After serving with the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, I had a few months left on my 2 year commitment to the Army.
The day before I left Vietnam, a General came into our tent near at the base camp of the Ivy Division, in the mountains close to the Cambodian border, and told the departing or "shortimers" as we were called, "You have served your country admirably...those of you who have time left before being discharged from the Army, can put in for a base close to your home to serve the remainder of your service."
Naturally, after being drafted out of West Los Angeles, I put in to be transfered to the west coast.
Of Course, the Army sent me to Fort Polk, Louisiana--the other side of the country.
While I understood the great racial divide of the 1960s, I was shocked at my first experience into the deep south and the bayous of rural Louisiana.
It was late 1967, and I was sitting at a civilian barber shop near the base, when I heard a couple of older guys shooting the "shit" and talking about how they knew exactly where to mount a machine gun to mow down civil rights marchers--in case they came to Leesville. It was normal bravado of the time.
But, I really got the point when I was driving from Lake Charles back to my base, with my wife, Wendy, when I was stopped by the police for speeding.
Usually, they didn't bust White soldiers driving on a Sunday--but they must have seen my California plates before they noticed my Army uniform hanging in the back---a common defensive for soldiers not to be harassed by the local cops.
As I pulled away, after receiving my ticket, another driver pulled along side us and asked me to pull over, again, and talk.
He said, "did you just get back from Vietnam?"
I said, "Yes, sir."
He glanced at my red haired, green eyed, young wife, and said he was a "lawyer and just follow him to the court house."
When we arrived in the courtroom, an old judge, very disheveled, walked in and sat behind the bench.
With a very southern accent, the lawyer said, "Judge, this boy just got back from Vietnam, and I was near where the boy got this ticket, and really don't think he was speeding."
The Judge looked up and asked, "Did you just come back from Vietnam?" I answered, "Yes, sir!"
The next act surprised me. He looked at the lawyer and tore up my ticket. "You're free to go."
The Attorney looked at us and with a hand, told us in no uncertain language to get the hell out of the courtroom.
No Equal Justice Under the Law
The next Saturday, I had headquarters duty.
The 2nd Lieutenant was talking to a local white soldier, about a "Negro" who was busted on a Friday and put in jail over the weekend. The jailed soldier was a recent Vietnam returnee.
It was well known at the time that the Black soldiers were busted on trumped up speeding tickets on a Friday, so they could be thrown in jail, by the local police, and not be bailed out until Monday.
This was the way the local White power structure gave notice, and a threat to African-American soldiers, of who was really in charge around the base.
When the officer inquired whether the Corporal could bail the Black soldier out of the local jail, the enlisted man replied in a deep souther drawl, "Sir, do you know what would happen to me in this town if I bailed out a "N....." out of jail?
It was a statement, not a question.
The officer then just shook his head and dropped the conversation.
I often wonder if, in the back of my mind, this was the specific incident which caused me to work for Los Angeles Councilman Tom Bradley in his first quest to become the first Black Mayor of a majority White voting city in 1969.
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