Another story from Forks in the Road, my second book that captured some memories of an exciting career in the United States Air Force, 1951 – 1971.
Almost immediately after basic training began, we received a series of orientations. The subject was always the same: We must learn to live and act as a team. Our schedule fostered mutual dependence. When the lights signaled the beginning of our new day, we hastily made our beds with the proper hospital corners, dressed, completed morning grooming, inspected each other for proper wear of the uniform and took our positions in formation on the street. Seventy-three men, 73 different personalities from almost as many communities, had found a common purpose and forged a communal plan.
One day our training ended early. There was still enough sunlight for a stroll within a two-block area. I wandered off alone. As I approached the P-T field a large formation of new arrivals, still clad in civilian clothes, trampled their way into lines that made each man appear disconnected from the whole. Less than a month ago I had stood in such disarray while being briefed by a second lieutenant whose use of polite language made his threats moderately credible. These young men were to be greeted by a master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank at that time.
He paced atop the platform that was used by P-T instructors to lead calisthenics. Six chevrons on his sleeves gave him the authority to proclaim that he was in charge, and everyone present knew it, including two second lieutenants who came to see how it’s done. The sergeant had carefully orchestrated this performance and years of practice made him confident. The time of day was as much a part of his plan as was his lofty position, for he stood facing the sun so that the day’s final rays would light his face and uniform. And from that angle he could synchronize his conclusion with the final burst of daylight, thus making sure his message would be the last significant words the trainees heard that day.
At the proper moment, according to his timetable, he spoke – without a megaphone. “Men, I’m your First Sergeant. As you learn the chain of command, you’ll get to know everybody in the chain who is responsible for getting you through basic training. So, I’m your First Sergeant. Some folks have said that First Sergeants think we’re second in command to God.” He paused, as though waiting for the entire base to be quiet, then nonchalantly turned at the proper angle to fully expose his chevrons and added, “We are.” At that moment it was quiet enough to hear a rat pee on cotton. He continued. “I don’t know, nor do I care, where ya come from, what’cha did before ya got here, or where ya go when ya leave here, but during the next eight weeks, I guaren-damn-tee ya, I’ll know everything ya do, including when ya sleep, eat, and when ya crap.” He surely must have known that, at that moment, each trainee could have used the latrine. I certainly felt the urge, and I was not his target audience. But his speech had just begun. “I’m just a poor boy from Tenn-er-see who entered the ‘ol Army’ in 1923. I love my job very much. I love the Air Force very much. I put my uniform on a little over 28 years ago, and I’ll probably die in it. I’ve been a First Sergeant longer than most of ya been alive.” Something told me that last sentence was intended for the second lieutenants. Another pause emphasized his longevity, and he continued. “Common sense ought to tell ya I’ve heard damn near every lie that’s been told, so don’t lie to me. You’ll find me a fair man, but if you give me or your flight chief one ounce of crap, you’ll discover that I’m the worst son-of-bitch you’ll ever meet.”
For the next few minutes his remarks were essentially what any master sergeant could have said, with the power to enforce it. But this was not just any master sergeant. He was a White man from the Deep South, addressing an assembly who brought to this place a mélange of attitudes, prejudices, opinions, and persuasions. It was from him that they heard: “For some of ya, this is the first time you’ll eat, sleep, work and play with a person of a different race or religion. Well, I’m here to tell ya, I don’t particularly give a rat’s ass how you feel about Coloreds, Whites, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, or any combination there-of, so ya better get used to each other. I learned to do it.” Then he exercised a very long pause, as though to allow each man a private interlude to begin thinking change. Just before dismissing the multitude his eyes swept over the humble masses, yet, seeming to fix momentarily on each person present, and he admitted, “Y’all look like ya got the makings to be good airmen. Make your folks proud of ya. We’ll do our best together.” He checked the sun; it too had heard enough. His stance was erect, feet spread apart and hands on hips as though giving an order to the troops — and the sun: “Dismissed.”
Every man reacted to the speech in a manner dictated by his own sense of justice, respect, or fear. The others had come together; they left in the same direction. I walked alone to my barrack.
The master sergeant’s words, manner, and numbers were impressive. He started his military career in 1923, 11 years before I was born, and only five years after the end of World War I. For 28 years he had followed the orders of his Commanders-in-Chief – President Calvin Coolidge, President Herbert Hoover, and President Franklin Roosevelt, while serving in racially segregated units. Finally, on July 26, 1948, his current Commander-in-Chief, President Harry Truman, signed Executive Order 9981, outlawing racial segregation in the Armed Forces of the United States. This White southerner could have gone home into retirement. Instead, his decision to remain in uniform necessitated a change of attitude about a whole host of things. He knew integration would work if the “system” wanted it to work. He was the system. His words also gave me hope that if I worked hard, I should expect fairer competition from Whites, Coloreds, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, or any combination there-of.
Those thoughts came to me as I rested — in a private room — in basic training. I was the Flight Right Guide. For the first time in my life, I had competed against all of the above — and won — round 1.
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.
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