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My 1965 Watts Riot, by Cuauhtémoc Marín (nom de plume)

30 May

Cuauhtémoc Marín majored in British and American Literature, receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from California State University, Northridge, and was accepted into the Northridge English Master’s Program, where he continued his literary studies with an emphasis in linguistics, creative writing, and poetry. Marín continues to write and publish and has lived in North Los Angeles continually since his move from South Central L.A.

On August 11, 1965, I drove my regular route home, coming from my garment district, sweatshop job at 11th and San Pedro on the edge of downtown L.A.

As I steered my way south down San Pedro Street toward 54th, I could see bus after bus of LAPD officers when I looked west at the end of each block. Our routes were paralleling each other, but I could only see their southward-moving vehicles at the end of each block. It was an ominous peek-a-boo vision of the disaster to come. The LAPD were coming from police headquarters at Parker Center and traveling down Los Angeles Street. I got to the next corner and the dark blue buses had changed to black and whites. Car after black and white police car all caravaned from north to south like me. At the next corner, I looked west again and a parade of LAPD motorcycle officers was also streaming south. My car radio was broken so I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was something big and ugly.

103rd Street. 1965. Watts Riot.

I got to 54th street, hung a right and headed west for home. The stream of various police vehicles continued in a north to south direction, and sometimes I had to stop and wait for them to pass. When I got to 54th and Hoover, I hit a red light. I was in what we called the Ghetto, a large area of Los Angeles that filled out the L.A. Basin and was populated by mostly working-class Blacks, poor Blacks, and a small population of middle-class Blacks with a spattering of various other ethnic groups. I lived there with my wife and three-month-old baby.

I noticed a white driver alone in the car ahead of me. Whites working in downtown L.A. couldn’t get home without traveling through a minority neighborhood. If they traveled west it was a Black neighborhood–east, Mexican.

The white driver couldn’t go anywhere because he was pinned between the car in front of him and my car in the rear. We were waiting for the red light to turn green at a location that was 99% black. I knew the area quite well, had friends in that area, and as far as I knew, no whites lived there.

Suddenly a group of young black men came running from out of nowhere like a pack on a hunt. They ran straight for the white guy’s car and pulled him out, dragging him to the ground, kicking and beating him. I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought whatever it was, it was big and violent and it was spreading. I swung my car out and crossed into oncoming traffic, hit the gas as I passed the young men beating this poor guy, then swerved back to my side of the street as I pushed the door-lock button.

I continued up 54th till I got to Crenshaw Boulevard, made a left, then headed south again until I got to my apartment near 11th Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. Once inside, I turned on the TV and there was no need searching for the news; every channel was covering the riots in Watts about five miles southeast of me.

The riots seemed a safe distance away; police were headed there en masse. I didn’t feel threatened; it was too far away to worry. The police would snuff this out—-so many were arriving at the small, declared riot zone of Watts. You could see it on TV, see the cops arriving, swarms of people in the streets, buildings burning.

My wife and I decided to hang out with some friends that evening, and we got in our car with our three-month-old daughter and headed over to Venice Boulevard near Western. That put us about eight to ten miles away from Watts. We felt safer there.

We met up with our friends in an apartment above a storefront on Venice Boulevard. There were five couples. We all had babies less than six months old. I was 19, my wife 17. No one was older than that. Everyone was Black except two of us. We were all children of the Ghetto. That was our commonality, our bond, that and being poor with low paying shit-jobs and being teen parents. We had all spent our lives in the ghetto, held in by an invisible wall of racism that kept us in our place. The Ghetto enculturated us, and although one of the young men that night was Japanese and I Mexican, we were all black culturally, forged by the Ghetto that bound us and united by that unbreakable chain of childhood friendship that exists beyond color and language.

The Ghetto was not a quaint concept or expression. Minorities could only live in certain parts of the L.A. Basin. My wife and I tried to rent outside of the Ghetto many times and were always told, “We don’t rent to colored people,” or sometimes they might say Negro. Sometimes they said worse. I had discovered the curious white phenomenon: that I was Mexican when alone and Black when I was with my wife.

