Because my father was a career sailor in the United States Navy I grew up in many places. For three years the Old Master Chief was stationed in St. Louis. We had then and have now family living there. That's why, after serving in Vietnam, the Old Master Chief chose St. Louis for recruiting duty. It was one of the few times we did not live in Navy housing nor on a Naval installation. Living like civilians in St. Louis was an eye-opening experience, a time filled with old friends and family. It was also a close-up look at the prejudices afflicting America that we seldom experienced on a Naval base. I must say, recent events in Ferguson come as no surprise to me. It fits that a St. Louis town with a majority-black population is governed with a heavy hand by a majority white city council and a drastically white police force. Anyone educated in St. Louis at the time I was could see it coming.
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My siblings and I attended elementary school in Bel Ridge, just minutes on Florissant Road from Ferguson. It was the '60s, when schools in St. Louis and its suburbs were desegregated by court order. We saw black children our ages get off the bus before school, but there were no signs of them in our classrooms. We only saw black students by chance in the hallway or on the playground. Those were turbulent times, to say the least. And Bel Ridge Elementary was smack dab in the middle of it. We could not escape the angry white parents shouting the N-word in front of the school as bewildered black boys and girls stepped off the bus. These are the visions I see when I drive past Bel Ridge Elementary on my visits to family in St. Louis.
My Missouri roots delve even deeper than that. On another occasion, when the Old Master Chief was training between duty stations in Pensacola, Fla., we lived with our grandmother and attended high school surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest deep in the Missouri Ozark Mountains. Sounds like paradise but it's not. The high school serves what once was a "Sundowner Town." History tells us that Missouri was a border state in the Civil War, and it remained a slave state while ostensibly siding with the Union. Deep in Southern Missouri there are public reminders of that awful contradiction. The highways are lined with billboards advertising the home of Frank and Jesse James, the outlaws and Confederate guerrillas who remain local folk heroes to this day. I remember passing those signs when the Old Master Chief was on leave and we made pilgrimages to Grandma's house in the all-white town where my mother grew up. Six weeks attending high school where a sign at the city limits said, "Nigger don't let the sun set on you here," was indeed an education. It was a relief when the Old Master Chief rolled into town to pick up my siblings and me on the way to his next duty station in San Diego.
Navy life is a nomad's life. The Old Master Chief set sail with the family to ports in Texas, California, Washington, Illinois and Hawaii. In Texas and California we were asked point-blank by incredulous white kids why we had black friends. The answer was simple. Our friends lived in Navy housing and were our neighbors. We played together, ate together and rode the bus to school together. We had more in common with our Navy friends than we did with the kids we met off base. Within a few dollars, our fathers - black, white, Pacific Islander, Asian - earned the same pay and wore the same clothes (Naval uniforms) when they went to work. Our parents bought our school clothes at the same store, the Navy Exchange, and bought our groceries at the same commissary. For our multi-ethnic mix of Navy brats the base was a miraculous meritocracy. We were the same and everyone outside was different. We were protected from America's racial reality by barbed-wire-topped fences and armed servicemen standing guard at the gates. And while racism reared its ugly head everywhere we went, even sometimes on base, never once did we live in a place where the word "nigger" was and is used more, and more casually, than it is in the cities and towns of Missouri.