Aug 23, 2011
I’m just old enough to have had to get a draft card. I was lucky enough not to be chosen before they ended the draft, but for a while there, it could have gone either way. At the time, I thought it would be a good idea to see what my enlistment options were.
This was an awkward time in US history because there were riots and bombings in my city Madison, Wisconsin at that time. Anything having to do with the military was considered facist warmongering and inconsistent with the then growing consciousness of peace. Therefore, it was an uncomfortable decision to go to the recruitment office. Fatalistically, I believed that if I didn’t enlist rather than be drafted, I would likely be serving a combat position.
I went with my friend and martial arts companion Bill. He is a nice guy, midwestern raised, and has never seen up close what racism is – this was going to be his big day.
We arrived at the recruitment center, and I walked up to the recruiter (Air Force), and asked him about enlisting. I told him that I had taken a course in aerospace and had helped build a home-built plane with the rest of my class. He completely ignored me and instead focused all of his attention on Bill.
Bill made it very clear from the outset that he definitely was not interested in enlisting and that he was only here to give me a ride to the recruitment center. He was clear – he said “Don’t waste your time with me, I’m not interested.”
The recruiter remained focused on Bill, and when Bill said “Look, I said, I’m not interested, you should be talking to him.” The recruiter seemed to be deaf. He spoke as if I weren’t in the room – as if I were invisible.
Bill became furious. Very few people were coming to the recruitment office during the Vietnam era, and it was disgusting to him that he would ignore somebody with a genuine interest and experience in airplanes just because he was Black.
This was the first time Bill had seen racism in his face, and he got so mad, I thought he was going to beat up the recruiter then and there (I’m sure he could have done it too, no problem).
I hustled him outside, and as we drove home, it occurred to me that I had become so used to people’s racist attitudes, I was never surprised by how people can be. This really opened Bill’s eyes, and he became a better person for it.
It was also important to me to have my reality verified by somebody else – somebody white. Watching him go through the rage made my own rage tangible and measurable. Racism was now real to the both of us.
I was personally so disgusted, I vowed never to deal with the armed forces again – in any way. I come from a military family, my father was decorated for bravery in World War II. He was the last to be in the horse cavalry, and thus was one of last “Buffalo Soldiers (which gives someone mixed with Indian blood, mixed feelings).” This was a problem for me.
I do believe that in the years later, with all of the social messages that you are exposed to, Bill may have forgotten the strength of the lesson, but I think he remembers the idea, and will forever.