a curve, thus giving those at the front of the arc a view of the rear coaches and my chase. A cheering squad gathered on the rear platform to coax my progress. Ass-less was among them. I was getting closer, having charged my adrenalin for peak performance. My old friend, Ira Lee, and my new skinny pal pulled me aboard. I was too thankful to feel exhaustion; I was too exhausted to feel anything else. I collapsed. Less than a hundred yards further the train stopped. It had reached the terminal—where it was headed for a three-hour layover. I had chased a train headed for the parking lot. Ira Lee, Ass-less, and I looked at each other. One of them said, “What do you say at a time like this?” I said, “Don’t say anything ’cause’ I ain’t sure if I want to laugh or cry.” The three of us caught each other’s eyes again and did both.
Navy Shore Patrolmen (SP’s), came aboard and authorized us to disembark. My new buddy and I decided to stay together and find a place to buy a cold drink. The SP reminded us that we would have to go separate ways to find what we wanted. Ass-less spoke up. “We ain’t gonna bother nobody. All we want is a Coke.” The patrolman retorted with something about being bothered himself, particularly by what he called my buddy’s smart-ass attitude. Something other than common sense made us stand our ground. The cop softened. “Now listen you two little farts, if I hear any ruckus from you two, I come on the double kicking ass.” He had what he needed to enforce his admonition–size and a pistol. Ass-less and I found a machine on the other end of the station platform. It was a good rest. We were inseparable during the rest of the trip.
Three days later we arrived in San Antonio. Sergeants and corporals, their uniforms pressed and fitted for a good impression, stood along the concrete platform to greet us. Our on-board supervisor said we were to remain seated until we received another briefing. It was a short wait. A very tall blue-eyed sergeant stood in the doorway and explained: “When you get off this train, you’ll form two columns and march over yonder to those buses. There will be no talking between the time I get through until you take your seat on a bus.” He paused for effect, then continued, “Now, Y’all are gonna be instructed to do a lot of things. There’s three ways of doing them: the right way, the wrong way, and the Air Force way. You’re gonna do everything the Air Force way, and that means you’re to sound off loud and clear the answer to any question I ask, and your answer will be yes sir or no sir. Do I make myself clear?” A few said, “Yes Sir,” but it seemed to lack uniformity and volume. The sergeant shouted, “I can’t hear you.” “Yes Sir” was better the next time. He was pleased and further instructed, “Pick up your bags and follow me.” His words sounded familiar. Just then I remembered my grandfather, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, paraphrasing the command of Jesus Christ to the fishermen to “… pick up your nets and follow me.” What lay ahead for the fishermen was a better immediate bargain than what awaited us.
The line of blue buses halted in the middle of the thoroughfare near the main gate. Several hundred recruits had arrived earlier and had formed rows, four-deep, stretching at least three city blocks. We joined them, standing in the Texas sun, our faces wrinkled as sweat streamed through three days of soot and grime. I had never seen such a sight. Until three days ago, when Ass-less and a few other White boys entered the Colored car, I had never been part of a racially integrated group of more than a dozen folks, and then, we Colored participants were generally serving the Whites. Now I was among a mixed assembly of more than two thousand.
There was a kind of nervous gaiety in the air. Quick conversations started among strangers, each person reaching out to offer, and in hopes of receiving, a gesture of understanding of the common state of apprehension. A daredevil broke the calm. Everything about this youngster was different. He wore western boots, a western hat, western shirt and jeans, and a heavy shoulder strap held his guitar firmly on his back. I had only seen his kind in western movies, and now I was face-to-face with a real live cowboy who couldn’t resist a chance to play for the captured audience. The ballad started. All eyes turned forward to the position he assumed, which was not where he had been told to remain. He offered us an original western composition and was allowed to finish an entire verse before he was quietly encircled by everyone who wore a stripe. A brash little corporal, whose name tag read DUNCAN, approached the musician, extended his arms as a mother reaching for a newborn, and in a calm voice, ordered the troubadour, “Give me that guitar.” The minstrel took his time unfastening the shoulder strap. Then the non-commissioned officer said, “If I hear one more note from this guitar, I’ll remove the strings and stick them, one-by-one, where the sun don’t shine, followed by the rest of the instrument, which will be followed by my boot.” The cowboy strolled back into formation with a flair that inferred the problem was the corporal’s, not his. When we were separated into groups of approximately 70 men each, I saw the singer in my group. I concluded, “There’s something about that little fart that is going to make basic training interesting. He is either brave, or a fool—or both.”
The final convoy of buses arrived. The newcomers seemed cleaner and more rested than we, probably because they flew to Texas. I had enjoyed the train, except for the Memphis incident, so I didn’t envy their speed. They, like all others, were graduates and drop-outs from high schools, colleges and seminaries who joined the horde that came from urban centers, townships, barrios, farms, and ghettos. Some had volunteered for military serial numbers, rather than being assigned prison ID’s. We represented a cross section of America. As the new arrivals were integrated into some previously formed and newly made units, it became apparent that Ass-less and I would be separated. I asked Corporal Duncan for permission to say goodbye. He walked over to me and asked politely, “Now just tell me what you think would happen if every man here wanted to say goodbye to somebody else down yonder?” I answered, “Then they would have to ask.” He smiled and said, “You’ve got exactly three minutes.” I left the formation and started searching faces. I spotted him. His little flat body was surrounded by bigger frames. I headed through a line of men and was near my train partner when I heard the command, F-L-I-G-H-T, A-TEN-HUT.” His entire section stiffened. I had waited too late. I stood there and watched. He caught a glimpse of my face, and we both seemed disappointed. “R-I-G-H-T FACE.” They turned. “F-O-R-W-A-R-D, M-A-R-C-H.” They started to move. Their lines were not yet steady, so some bodies bounced and swayed. An unsteady airman near Ass-less veered a little, and a little space was all I needed to see all of him. That skinny little White boy had found himself on the same new passageway of a little Colored boy. For three days we flaunted and challenged some enduring Southern customs, and we loved it. He crossed the train door to enter a card game because he was cocky, brash, and confident. I stood inviting integration from a potentially explosive platform, and I did it because I was cocky, brash, and confident. We had passed each other’s first test. In Memphis, we gave reasonable notice to a military policeman that the system would have to accommodate our new friendship. After all, we were now “men,” volunteering to preserve the American system, and we felt entitled to comment on how we wanted it to be. Ironically, I don’t remember if we formally exchanged real names. I called him Ass-less; he called me Pod-ner. Each of us responded to our greeting. We had spent our time together.
We never met again.