"Death is just another thing on the agenda, kind of. Yeah, it's scary. It's always been scary because you don't know what's next, or if there is a next. So it's kind of like sitting in the dark. So you can either chose to be freaking out in the dark and thinking, okay, what's out there... or you can just relax, and fall asleep. And just be happy and content with everything."
-- Zach Sobiech (May 3, 1995 – May 20, 2013)
Mr. Ammunitions Expert.
Well, not completely fearless.
When he decided to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces in the mid 1950s--which meant he would be one of the black men to desegregate the all-white portion of the military--he knew exactly what awaited him around that corner because he wasn't considered a person due to the color of his skin. That had been painfully clear from the time he could walk, from the time he quit school at age 11 to help take care of his dying father, and as he found work on the railroads as a dirt-poor teen to support the family instead of going back to school.
No one could face thoughts about going into No (Black) Man's Land and not feel a cold lump somewhere in the pit of their stomach.
This was just as the Civil Rights Movement was starting up, so, effectively, there were none. He could be tortured, murdered, and buried somewhere for his trouble, and the incident swept completely under the rug. The End.
But he'd decided to make the safety of his countrymen and other people around the world his priority. He'd promised his father on the man's deathbed to always see that his mom ate well. He'd decided to educate and better himself as a man, and have something to offer a wife in a town where there was little but houses with no floors, and not be held back by what others said he couldn't do, and so he did it anyway.
Becoming an Airman would help him accomplish these things. He was like, bring it on.
They brought it on, all right.
Everything from taking him to an abandoned part of the base, giving him a root canal without anesthesia, and then leaving him without shoes to hike the 20 miles back home, bleeding and delirious... to giving our housing away to where we had to live miles off base and his $31 a month had to go mostly to transportation (as an infant, I had to sleep in a dresser drawer during those times, and Mama said that if I hadn't been on breast milk, I would have starved)... to having the most important bar and promotion of his career taken away because he turned a white soldier in for a serious infraction... and everything in between, other things that he would die before saying out loud. The things that I've heard in his nightmares when I've passed by the door of his bedroom at night.
(He would kill me if he knew I was telling all of this. But I'm of a mind that it's past time for it to be said. He retired a Technical Sergeant, but he'll always be a Master Sergeant to me.)
But I can't talk about the ones who brought it on without also mentioning the ones who cheered him on.
The ones who tried to protect him to the determent of themselves. The higher-ups who were moved by his work ethic and made damned sure the opportunities afforded to every soldier were there on their watch. The white soldiers who were proud to call themselves his friends. The mentors, black and white, who shared the benefit of their wisdom with a young pioneer feeling his way through a world so difficult to navigate. I have vague memories of spending Saturday mornings at their homes, watching The Herculoids and my other favorite cartoons, and feeling protected whenever I clung to their legs or when their gentle hands patted my head.
I can't talk about the bad without also mentioning the good. The money that Daddy managed to send home every month to help his widowed mom get by was matched by the military. They helped him take care of her. He got to see the world, experience new things, make a difference, and share the beauty of other cultures that we might never have seen with us. At present, between his military insurance and the V.A., his many medical needs are always met upfront. As his caretaker, I can tell you we are blessed in that.
There are funny stories, like when the Brass finally found out that he'd enlisted too young, it was a year later and he was of age, so all they could do was congratulate him for getting away with it. And the sometimes hilarious fate of those poor soldiers who failed to eat a proper square meal in the mess hall. And like the time he had just gotten in from a mission that kept him away from home for six months straight, and the base commander called the house about an emergency a mere four hours after poor dad lay down to sleep, and my mom (who answered the phone) blessed the base commander out without hesitation about having the audacity to call her husband right after he'd dragged himself home after a 16-hour flight. "No, I will not wake my husband up. He is out cold, and he's going to stay that way. What do you think you're doing? There are rested people available. And don't send anyone to my house or they'll meet the business end of somethin'!"
(It was pretty much like the White House calling and Obama getting told to shove off by an employee's spouse. But mama said she just saw red, and couldn't help it.)
