Walter L. Bell, Ph.D.
I decided to add a preface this post after reviewing what I had written. It has to do with the onset of World War II and the incarceration of Japanese American citizens into Concentration Camps. There were those in the War Office who considered them a threat to the war effort against the Axis powers of Japan, Italy, and Germany. Two lifelong friends, one Japanese and one Caucasian, are part of this post because prejudice is not confined to any part of this country or to any particular race or group of immigrants. The Japanese sent to the concentration camps were loyal Americans who were sent without proof that they were disloyal. They came to live and go to school with us because the father of my lifelong Caucasian friend suggested releasing the Japanese to farm. We needed farmers to replace all the young men who went off to fight in World War. Once the Japanese were released from the Camp in Idaho, they came to work as farmers. Farming was new to most of the Japanese so the crops they chose to plant and raise were row crops such as lettuce, potatoes, sugar beets, and onions. Their first task was to take out the fence rows and farm adjacent to the roads. They did not raise any livestock or any crops such as corn, alfalfa, or grain. The children of the Japanese became our classmates and entered into learning with greater effort and diligence than their Caucasian classmates. They entered into the sports programs such as boxing, football, track, and baseball. There was prejudice at first, but as we got to know each other better the prejudice diminished and we became friends. The first Japanese and Caucasian marriage caused an incident by both families. The couple married and divorced because of their families, but they remarried each other after the brief divorce. There were many more intermarriages. The Japanese decided to build a cultural center to commemorate their arrival and development as citizens of Malheur County in Eastern Oregon and also Western Idaho, but decided to dedicate it to all the citizens of the region because they realized we were all immigrants. My lifelong Japanese friend still lives in Eastern Oregon and is married to a Caucasian woman, and my other friend lives in Southern Oregon.
On October 1956, after graduating in June from what is now Eastern Oregon State University, I was drafted by the U.S. Army. I had three school choices, cook’s school, military police, or aircraft maintenance school. I chose the latter and set off for basic training at Camp Carson in Colorado. The elevation at Camp Carson is about 6000 feet, but because I had been building a telephone line from La Grande, Oregon to Baker, Oregon, where the elevation was about 4500 feet, I was not bothered by the difference in elevation. For those who were overweight or in poor physical condition, it was so difficult that some would pass out and have placed in the medical truck which followed us on our marches. After about five to six weeks, those who were out of shape at the beginning of basic training were able to keep up with the rest of the company. My work during the summer had prepared me very well, because I had been finishing up digging the holes for telephone poles using an eight foot metal bar that was pointed on one end and flat on the other end. I also had and eight to ten foot spoon to scoop out the loose rock. I did this work for about twelve weeks or more in temperatures that were often 110 degrees. I always got a severe headache because dynamite contains liquid nitro-glycerine which is placed in diatomaceous earth or sawdust to form a means of holding the liquid. The nitro-glycerine fumes cause the headaches. When I went into the Army, we had to take physical training tests(PT Tests) to determine our degree of fitness, plus we all had to pass a medical exam and take shots of all kinds. So with my fitness at a very high level, I did better at the PT tests at the beginning of basic training than at the end. As soon as I finished basic training, I was sent to Camp Rucker, Alabama, now Fort Rucker, to train as a helicopter mechanic. It was an interesting assignment and an interesting place. I was sent there in December from Camp Carson wearing my winter uniform which was a heavy wool uniform. When I got off the train at Montgomery, Alabama the temperature was in the 80′s and the humidity was very high so we were very uncomfortable. As I looked around the train station, I saw that the water fountains and restrooms had signs “Whites Only” and “Colored Only”. My mother was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas and had told me about the South, but I was puzzled by the signs. It was my first introduction to the South in the late 1950′s. I should have known better because my mother told of traveling from Jonesboro to Memphis, which was about 60 miles, and seeing a black man hanging from a telephone pole. His crime could have been as minor as looking at a white woman ore even worse flirting with her. The other information of interest was that we were told that the blacks had refused to give up their seats to whites on the buses and were boycotting the bus company, so that the busses were not running at a full schedule. There had also been a black Minister, who had been traveling around the South, demanding the same Civil Rights enjoyed by the white citizens. I had never heard of this Minister who turned out to be the Reverend Martin Luther King, or the woman, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man. Rosa Parks had been arrested sometime either in late 1955 or in 1956 for this crime. She had also been arrested about ten years prior to the latest event, when she refused to pay her toll and then get off the bus. walk to the back of the bus and enter the bus through the back door so the white passengers did not have to look at the blacks as they went down the aisle. This earlier crime had taken place on the same bus with the same driver before the one in 1955 or 1956. The Army had sent us to Montgomery, but had not provided us with transportation or with money to travel to Camp Rucker, so we had to stay overnight in the YMCA for a night which cost us 50 cents plus a little more for food. Some of my companions went out looking for women and reported back that the women they had met were very light skinned but the palms of their hands were even lighter. They thought they might be mulattos, a term seldom used anymore, to label a person of mixed race primarily black and white. After spending the night in Montgomery and contacting the Army in Fort Rucker, we took the bus to Fort Rucker. As usual, I walked to the back of the bus and got peculiar glances by the blacks sitting in the last ten rows of seats. I sat down next to a young black boy and talked to him as we rode along. I later learned that the State of Alabama could have arrested me for riding in the back of the bus. I liked riding in the back of the bus because it was usually empty or not crowded. In my case, ignorance was bliss because I was neither arrested nor did I have any problem because I rode in the back of the bus.
