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Crying For Change

30 August 2008
Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Dear readers, today I will not focus on the media and what may be amiss therewith.  I have decided, instead, to celebrate the truly history-making moment that was played out in Invesco Field on Thursday evening, when Barack Obama became the first candidate of color to ever step to the podium and accept the nomination of a major political party for President of the United States of America.  It was an overwhelming experience for this old white man, and if I live to be a hundred, I will never forget it.

As Mile High Stadium began to fill up in the bright Colorado sunshine, I switched my television over to C-Span because I didn’t want to miss one moment of the most unexpected event in my lifetime.  It brought to mind another.  I was born and spent my childhood and teen years in Oklahoma.  At the end of the first day of school in my second-grade year, I sat on a bright yellow school bus as it wended its way through the waving golden wheat fields that lay between Oklahoma City and my hometown at the time, Edmond, Oklahoma.  Besides being the first day of school, there was something else different that day, and that was the fact that in a seat near the front of the school bus sat what we called a “colored boy” and his sister.  The boy was around ten or twelve; his sister appeared to be younger than my seven years.  It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen what we would call today an African-American except through a car window.

You see, in those days, the mid 1950s in Oklahoma almost all schools were segregated, as was much else in our society.  Not only were Blacks not welcome in white public schools, they were also not allowed to go to the Oklahoma City Zoo, or ride the rides at Spring Lake Amusement park which sat across the street from the zoo.  So my only exposure to “colored people” was as my Dad drove the car through “that part of town” on the way to my Grandmother’s house in Oklahoma City.

So when I saw the black boy and his sister on the bus, my curiosity began boiling like water on the stove.  My stop was the last on the route, and as fate would have it, the objects of my curiosity were next to the last.  I usually sat at the back of the bus because you got bounced around when the bus flew over the wooden bridges that lay between my school in town and my house in the country, and that was great fun to a boy of seven.  But this day that became less important and less exciting.  As the bus let others off along the way, I kept working my way seat by seat toward the black children at the front of the bus.  I wanted to meet them and talk to them, but I was still afraid of the prospect.  Finally, we were the last three people on the bus, and I slowly moved to the seat across the aisle from them and introduced myself to the boy.  His name was Edward.  His sister was too shy to talk.  Edward and I had but a brief time to talk before his stop came up, and our conversation must have been about boy things that are so common to us all that I don’t remember a word said.  But I remember to this day how I instinctively knew that we weren’t that different after all.

Classen High School

Classen High School

Sadly, Edward and his sister were never on the bus again.  I was sorry to see this because I felt I had made a new friend, and I didn’t understand the politics of the time that probably led to “other arrangements” being made for their education by those who controlled such things in our all-white town.  As my life moved forward, I held no more than the barest memory of this truly unique moment in my rural-white-boy life.  When I was in the fifth grade, my family moved into Oklahoma City, and I finished my education in a segregated part of the school district centered around Classen High School.  A year or so before my graduation, US District Judge Luther Bohanan ordered the Oklahoma City School District to come up with an integration plan.  There was shock and outrage in our high school and community.  How dare a Federal Judge interfere with our right to attend our neighborhood school?  My class counted itself lucky to graduate before a plan was put into place.  We didn’t want to go to school with what we were calling by then “negroes.”  I wish today that I hadn’t been so easily swayed by the harsh and uneducated rhetoric of my peers and their parents.  My parents, to the contrary and to their credit, did not agree with those who so nakedly showed their prejudice.  But, unfortunately, I was trying desperately to “fit in.”

As a result of my narrow upbringing, I still never knew an African-American until I was drafted by the US Army in 1968.  I still remember when, after training, I was deployed to Germany.  I was amazed, and not in a good way, to see white German women dancing with “negroes” in the Enlisted Men’s Club in Frankfurt when I arrived.  It was truly shocking to me.  But then, by the grace of God, over the next 18 months I was able to serve and live side by side with some of the greatest guys I have ever known, many of whom where black.  We came from everywhere: New York, Alabama, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Georgia and others.  And then there was me, a young country-born boy from Oklahoma.  Suddenly, I was “out in the world.”

Zirndorf, Germany 1962, by Joe Gilman

Zirndorf, Germany 1962, by Joe Gilman

We were stationed at a small town in Northern Bavaria just outside Nurnberg called Zirndorf, Germany.  And in that period I became the me I am to this day, and a lot of the credit goes to my buddies who shared that experience.  We were Battery A of the Second Battalion, Sixteenth Artillery, an Honest John rocket-firing unit, stationed near the Czech border to defend the Western World from the Soviet Threat.  Inside our picturesque barracks we worked together, lived together and played together, and in that remarkable time among the enlisted guys, the racial differences faded and disappeared.  But the same was not necessarily so from the top, and in 1970 a commission was established by the Post Commander to address the grievances being voiced by the black soldiers at the post.  I was privileged to be asked by the black enlisted men of my battery to represent them on that commission, because they trusted me to take their issues to the commander and believed he would listen to a skinny white E-4 more than he would to any of them.  I did just that, and was proud to represent my friends. Although in the years after I came home from the Army I have had many black friends, the demands of my career left me little free time, so I somewhat lazily failed to follow my heart by pursuing an active role in the civil rights movement and pursued my own well-being.

After 14 years of court reporting, I was offered the chance to leave my profession behind and become a teacher, passing on what I had learned to a new generation. In the following years I had the privilege to teach some of the finest trade and community college students in the world, but the greatest pleasure I ever got was when I was assigned by the community college to teach an introductory program in the Criminal Justice Department at M.B. Smiley High School in Houston.  Smiley is a school that has a 93% black enrollment, so many of my colleagues – all white, I might add — were not comfortable with the assignment.  Lucky for me.  I volunteered and got the prize of a lifetime.  While there, I had the most satisfying teaching experience in my life.  The students treated me with exactly the same great respect that I treated them.  I came to love them, and they came to love me.  The college closed the entire court reporting program the following year, so I was unable to return to a new bunch of eager students.  But the great memories of that year — pep rallies, football games, going with the Golden Eagle Band wherever it went that year, and all the parents, teachers and students I met that year – those memories will remain with me all the rest of my life.

So as I watched the stadium fill at Invesco Field Thursday, as millions of us across this nation waited in eager anticipation for the moment when Barack Obama stepped on that stage, I wept.  Not for myself, but for the boy and girl on the school bus all those years ago, and my buddies in the Army, and my students at Smiley High School, not tears of sadness but tears of nostalgic joy as I hoped that all those who changed my life and helped me understand were somewhere out there watching with me.  I hoped that they were feeling the wonder of the moment just as I was, and I wished I could have them all in my living room so I could hug them and show my appreciation for what they brought to me.

Barack for change!

Barack for change!

No matter what happens from here forward, we have seen a change this week, and I thank Barack Obama for restoring my hope and inspiring me to dream a bigger dream for myself and others.  Just like an old man in his living room, America has been crying for a change, and Barack Obama has answered that cry.  May God bless him, and may God Bless America.

Left-eyed Jack

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