If the US is considered a melting pot, Hawaii has long been the tip of the spear in the fire. Unexpectedly had most of four days at a high-rise hotel in Honolulu to attend the commissioning of the brand new destroyer my granddaughter serves on. It was the second time in a few months that i had been to Honolulu since 1965, and it was still much like i had entered a time warp. Back when there had been no high-rises, in fact no highways, so i was a little wide eyed and gawking. Over the few days I spent a fair amount of time outside at a special hidden, smoking area and over time got to be nodding acquaintances with others that came periodically on whatever schedule their habit drove them. Most conversations were fairly surface level, but occasionally a few went deeper and one such was a recently retired very black, very squared away Army Master Sergeant, and the topic came around to the new administration in DC. As soon as the November results were in this fellow retired. After 26 years serving his country he had had enough.
After exploring many initial topics over several impromptu meetings, at some point i said something to the effect that it looked liked this new gang was going to try to reinstitute slavery. He agreed, and offered that it would be led by the “commander in chief” and the attorney general. We continued exploring how we collectively had come to this point, and among other things we learned that we both had sons that were directly serving, and therefore trapped in the dilemna between belief and service to a country they supported with their lives and disdain for the current crop of individuals that were at the helm of the ship of state. At the end of one discussion he offered that i was “alright” with the unspoken “for a white guy” left out, and it got me thinking… and to lay out some of the why of it for him the next time we met. It is not something i consider very often, it’s kinda burned in.
The short version is that my so called family of origin was a little different than one might imagine from the color of my skin, different than what most of those who look like me on the outside live through. First my mother died very young, my father was in the Army in the late 40s after the war, so my sister and i were raised for several years by our mother’s parents, until my father remarried. And at 5 years old i had the unusual experience of being able to watch my new mom walk down the street and into my grandparents home with the idea of taking us away to a new life with our Dad. The anticipation was a cross between Christmas and the great unknown, but with the certainty that no matter what it was going to change my young life fairly permanently. Little was i to know.
Looking back she was brave, braver than most, entering into a marriage where she had someone else’s two young children on day 1 of their marriage, and a year later a child of her own with a husband in Korea for the better part of two years. Let’s skip forward a bit… We all learned about each other slowly. I remember a visit to her family homestead a couple thousand miles away, a distance we travelled by auto because air travel was so expensive and different back then. Musta been about 1955 or 56. At this time she had come to realize how her upbringing was different as well. She had been the last of 9 children of a blended family (her father had taken his brother’s wife and four kids in after the brother died in what we now call an “industrial accident”, without even asking her Mother). She arrived last, unexpected, unplanned, and ~10 years after the rest. During that visit she confronted her own mom asking why she had not shown her any love as a child. Her Mother, always called Mother, replied that “she just couldn’t”. So she had had been raised from the start by the black cook, Pippy, and her husband, who lived in an apartment up above what we would call a barn or carriage house, all of this in the 1920s and 30s in the deep south. And Pippy and her husband loved her, and guided her as she grew until finally she went off to college just before WWII. Upon graduation she joined the Red Cross and went to France just after Normandy, and as the Allied troops pushed north eventually into Germany. She hated the Germans until the day she died, having gone into the concentration camps as they were discovered, overrun, and liberated.
After the war she returned to Memphis, Tennessee and worked as the secretary to the administrator of the largest hospital in the city. (Phi Beta Kappa and the best job she could get). The hospital wasn’t far from the family compound and she would most often come home for lunch. One day she arrived to find that Pippy had had a stroke, so she called the hospital for an ambulance which arrived a few minutes later. But the driver took one look and said that they couldn’t take Pippy because she was black, said “call the black hospital” and left. So the black hospital was 30 miles away across town and by the time they got there an hour later, Pippy, the only source of love my mom had known, was gone.
The Master Sargeant heard me out. There was more. He “got it”, he understood some of the why and some of the how i came to be like this, more than most, and a different bond was struck with a man who was no longer the same stranger, in a new world where some of the stereotypes we came in with had been stripped away.