Daddy was horrified when she told him what happened. He phoned the base commander immediately, and waited for the ax to fall.
The bewildered base commander just cracked up and said, "Man, I wish my wife went to bat for me like that. I feel like I should apologize to her. Put her on." He was rather impressed.
LOL! Mama. *sigh*
Yes, Ms. Ellie was what you would call a ride-or-die chick. She was one tough cookie who graduated from high school three years late because, after being severely mauled one time too many at age 6 by white neighbors' dogs (they sicced them on her regularly for the fun of it), my grandmother had to take her out of elementary school until age 9, when she could outrun them. She never failed to keep the home fires burning while Daddy was away, kept an immaculately clean home filled with love (and discipline) for her children, remained stoic and brave for us during the many months Daddy was under the radar overseas and we had no way of knowing if he was alive or dead, and would protect him and us with the ferocity of a lioness when need be. She was a proud military wife, descended of Cherokee, Africans, and white settlers, and an inspiration to all who knew her.
She could make up a bed with military corners as well as my dad, put a spit-shine on a military shoe as well as my dad, and starch a set of fatigues as well as he could in no time flat. Talk about making his eyes twinkle.
He'd been enlisted for about a year when he found out he was being sent to Alaska for an indefinite period of time, and was NOT about to leave the love of his life (Mama) for his rivals to woo away from him while he was stuck up there for God-knows-how-long. So he wrote home to my Mama's mother and said, "Mother dear, I'll be there on Friday for a week, and then I'm gone. Please plan the wedding for Saturday. We're getting married." Mama hollered, "Oh no we're not!" Grandmother hollered, "Oh yes you are!" And BOOM. The rest was history. (Mama wasn't fooling anybody. All she ever listened to those days were records like "Soldier Boy", when she wasn't sighing dreamily over the engagement ring he'd sent her that past Christmas.)
This is a small piece from a huge collage that I made my father about 12 years ago, after my grandfather died and he became the patriarch of our extended family. Did I mention that Daddy and Mama were pro bowlers for years, during his service and after his retirement? By the time they left the leagues in the mid 1980s, their individual and team championship trophies numbered in the 200s and took up a sizable portion of our living room.
One of the stories I've thought about during moments when I needed inspiration is the one when my father encountered a young prostitute, battered and bruised, in a bar in Asia in the early 1970s. And I do mean young--she was 12 years old, my age then. He ordered a drink, and told her that was all he wanted. She told him if they didn't go to her room, she would be beaten for not doing her job, so please come. Even if his refusal had nothing to do with her, it would be seen as displeasure with her, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Taking her to the police to get her help would likely get her killed. He gave her all the cash he had, which wasn't much, and told her she could let her boss think that she'd pleased him. The girl cried, thanked him, and left his table to get his drink, and as he glanced around, he noticed just how young all of the bar maids looked in there, and it ticked him off. If he made a stink, no doubt the girls would pay for it. As a foreigner, all he would do was make things worse, no matter what his intention.
What he did end up doing was going back to his soldier mates and making sure that no one in his platoon stepped foot in that place again for the duration of their tour. His point being: "There are problems in this world that are simply too big for you to solve. But by God, you can at least try to put a dent in it."
I'm not saying Daddy was a saint. He wasn't. He's made many mistakes, in the military and out. He has flaws of varying sizes, just like everyone else, and got on his wife's last nerve. But he was a protector and first responder who tried to see the good in people and tried to live the way a human being should. That's why I admire him--because he tried.
On this Memorial Day week, I thank my Airman father, descended of Seminoles, Blackfoot, and Africans, for being a fearless pioneer during his 21-year Air Force career, and my mother for backing him up all the way. Though they couldn't drink out of public water fountains or walk in the front door of any establishment when I was born (even though he'd been serving his country for four years), I thank them for raising me and my brothers to have compassion for all human beings regardless of color, station, religion or lack thereof, or orientation. They did that, even with their painful pasts.
If hate had no place in their Baptist home, it certainly has no place on this planet.
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