Our ghetto was surrounded by white sundowner cities, Inglewood, Glendale, Burbank, Huntington Park and all the others. We understood what sundowner city meant: make sure your black ass is not in our city after nightfall. That included my ass, too. The ghetto itself was like a huge police state where white police harassed us at will, beat us, kicked down our doors. Fuck warrants, although they used them when they had them-—the police in the Ghetto acted pretty much above the law. As a young man, I was stopped and searched about three times a week for driving while not white. The Ghetto was a police state, brutal, but it was all we knew and somehow we had learned to navigate that jungle as best we could and also love it for its richness of community, family, and friendships.

That night the sun had gone down, and we sat around the apartment on the floor, the young women holding their babies, some breastfeeding, some bottle-feeding. My wife was holding our daughter. We were watching the riots live on TV. Normally at this hour we would watch the Vietnam War. The networks televised it live nightly. It was the first live-televised U.S. war. We watched U.S. soldiers shoot and be shot on TV every night—live. We’d watch the dead and wounded being carried away. What we saw and what the government told us were in conflict. We saw the truth of this war through television, and that prompted the great anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. The television didn’t lie; the government, it was clear, did.

Armed National Guardsmen march toward smoke on the horizon during the street fires of the Watts riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tonight, however, the riots were being broadcast live, not the Vietnam War. We were all glued to the TV. It was hard to believe the riots had spread so far and so fast. It was no longer just in Watts; the whole L.A. Basin was in riot. People were burning buildings. Police were shooting bullets and tear gas at the crowds. In some places, as the TV news cameras captured the riot from above by helicopter, we had aerial views of police and rioters in hand-to-hand combat. By now it wasn’t just LAPD; the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the surrounding incorporated cities had all sent their police battalions to join the LAPD in fighting the rioters. It was complete chaos. Rioters were throwing Molotov cocktails; some carried rifles and handguns. Entire streets were burning.

Then it started. The looting. The helicopter cameras showed people breaking store windows, carrying furniture and TV sets down the street, as rioters fought police on adjacent streets. We could see this as the helicopters panned from above and smoke plumed over the city. We watched as the helicopter cameras caught two men carrying a new couch out of a furniture store around the corner and into what must have been their house, then run around the corner back to the store for more. They were looting stores we all knew, but the largest store that went down to looters and arsonists was ironically named White Front. It may be hard to imagine this today, but whites owned almost all of the major businesses in the Ghetto, and White Front was no exception. For the Ghetto, it was the Home Depot of its time and everyone—-everyone in the ghetto shopped there at some time in their lives. I had and so had everyone in that apartment on Venice Boulevard that night.

We were watching the looters go through the windows of White Front and come out with guns, tools, clothes; then the fire started and White Front was burning.

Eddie, the Japanese boy sitting next to me, said, “Man, I gotta get me some of that shit.”

Despite all of us being American citizens, in those days, minorities were not referred to as Americans, and we understood the purpose of that exclusion. So this young American was considered Japanese and I Mexican, and the others colored, Negro, or black—never American. It didn’t matter how many centuries we had been in this nation.

One of the other young men hollered at Eddie. Man, they shoot people. It’s dangerous. What are you thinking, my brother?”

The riot had spread so fast. By now we were getting TV feed of the street below the apartment we were in. We were watching the people on the sidewalk in front of the apartment on TV. They broke the storefront glass. Looking out the window from our elevated second-floor apartment, we could see people running across the sidewalks and streets, and we could see the orange glow of fires burning against the night sky in every direction.

The young Japanese father, Eddie, stood up and said, “I’m gonna get me some of this free stuff before it’s too late, man.”

His wife—-all of us—-we said don’t go, but he was up on his feet, headed toward the door despite his wife, holding their baby girl, pleading for him to stay. The door closed behind him and then he was gone.

The rest of us stayed and watched the riots, waiting for them to stop, but they never did. About 4:00 a.m. the riots seemed to take a lull, and my wife and I went to our car and drove cautiously home through the mostly deserted smoke-scented streets. Eddie hadn’t returned yet, but the police were making massive arrests of just about everyone on the streets, so we knew he must have gotten arrested.

The next morning my wife got the call. Eddie never came home. They found his body not too far from his apartment. A security officer shot him dead as he tried to loot a local store. They shoot looters—-and sometimes they kill them.

