The whole damned country was in an uproar with civil unrest by 1970; what with assassinations, race riots and anti-war/anti-draft protests; not to mention the Women’s Libbers on the move.
The Army at Ft. Riley was in a general state of chaos as well. By day we had Riot Control training with fixed bayonets and placed on Red Alert for Kansas City. By night secret recruitment meetings were held by members of the ASU; fans of Angela Davis, Bobby Seals, and George Jackson. They left leaflets on our bunks that were declared TOP SECRET and collected by the Army brass. The Reenlistment Office was fire-bombed.
The place was awash with drugs and alchohol. On a stretch of quiet road that led off base toward Junction City, I’d stopped to take a leak and, stepping through the bushes, found myself in a veritable forest of marijuana, seventeen feet high. All manner of drugs flowed freely from around the world -licit, illicit and government sponsored. It wasn’t just to get high or make money, but to quiet the social uproar as well. The government feared revolution. A national crisis was afoot.
At one point I found myself in a dimly lit nightclub on OFF LIMITS 9th Street, rapping with some ASU brothers. In those days rapping just meant conversation (bordering on a bitch session). The club was so dimly lit all I could see was their teeth as they talked. I must have been glowing in the dark as I was the only white guy in the whole place. Of course they were trying to recruit me for the ASU but my ETS was coming shortly and I was looking forward to getting home.
The Army, on the other hand, tried to trick me into reenlisting, a thing I vigorously declined. If those dummies had presented the offer in a man-to-man and upright manner I would have seriously considered it. As it was, it was the end of my would-be Naval Career as well.
It didn’t help matters for them to show “The Liberation of L.B. Jones” at a post theatre. A movie about Southern Style racism, political corruption, and interracial sex. Of course there was a kerfuffle outside the theatre and fists flew when the movie let out.
At one point and days later, some black soldiers attacked a white one. I didn’t know any of them and was unaware a beat down had even taken place. In the aftermath the white guy accused me of not being there to help him like I was ‘supposed’ to.
On my way to the Day Room one sultry night, a large group of negro soldiers were sitting in the dark, just across the road, getting drunk and loud. An empty beer bottle whistled past my ear. I looked over but thought it prudent to not make an issue of it.
The terminology evolved within the space of my own lifetime. From Negro to Black (Black Power / Black is Beautiful) to African American, a title which, linguistically, logically, and scientifically anyone can claim.
But, a man of a darker persuasion; wearing the same Army fatigues as I was; a man I didn’t know or was even a member of my own company; approached me forthrightly and stood, as it were, nose-to-nose, within inches of my face, and stated:
“I hate your blue eyes.”
I stood there in silence, gazing back into his brown eyes, searching and wondering if anyone was home. His statement was so outré, such an ‘out of the blue’ non sequitur I had neither retort, nor repartee. As the ensuing seconds passed I remained silent and altogether unresponsive. I believe my silence and the passage of time allowed him to realize what an ignorant statement he’d just made. He just walked away.
To this very day, I cannot come up with an appropriate l’esprit de l’escalier response. This incident did, however, make me realize that there are people, many, many, people in this world, who simply hate me on sight.