ADVENTURES ALONG A ROAD WELL TRAVELLED
For the past two months I shared stories from the start of my exciting career in the United States Air Force. Then, something happened. The responses from readers multiplied, and they wanted to know more about how a 17 year old boy, left Valdosta Georgia to become a man. For many of the respondents it was an appeal to “see themselves again.”
So, for the next few months I will answer those requests by presenting special stories from Forks in the Road, my second book that captured some memories of that special time in America, 1951 – 1971.
Some stories will be repeats of earlier Story of the Month offerings, but the repetition will frame the social and economic setting that dictated the fork I chose.
Looking for a Place to Become a Man …
WE KNEW OUR DESTINATION BUT NOT OUR FATE
Each step I took in the direction of the Trailways Bus Station indented prior tracks I had made in the same direction for 17 years. Just a few yards before the doors of St. Timothy A.M.E Church, a cluster of magnolia trees were in full bloom and the aroma lingered with me on my path past Mister Holly’s Shell gas station, and further on across the tracks of the Southern Railway. My pace was almost nonchalant. There was no sense of urgency about my pending departure on a trip for a longer period than I had ever been away from home. Nor was there a conscious thought to take one last look to remember things as they were. Almost every building and every tree had been there longer than I had lived, and my memory would preserve their proper place. Wherever I would eventually wander, that place would only be my residence; Valdosta would always be my home. Seven months earlier I had decided to enter the United States Air Force on my 17th birthday, the minimum age for enlistment. New interests had directed me to a new fork in the road.
Sergeant Bandy, the White recruiter, waited at the station. He was there to say goodbye to the nine Colored enlistees who had graduated from the all-Colored Dasher High School. Another contingent of enlistees that stood a few feet from us represented the all-White Valdosta High School. Bandy took his position at the door of the bus, beneath the sign in the rectangular window above the windshield which read “Chartered.” He was smartly dressed in his Army uniform with a clipboard in his hand. His instructions were clear: “Now y’all listen up. When I call your last name, first name, and middle initial, I want you to get aboard this here bus and take a seat. You will keep that seat until somebody at the Armed Forces Induction Center in Columbus tells you to get up and get off.” He yelled, “Alexander, James E.” He was boarding us alphabetically by race, since Colored passengers were assigned seats at the rear of common carriers carrying Colored and White passengers. I stepped forward and was followed by Baldwin, Carmichael, Duncan, Jenkins, McCaskill, McCloud, Plummer, and Williams. After the White recruits were seated up front , a few minutes later the bus was traveling west on U.S. Highway 84, ferrying us into a distant reality. Being first to board, I selected a window seat that enabled me to wave another goodbye to my mother, who waited in the yard to watch my departure. As a child I had ridden the Trailways bus nine miles to and from the rural community of Kinderlou more times than I could remember. When we passed the familiar dirt road where I usually got off the bus I sensed that my childhood was over. There wasn’t much conversation on our ride to Columbus. We all knew our destination but not our fate. Each man seemed to be contemplating his own future.
Approximately 4 hours later we were greeted by another sergeant in Columbus, where all military recruits assembled, regardless of branch of service, at a building separate from nearby Ft. Benning. There was still enough time remaining that day for us to provide more information to help determine our fitness to serve. We gathered in a large room and were introduced to military forms which requested information on almost everything I did since wearing diapers, plus background information on almost every relative, living or dead. Then we were introduced to military food, an assortment of edibles piled on a metal tray with compartments that separated food selections. Following the meal, our next gathering was in another room lined with beds, one on top of another. Somebody called them bunk beds. I knew a regular bed that for so many nights I had shared with my brother, sister, and at least one cousin; and I knew how to arrange a floor pallet for sleeping. I did not know bunk beds.
It had been a long day for everyone. Tomorrow we would be given mental and physical exams. They wanted us to be alert. A sergeant with a lot of stripes on his sleeves told us lights would be out at 10 P.M. At precisely 9:45 he reminded us that we had 15; not 16 minutes left. That was enough time for two Colored teenagers from Brunswick, Georgia, to remind each other what they would be doing if they were at home. One of them removed his girlfriend’s picture from his wallet and gave her a 10 minute speech in which he repeatedly pledged his love, reaffirmed his promise to be careful, eat properly, and stay out of trouble with other girls. There also was enough time for each man to ponder what must be pondered when you rest your head for the night in unfamiliar surroundings. Those of us from the same town tried to get bunks close together, probably acting on that impulse to be close to something familiar when you wade in a stream of uncertainty. At that same level of consciousness, we distinctly called each person’s name, to further advertise the number of one’s allies amid a congregation of strangers.
The sergeant re-appeared. He said goodnight. “Now when these here lights go out, that don’t mean I’m going out, so if I hear a noise from any living ass, I’ll have everybody’s ass.” He had just scared the crap out of 95 men. The sergeant then used trick number two that all good teachers use to reinforce a lesson – an example. He pretended to notice someone whom he felt obliged to warn personally. He yelled to a big White fellow . “Hey you; bring your ass here.” We all turned to watch the arena as the young man took his journey to the trial, sentencing, and final appeal, from this one-man court. I didn’t know if it was the resounding of his heart or mine, but every step he took generated a heavy knock in my chest. The dialogue was emphatic: “Boy, do you want me to put my foot in your butt?” “No sir sergeant.” “Well, I don’t want to, ‘cause if I do, then I might just get carried away and kick your ass all the way to Texas. Lights out.” Nathaniel Baldwin observed in muffled sounds, “That’s a long way to kick anybody’s ass.” The room was dark … and quiet.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
James Edward Alexander
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