The riot had continued nonstop for three days when the National Guard arrived on a late Friday evening. The National Guard had responded by order of the governor and martial law was declared. They set up checkpoints and barricades and kept anyone from leaving the Ghetto for the next ten days or so. No one could be on the streets before 5:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m. or they would be arrested or shot. However, even during those allotted hours, you had to have a reason to be out.

The National Guard came in tanks, armored vehicles, military trucks carrying combat troops, and jeeps with machine guns. They set up armed barricades in the streets at the Ghetto boundaries. Young National Guardsmen with automatic weapons patrolled the Ghetto in military vehicles. Machine guns on tripods ornamented the checkpoints at the established boundaries to keep us in what the media and police referred to as the “riot zone.” The whole Ghetto came to a standstill; the whole Ghetto was the riot zone. The National Guard eventually had 22,000 ground troops in and around the 50-square-mile Ghetto. With the addition of the various police departments, the total of troops amounted to about 30,000. People said soldiers standing ten feet apart surrounded the Ghetto along the perimeter.

I had passed through a National Guard checkpoint after they arrived and knew that a post had been set up near the Thrifty’s Store on Crenshaw and 54th Street, not too far away from my apartment. Because of that post, Thrifty’s was now open for business. The food supply at my house had dwindled to almost nothing. Grocery stores had been some of the first stores to be looted, and Thrifty’s was my only chance to get my infant daughter her prescribed Mull Soy baby formula. I decided I would try to drive there. I walked outside to my car, trying to ignore or pretend not to notice the few Black residents walking around with guns in their hands. Once in my car, I drove through the mostly deserted neighborhood and parked across the street from Thrifty’s. As I got to the corner, I stood and stared across that very wide street called 54th. Directly in front of the store, I saw a blond, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked boy sitting on his butt in a green National Guard uniform behind a machine gun mounted on a tripod. From across that great divide of space, I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. His finger was on the trigger. Time stopped for a moment while I made my mental calculations. Although different circumstances governed my reason for being outside during the riot, I remembered Eddie, who only four days ago had been alive. With thoughts of Eddie in my head and my opened hands at my side, I turned calmly and deliberately till my back faced this young National Guardsman, then slowly walked away praying silently to myself.

When the Watts Riots were over, Eddie and 33 other people were dead, and one baby girl, half-Japanese and half-black, didn’t have a father.

          Cuauhtémoc Marín continued to live in the Ghetto for seven more years after the riot. The rise of Black gangs in the early 1970s and the increasing violence and crime forced Marín and his wife out of the ghetto after their lives were threatened.They moved to East Hollywood. Marín came to view education as a way of improving his life and subsequently enrolled in college. During his college years, he continued to work full time to support his family.
          The major literary influences of his writing have been William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut,Jack Kerouac, Patricia Highsmith, Walker Percy, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Thomas Pynchon.
Marín remains indebted to his poetry professor Dr. Benjamin Saltman for his three years of patience and guidance in teaching Marín the craft of poetry while in graduate school.
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August 1969, a poem by G.T. Foster

1 Jun

G.T. Foster spent his childhood in the Central San Joaquin Valley. He attended U.C.R. and taught 25 years for the Los Angeles Unified School District. A Vietnam era veteran, G.T. began his exploration into poetry in the ‘60s. He is currently writing his first novel, The Butt Naked and the Been Dead, and his poetry has been published in The Pasadena Weekly, the San Gabriel Valley Quarterly, Spectrum, and the Altadena Poetry Review.

Hip to the Gyve is his chapbook, in which this poem appears.

 

                                              August 1969

 

Her Afro was so big and mini-skirt so short it was like watching Sandro

Botticelli’s Venus walk up and down Telegraph Avenue dripping wet draped

in a single sea shell while selling Little Red Books   So you watched

 

Power to the peep hole sister   Power to the people, brother

Where the broom does not reach the dust will not vanish of its own accord

Buy a Red Book and come to the meeting

Will you be there?   Right On.   Then right on then!