In the rest of my service, I had little contact with blacks except for a Warrant Officer who was one of the 34 helicopter pilots in our company. The only segregation I observed was that we started to get NCO’s in our company from the Infantry because the military was going through a downsizing and had to put the senior NCO’s somewhere. These NCO’s did not want anything to do with the Specialist class of soldiers who had been through helicopter maintenance school and tried to impose spit and polish techniques on the rest of us. One thing they tried was to insist that both pairs of boots had to be polished to a high shine, but once any hydraulic fluid was spilled on the boots, they would no longer shine. With the help of the First Sergeant and the Commanding Officer, this life threatening problem was solved by leaving one pair of boots polished for inspection. These same infantry sergeants did not want to share the mess hall with such low-lives, which the specialist class of soldiers represented. We also had army officers who had been victims of reduction in force, but they had a choice of retiring with less than twenty years of service or staying in the service as a Master Sergeant to finish their years toward retirement. The moral of this story is that different branches of the US Army operate without the need for strict rules of hierarchy because the pilots need to trust and respect the enlisted personnel who take care of the aircraft they are flying. Before the infantry sergeants, we did not have this class distinction in our company. I guess another moral of this story is that rigid class distinctions can arise anywhere at anytime.
It was in 1991 before I returned to the South where I lived for three years on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The State of Mississippi had changed greatly due to the Civil Rights movement. The black kids and white kids who were poor attended public schools, while the affluent black kids and affluent white kids attended the once all white academies which were set up by the whites as the result of the desegregation. This meant that the Southern States spent more on education than the Northern States on a per capita basis, a statistic seldom discussed in Educational Circles. The other result of the resegregation of schools on the basis of affluence and not race, is that it robs the public schools of the leadership qualities which the affluent kids enjoy because of their enriched life experiences. The Northern States have a similar segregation due to affluent parents sending their kids to private schools, such as charter schools and other private schools that were set up before the United States were formed as a Union. Now the Public Schools are under assault by the large companies which make up ALEC, because they do not want to support public education through taxation. We are entering a new era of segregation with the super wealthy citizens refusing to pay their fair share of taxes in order to provide financial support for public services. In politics, we see new voting laws which try to keep underprivileged citizens from voting. These wealthy corporations and citizens have no sense of patriotism. Segregation as once practiced in the South now finds new areas in which to flourish, from the avoidance of taxes to prejudice against less affluent citizens in the Hispanic, Muslim, Black and White communities. We have states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania trying to void municipal laws, elected officials, labor unions. and so forth.
In contrast while living in Mississippi, we had Black police officers, mixed church congregations, mixed schools and many other examples communities working together for the good of their communities. In contrast, on the eve of Inauguration of President Obama we had Rep.Eric Kantor, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, probably Minority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and many others attending a secret meeting and agreeing to do everything in their power to thwart the Obama Presidency because he was of both Black and White heritage. We had Senator McConnell of Kentucky declaring that he would do everything possible to ensure that Obama would not be elected for a second term.
To summarize this post, I have a favorable view of Southern Politics and my Southern Relatives. I grew up in Oregon, but my mother taught me the Southern tradition of manners, and my Southern Wife from Mississippi has continued the lessons, although she is sometimes in despair over my progress. Southeners are not perfect. Neither are the Northeners or Westeners because in many of the Western States such as Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and Idaho, there are some of the most conservative political leaders anywhere in the United States. We have some of the Oklahoma delegates who do not believe in global warming and would not even if that state formed rain forests and jungles. My deceased brother-in-law had many black friends in Mississippi, including a Deputy Sheriff who met in each others homes. He once asked me what I would think of his asking his friend. Deputy Sheriff Bubba, over for drinks. I replied that if he were my friend I would not care what others would think if I invited him over for drinks. I am certain he and Bubba had shared many drinks in each others homes, but he wanted my approval. In true Southern tradition white and black women would often assist each other during child birth or if there was an illness in each others family. During the early 1920″s, my father bid on a construction project while he and my mother were living in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He was criticized for hiring black carpenters to help him on the project. He told the white relatives and friends that he did not care what color their skin was as long as they could do the job. I cannot state my true disdain for any political leaders who would meet in private and pledge to oppose the first White and Black President of the United States in everything he proposed. I promised myself not to use profanity in my posts.