I joined the U.S. Air Force in 1963 because I wanted to get out of my parent’s home. I ended up in Greenville, Mississippi, learning to gather and record information.
My favorite teacher was a local civilian from Leland, Mississippi, who was hired by the Air Force to teach us practical office skills. It was dopey stuff I had learned in high school. The man was subversive. He was there to educate us to be open-minded thinking people who appreciate art and music and literature.
He knew about southern authors, and talked about them. He talked Tennessee Williams and a long list of people I had never heard of. As life went on I would see and hear these people and pay attention. I remember one famous poet who wrote about the Kudzu epidemic. James Dickey, the man who wrote “Deliverance,” wrote about a plant that grew and grew and covered everything. No one can stop it to this day. It grows everywhere that does not freeze for months.
I don’t remember the name of that teacher. He changed my life and that of 35 men and women who were on the same journey with me. He knew more about humanity than my parents and relatives. The Air Force would have told him to stick to Air Force business if they had known what went on in his classroom. It reminds me that all of the teachers in my life that I appreciated were off the subject more often than following the curriculum.
I lived in an old wooden “barracks” with 35 men. We took complete care of ourselves except there were free meals and $75 a month. I did not like living with 35 men. Every Saturday night I took the bus to downtown Greenville, the city with “colored” entrances and drinking fountains and old ugly habits.
I checked into the Downtowner motel. It was peace and quiet for $7, plus a great dinner and breakfast. I would call mom and dad and watch Jackie Gleason. I loved walking on the streets, crushing pecans with my feet as I walked.
One Sunday afternoon I returned home to find my bed and locker gone. The men in the building were enjoying a joke on the “Downtowner Kid.” I walked 20 feet to the luxurious Air Force bath room and all of my things were there. I peeked back in and said, “Are we camping out tonight.” The men put all of my things back. We really did love each other.
We were all working the day JFK was shot. I was aide to the base commander that day. We were alone when we heard it on the radio. We just sat together for half an hour waiting for the rain storm to let up before he left me in charge. I was just a punk low rank kid from Minneapolis.
Soldiers at the base included Jorge P. from Mexico, who became a citizen while in the Air Force, who wanted to be a priest and taught me Mexican culture that I love to this day. Jorge’s children are my Facebook friends today and his grandchildren delight me.
Bill H. went to Washington, D.C., and worked for Minnesota representatives we all know. One young black man liked me and called me Reverend because he thought I was kind and encouraging. I was that.
Tall George from Georgia was used to being a racist. He had a few Air Force girlfriends who adored him. He liked to tell tales of his conquests in the dark to the rest of us. This was the kind of stuff I didn’t need. His other girlfriend back home died in a car crash. He was devastated. He wanted me to help him through it, and I did.
I also told George that Martin Luther King, Jr., was indeed a great man and he was wrong to mock him and that racism was bad for everyone. He respected me. We never saw each other again. I think of him every time Georgia is mentioned. There was no one I did not like at Greenville Air Force Base. We all left it as better people. Hopefully the teacher from Leland knew he did good.
I returned to Greenville in 1988 on the Delta Queen with 50 Russians and a hundred Americans, on a “Peace Cruise.” My daughter was with us. It was international news that did much to end the cold war. Soviet Television and NBC were there. One of the Soviet journalists worked for Channel 11 for a summer and appeared on the Johnny Carson show. The archives of media are full of stories.
My 9-year-old daughter stood on the shore at Greenville and copied the mayor saying, “Welcome to Greenville” as people arrived in town from another boat. My daughter was singing on Soviet TV. The Minnesota connection was unintentionally caused by my wife and I.
This morning I looked up Greenville, Mississippi on the Internet. At the top of a list was a teacher, Mike Johnston, who says ‘that the kids I met (teaching in Greenville) inspired me to become a principal, a state senator, and now, a candidate for governor of Colorado.’ He lost that election and is running for U.S. senator today. He was advisor to President Barack Obama.
I became an anti-war soldier a few months after Greenville. My next job was interviewing pilots who wanted out of serving in Vietnam.