And before you knew you were an agent of change

Right on…right on…right now

 

But she was a demi-goddess

bound to a petite demagogue

who espoused Power to the People

but whose soul believed the masses

were irredeemably benighted asses

He argued power should rest in hands of intellectually best a small

politically correct central committee of three then promptly pronounced

himself its Leading Cadre

He loved her knot

She’d long been fully involved in the fray

Seen Bunchy Carter gunned-down at UCLA

Anti-Nixon anti-War Black Panthers Pink Panthers Brown Beret

For her and me it was philosophy and championing the common cause

Hippies Blippies Street People’s Rights and for all anti-capitalist laws

 

For him it was sheer power He’d sung,

Dialectically and materialistically I stand

following the Marxist anti-capitalist plan

of V Lenin Joe Stalin and Mao Tse Tung

His vision for a second American Revolution was dashed

by lapse of time and lame lipped excuses

for freshly disclosed Red Guard abuses

Dogmatic and adventurous strategies that clashed

with my own but more importantly too many others

who were also forward thinking sisters and brothers

 

Black Student Unions SDS  Radical Union Core

Freedom Riders SNIC and Veterans Against the War

No way!  It was an iron-on-patch too foreign to hatch

even in Babylonian Berkeley

 

But back to her or was it me at whom she flaunted sexuality

Answering the door in a sheer negligee

without bra nor pantie down under

Repeatedly toying taunting enticing

neophytic me to make political blunder

Her poised to vanquish the wandering eye

with a barrage of anti-male chauvinist thunder

 

It was sexual gratification revolution delayed

although revolutionary musical bed later played

 

Shortly after the glass-jawed movement

hit the brick wall in seventy-two

she’d had enough to tell him after two dogs

and two babies   We’re through

Truth be told he’d forced her hand

having taken a steel pipe to kill a man

 

For all legal fees and her loved one’s life

she vowed to become the barrister’s wife

Divorced her husband married his attorney

and thus did end her revolutionary journey

Occasionally seen haunting the East Bay

poor chap remains delusional to this day

He recognized and confronted me to say

I alone revolutionary remain!

Was it the truth or is he insane?

 

Was so long ago a distant Shangri La it seems

those hopes now most dust lost Utopian dreams

Chance at true social revolution never so real

as the cold hard pipe used my angry hands to kill

 

 

 

High School and the Influences of slavery, Assassinations, and the Vietnam War, by Kathy Green

11 Nov

rail biking with Chuck

Kathy Green was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. After majoring in geology, she became a National Park Ranger for five years. During that time, she met Chuck Kroger [the editor’s brother], whom she married in 1978. They settled in Telluride, Colorado in 1979, where they co-founded Bone (Back of Nowhere Engineering) Construction company. When Chuck died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, Kathy and co-workers continued the company’s projects. Kathy enjoys hiking, running rivers, making art (including silk dying), and working for environmental and social justice in her region.

 

Background: Missouri was the compromise state in the Civil War. Some of my great great great ancestors fought on the confederate side and owned slaves. My mother still has the slave book from that time, recording the births and deaths of the slaves. My mother also was told (oral history) that my fifth great grandfather was a “good owner” because he never broke up families.

I was in first grade in 1956 when Adlai Stevenson was running for president. My family had moved to Webster Groves a year earlier. Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb, was more conservative and Republican than my family. My understanding is that all of my family had been Democrats since the Democratic Party was formed in the 1830s. A few family “rogues” have married Republicans but their kids have all been born Democrats. I came home in tears one day in late October 1956 because we had had a mock election at school. Out of 30 students in my class, Adlai Stevenson had gotten only six votes. Come election day that November, I was “working the election”—almost six years old, standing the required 100 feet from the door to the school/polling-place door, smiling and trying to hand every approaching voter a Stevenson brochure. Working elections was a family activity. A little metal pin of the bottom of a shoe with a hole worn in the sole is one of my prize possessions to this day. Go Adlai!

At the same time that I was a young child being taught to work elections and work to preserve historic buildings from demolition, my grandfather, John Raeburn Green, and the family law firm were under severe criticism and lost many clients during the McCarthy witch-hunt. My grandfather believed that everyone deserved counsel and he believed in free speech. He took the pro bono case of a man accused of being a Communist and defended him before the Supreme Court (and lost). For that volunteer work, Joseph McCarthy, from the Senate floor, called my grandfather and his law partner (one of the senators from Missouri) communists—a scary and destructive event at the time. Many of my family preferred to be activists that flew “under the radar” after that experience. We were never afraid to be Democrats, to work for social justice, environmental justice, and other liberal causes. We just did not need recognition—especially in the Senate. I didn’t understand the risk completely. I don’t think even my grandfather understood it that well. But I grew up my entire life with this story. My mother said never to tell anyone you were a socialist or a communist.

