In 1951 most Americans were born, lived, died, and were buried in racially segregated communities. On Lackland Air Force Base the military structure, by necessity, demanded intermingling based on rank, gender, job assignment. Beyond the gates, however, both military and civilians sought their own color and their own kind.
Seeking One’s Color and One’s Kind
My grandfather told me that the characteristic that most attracts humans to each other is not gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion; it is the quality of the mind. The medical corps was the most educated squadron on the base, so I was surrounded by persons who spoke and acted differently from anything I had heard or seen. Among the enlisted medical personnel, there were more pharmacists, physical therapists, biologists, chemists, and clinical psychologists than could be assembled in many civilian hospitals. Another special category of enlisted persons were male nurses, who were not yet offered commissions as officers. Most of these professionals volunteered their skills to the war effort for four years, after which they simply wanted to return to their civilian practices.
Among this large pool of college-educated enlisted persons were many Colored airmen, including Ignatius Collier. His nickname was “Iggy”, and his daily ritual was to count the number of days before he would return home and marry his sweetheart, Elsie. He also was a graduate of Xavier University School of Pharmacy, which trained many of the Colored pharmacists of that time.
As we explored the city of San Antonio, Colored airmen, even in uniform, were expected to take back seats on city buses and to obey the Jim Crow laws that denied us the liberties we were sworn to protect. The contradiction was obvious, but such awareness is a logical conclusion. Racism ignores logic and festers where ignorance takes refuge.
Another medic friend, a native of San Antonio, invited me to meet his family, The McNeal’s of San Antonio. It was as though I was fast forwarded into an economic and social scene that Colored folks back home used to talk about as “having arrived.” The McNeal’s were at the crest of the city’s Colored society. Their home was nicely furnished, including television and electric appliances that I had only seen in Sears-Roebuck catalogs and a couple of White folks’ homes in Valdosta. They took one look at a child so far from his home and immediately welcomed me into their family and included me in their social agenda. The four McNeal children called their parents Mom and Dad, and both parents liked it when I addressed them in that manner. There was no mention of additional children or other family members. One Sunday, they invited me to church and witnessed my confusion. Upon arrival they were greeted by a White man wearing a long black robe. They called him Father. Then, two White women wearing long black dresses with beautifully starched white bibs approached, and they greeted them as Sisters. The McNeal’s were Catholics. I didn’t know any Catholics in Valdosta, Colored or White. Shortly thereafter, they invited me to something they called a Debutante Ball, like one of those big fancy parties I read about in Jet and Ebony magazines.
Most of my off-duty time was spent with about a dozen other young Colored GIs engaging in forms of entertainment foreign to me, especially card games. As always, we had to pay to play, and payday was once monthly on the first day. That pay schedule frustrated even the most fiscally disciplined airmen, who often needed a loan to meet urgent mid-month expenses. To accommodate the masses, Airman Keyes, a young enterprising Colored man from Washington, DC, became the alternate “finance clerk,” lending money at 50% interest rate. The transactions were quick and efficient. “Hey Keyes, I need $5.” As he handed you the bill he simply nodded, sealing an understanding that immediately after payday on the first of next month you would return to him $7.50. Sure, it was usurious, but his customers were all colors, genders, and ranks. Furthermore, he had a built-in enforcement system. If a borrower’s repayment was late, Keyes simply announced that he didn’t have enough funds to loan and named the delinquent. Immediately, everybody forcefully encouraged the debtor to pay Keyes. Therefore, each borrower also became a surrogate collector. With borrowed money in our pockets, we often sought entertainment at a very popular joint that offered a Saturday “Matana” featuring live music. We excused the owner for misspelling matinee, and just flocked where a group of single women congregated.
One night in 1952 we received an unusual offer. An airman rushed into the barrack and offered to sell his 1941 Plymouth for $400. He accepted for down payment any amount the buyer could deposit — in mid-month. Seven of us hastily collected less than $50. My contribution was $1.75. We didn’t inspect the vehicle, reasoning that since he drove it to us, we could drive it to where we wanted to go. Our first collective outing was to Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, where we frolicked until the early morning hours, leaving just enough time to drive 150 miles back in time for duty. At the border the customs official asked the routine questions: citizenship, place of birth, and things which were on the tip of our tongues to affirm that we were merely returning home. One airman, Fremont Williams, decided to do what he always did — something outrageous and unpredictable. When the officer asked if we were bringing anything back, Fremont signaled that he had a girl. The officer ordered us to open the trunk. When the door opened it seemed that half a medical warehouse had been carefully concealed – by the previous owner. We were then questioned about stealing government property and selling it in Mexico. Suddenly the agent heard bottles, and upon closer inspection discovered the contents to be Phenobarbital, a drug that required a prescription, and no doctor would prescribe the amount he found. As we stood surrounded by federal agents, they asked some reasonable questions:
“Who owns the car?”
In unison, “We do.”
“Where is the registration?”
In unison, “In the glove compartment – we think.”
One agent suggested that we be locked up until further investigation. That’s when Ignatius Collier asserted himself. “Iggy” informed the agent that he was a registered pharmacist who wouldn’t risk his license if he knew the contents of the bottles. Things were getting tense and all of us, except Fremont, were getting uncomfortable. Then an agent looked at me and asked my name. “My name is PFC James Edward Alexander, sir, and who are you?” He said, “I’m the guy who can send you to jail.” I responded, “I have never spent a night in jail, and I don’t intend to for something I didn’t do.” He looked at me and said, “I’m beginning to think you guys are telling the truth; you’re too stupid to be criminals.” He then grabbed my arm and led me to our car and sat me in the driver’s seat, and then motioned the others to get in, as he instructed me: “Listen you little fart, you drive this car straight back to Lackland.” Then he promised that we could expect a visit by the FBI tomorrow. They kept the supplies and sent us on our way. Fortunately, he didn’t ask me to provide a driver’s license. I didn’t have one.
A few nights later I announced that I needed the car for a personal outing, even though I was still an unlicensed driver. But a license is a prerequisite that competed with the rush of hormones that often cloud the judgment of teenage males. I drove to the home of Dora, a girl I met earlier at another joint. I got there before her boyfriend Jesse and persuaded her that an evening with me would be superior to anything she had experienced with him. Even though she mentioned that Jesse was extremely jealous, I continued the drive to a popular club in San Antonio. After all, she was talking to a self-assured, newly promoted to corporal, 17-year-old dude from Valdosta, Georgia, a combination too tough for the Jesse’s of the world. We sat in a booth dark enough for me to reaffirm my magic. I was in rare form when she suddenly issued an alert: “Here comes Jesse, and he usually carries a gun.” My magic turned to mush. Instinctively I shifted to the role of quarterback and guided both of us to a huddle – on the floor. Jesse approached our booth that appeared empty, although if he had lingered in the vicinity for a moment, he would have heard my heart. When he passed, I gave her the car keys and whispered for her to walk quietly, but hurriedly, to the car. I figured that she would make it unnoticed, but if he did observe her escape, they would have some preliminary discussion; long enough for me to find the back door — my quarterback option. Both of us safely reached the automobile. Within a few minutes, much fewer than it would ordinarily take to cover the same distance, I parked, very briefly, at Dora’s door. I only hope she heard me say goodbye as I sped away.
Both incidents happened in March 1952. The FBI never contacted us. I never again contacted Dora.
However, on December 26, 2014 – 62 year later, I journeyed to New York to reunite with a still practicing pharmacist – Ignatius “Iggy” Collier, and another pharmacist – his wife of 60 years – Elsie.
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.
To order your copy of Forks in the Road
go to www.jeatrilogy.com