When I was five, my kindergarten teacher taught us the National Anthem and Dixie, one right after the other. One time when my family went to a ball game, everyone stood and sang the National Anthem. When it was over I started in to sing Dixie. My mom asked what on earth I was doing, and I said, Singing the next stanza. She said, No! Can’t you tell that those are two different songs? I couldn’t; apparently I’m tone-deaf/musically challenged. Throughout elementary school our music teacher had us sing both songs in succession.

 

Our family were big Hubert Humphrey supporters. Once John Kennedy became the Democratic candidate for President, we were all for him. We worked hard to help Kennedy win the election. Many of our friends were Republicans so during the 1960 election and during his presidency, I heard these friends rant and rave against JFK. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was almost 13 years old and in eighth grade. They told us over the junior high school speaker system that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. School was dismissed. I walked out of school confused and upset, into a howling rainstorm. As I tried to find the friends that I usually walked to and from school with, my mother suddenly appeared with my little brother to drive me home. Everyone was crying. At home, the TV was on full time—that never happened in our house; we traditionally watched only an hour or two of TV a day. All our friends came by our house over the next few days. The people that had been ranting and raving against Kennedy were crying and praising him. I found this total change in their feelings startling and confusing.

In my high school, Webster Groves, there were a series of ironic things that happened in my history classes. We were reading about socialism and communism and about sharing the wealth, and it seemed so intuitively obvious that that’s how the world should be run. On the one hand we were practicing duck and cover to protect ourselves from the Communists, but on the other hand we were learning how fair those systems are. Webster Groves was a pre-Civil War town that had had plantations and farms with slaves. Every kid knew disturbing history. In my junior year we had a teacher who was new to the area and kind of young. He started out with a lecture about people who had been slaves taking up the names of their owners after the Emancipation Proclamation. We were sitting there, black and white kids, some with the same last names, and we all knew that Johnny’s great great great grandfather had owned Sally’s family way back. We’d known this our whole lives, and the teacher was giving us this huge lecture. We were thinking, Yeah, so what? The teacher asked if there were any questions, and the black kid popped up and said, Yeah, I’ve got the same last name as he does because his grandfather owned mine. The teacher got a horrified look on his face. Apparently the history teacher didn’t know the history of the town he was teaching in. Things were not always perfect between the white and black students. We knew our history and knew that it wasn’t good or kind, but we felt it wasn’t worth dwelling on. Most of the time, we students wanted to move towards more racial equality. These high school lectures followed being taught to sing “Dixie” along with the “National Anthem” all through elementary school. Strange….

The next year we had Modern European History. A woman teacher started the first class with an introductory lecture. This class had about 20% black and 80% white students, with two random Asian students whose parents were professors at the big universities. The teacher lectured that we all came from Europe and that European history is the most important in the world, and on and on. She stopped and my friend Janet raised her hand. Janet has blond curly hair and blue eyes. Janet said, I am a Cherokee Indian, and this history has nothing to do with me, and why did you say that it did? The teacher said, Oh. She quickly started roll call, and she got to the name Janet Bushyhead. Janet raised her hand. She really was a Cherokee Indian and a princess at that. An Englishman had married into her tribe years and years ago, so lots of Bushyhead family had blond curly hair and blue eyes. Her dad looked much more Cherokee but her grandmother and sisters did not. It was a priceless moment. We were bratty sixteen-year-olds in 1967. To see the look on this teacher’s face. The black students were all smirking. Had one of them challenged her, they probably would have gotten sent to the principal. We thought, how can she lecture us when she could look out across the classroom. Maybe you don’t see the sleeper Indian princess in disguise but you could see the diversity that we did have in this small town.

When I was in high school, my dad became the selective service attorney counselor, so that if you were going to get drafted, you were provided with a lawyer to talk to. This was a volunteer post. It was interesting for me; I was a very shy, gawky, geeky sixteen-year-old high school kid and I was watching the sports stars at my school a year or two older than I who had not gone to college or dropped out and now were being drafted and would come over one evening a week. My dad would come home early. I would sit at the top of the stairs where I could hear what was being said. They were almost in tears. I’d listen to what my dad was telling them about deferrals. There wasn’t much hope he could offer them. It was sad, and some of them never came home. This counseling brought it all alive for me, just like World War II later came alive for me when I traveled in Germany. My mother told me a lot of stories about World War II, and watching this unfold in my younger years brought it all home and understand the impact of being in your teens and early 20s during that war was so incredibly major.

My parents started out tolerant of the Vietnam war; it seemed like something the U.S. ought to do. My dad had served in World War II. It made him grow up but it also distorted the rest of his life. In time my family got more and more angry about the war. Both my grandmothers had these big buttons that said “Grandmothers for McGovern” and were very active in his campaign. That’s one of the things that shaped my high school years from 1965 to 1968. The other thing that influenced me was the knowledge that my great great great grandfather had owned slaves, and then, after “Roots” was aired, to see black people come to our house to look up their family histories in the slave book. Then in the spring of 1968 a lot of dramatic events happened. Martin Luther King was killed, and then the night before I graduated from high school, Bobby Kennedy was killed. It was this weird feeling. I can remember we were having our family dinner before we went to the graduation ceremony, and there were these graduate parties afterwards, and I was sitting there all dressed up in those silly clothes, supposed to be celebrating the biggest event of my life, and we’d just had another assassination. It was really hard to reconcile the two: to go forward with the ceremony and the congratulations and to party that night and the assassination the day before. There wasn’t much alcohol and barely any marijuana at this party because it was 1968 in the Midwest. Five years later everybody would have gotten drunk or stoned to mourn the assassination. But it was a real wake-up call that these things were happening my senior year of high school.

Graduating from high school is a big change in your life, but graduating into a world where assassination was becoming an everyday occurrence was scary. What would college and adult life be like?  [to be continued]

White Owl Cigars and Racial Tension: Hauler on a Tobacco Farm, by Marty Bernstein

2 Oct

Marty today
Marty Bernstein worked in the New York state court system as a civil servant. He was like a round peg in a square hole—a left-wing court officer and clerk. Two years after retiring in 2007, he worked part time at a non-profit for the developmentally disabled. In 2013 he completely retired and now spends vacations in a coope
rative community in upstate New York called Spring Glen Meadows, the home of burned-out sixties radicals. He has two adult children and has been married to the same woman for 38 wonderful years. Her name is Patricia Ruggiero Bernstein. He says it has been a great Jewish-Italian combination.

In the summer of 1965 when I was fourteen and in junior high school, my family moved to Springfield, MassacWhite Owl Cigars with Owlhusetts from Long Island, New York. In the summer I got a job on a tobacco farm in the Connecticut Valley. It was called a shade tobacco industry. They made tobacco for the outside of White Owl cigars. The farm was owned by the Hathaway-Stene Tobacco Company.

Young boys and girls woulMarty Circa 1965d be hired to work there every summer. There was a hierarchy by height that determined what work one would do. Shorter boys were pickers because it was a handicap to be tall when picking. (Harder to stoop.) The foreman was my gym teacher, Mr. Gallucci, whom I liked. He would take us on a school bus out to the field.tobacco shed.little girls

I wasn’t a picker but a hauler. I would pull a metal framed canvas bin, about the size of a drawer in a chest of drawers with a loop in one end, down the rows to pick up the leaves. I would take them to a large shed, where all the girls worked “sewing” the leaves and hanging them to dry and age.

I had come from a lily-white, middle-class suburb on Long Island. When I got to the fields, there were both black and white boys, many of them working class. I had never been around black kids before. There was a lot of hostility and racism towards them. Although I never heard the white boys use the n-word, they called the black kids “Cottonbolls.” One time it came to blows between the two groups, and I assisted in stopping the fight. I hung out more frequently with the black kids than with the white ones.

White Owl Cigars ad with father reading to 2 kids                                                  White Owl Cigars ad with father and kid in car

All the kids came from Springfield. They went to fairly segregated schools but ironically they all played ball together at the ball park, where they seemed to get along fine. At that time the schools were de facto segregated but not by law. The junior high schools were neighborhood schools. When I attended junior high school there were no Jews in the area. The principal told me that I wasn’t allowed to be in the academic program, although I loved school and had always gotten good grades. My dad thought that the principal was an anti-Semite.White Owl Cigars ad with Jesse Owens

The four senior high schools were not neighborhood schools. They were arranged by type and were segregated by placing kids in the school deemed appropriate. The top school that was overwhelmingly white was called Classical High School. Its focus was the liberal arts. Timothy Leary had graduated from there.

The next one was the Technical High School. It had a mixture of white and Black and Puerto Rican. The third was Commerce High School, which was mainly black and Puerto Rican. The Trade High School was overwhelmingly Black and Latino. The next year I went into the Classical High School, where all the classes were academic anyway. In high school I attended weekly silent vigils against the war in Vietnam. I believe it was organized by a church group like the Quakers or Unitariatobacco drying in shedns. Also the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

At the tobacco field we earned $1.10 per hour, less than minimum wage. I remember I made $44 a week. There were poor sanitary conditions in the fields. Wooden barrels on little trailers would come around bringing us drinking water. (Apparently the barrels had formerly held wine. We could smell the residue.) We had to relieve ourselves in the fieldfield workers in tobacco farms. There were two groups: day and migrant. The migrant workers—Puerto Ricans—were kept separate from us.

 

I was glad to have this job. First of all, it gave me some spending money. Also, it was my first significant experience with racism. And I got the chance to understand manual labor and appreciate the manual laborers.

Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”

 

Freedom Rider: My Heroic Older Brother Bob, by Michael Kaufman

30 May

Michael Kaufman is a grandfather doing child care for two twin eight year old boys and a computer programmer for the last 40 years. He’s also a part time activist on numerous issues including, health care for all, defending the 99% from the ravages of the 0.01% (400 families who control over half the wealth and almost all of the power), and fighting against the fossil fuel energy companies who are destroying our ecological niche on this earth.

 

When I was very young, 17 or 18, I aspired to follow my older brother (six years my senior) into politics. I was a member of a youth contingent of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) and wanted to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.

CORE emblem

At the time, police brutality in a Los Angeles suburb called Torrance was a hot issue. I very badly wanted to be arrested (for reasons indicated below) so I went down to the picket line in front of the Torrance police building. Those were the days before the hippy rebellion, so we were on our best behavior; I dressed up in a suit and tie. I must have looked ridiculous, a callow youth dressed up despite the southern California hot weather. Anyway, as it turned out, I was not arrested that day, much to my regret.

Why did I want to be arrested? Because of my brother and mother. You see, the call had gone out for Freedom Riders from Los Angeles to go South. I wanted to go along with my brother Bob Kaufman and his fellow Riders very badly. But I was only seventeen, while the group was made up of people in their twenties and thirties.

I was all ready to stow away on the train, but my mother and my brother forbade me to go. So, resigned, my mom and I saw my brother and the other fifteen Riders off from Union Station in Los Angeles. We were very worried for them. Finally, two days later, we got a call from the Houston NAACP lawyer telling us that the Riders had been arrested while trying to integrate a restaurant in the Houston Train Station.

CORE2

Naturally the men and women were separated in jail, and the black and white Riders were also separated. Bob and the three other white men from the group had been thrown into a tank with racist prisoners, who were egged on by racist jailers. Bob was repeatedly attacked throughout the afternoon and evening and late into the night. It took until 2 am before the NAACP could bail him out and take him to a hospital in the black community, where his severe scalp wound, heavy bleeding and concussion were treated.

He finally got back to L.A. three weeks later, and after several months was fully recovered. Ever since, I’ve been trying to emulate my heroic older brother Bob.

I went on to play a role in the L.A. chapter of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], a support group that mostly raised money. I helped organize a SNCC singers concert tour, where the precursor to “Sweet Honey in the Rock” performed at the Ash Grove, a world-famous folk venue in Los Angeles.

But that kind of support work never satisfied my longing to be on the “front lines” like my brother, even though he almost lost his life.