My father, like so many young men in the 40s and 50s, was a soldier. He went on to serve 21 years in the Army. Much of my life and many of my views are colored by that one simple, or not so simple, fact. I was born at a unique moment in American history. We had won WWII just a few years earlier. We won again in Korea, a less clear-cut though similarly bloody example of our supposed natural superiority, both military and otherwise. Our factories were among the last standing anywhere on earth, ours being the one major industrial nation that wasn't bombed to smithereens during the 'great' war.
After WWII, much of the manufacturing might we had thrown into the war machine to defeat the Axis powers was merged back into the general economy. As for the rest, a plot was hatched to make commodities of armaments and market them to the rest of the world like so many sprockets and widgets. And so, thanks to American business ingenuity and a general lack of morality, the mass manufacture of the deadliest and most advanced weaponry the world had ever known scarcely skipped a beat. Peacetime schmeacetime, all they needed were customers. And since there was no shortage of those who could be cajoled, tricked, goaded or provoked into raining down munitions upon others, the armaments boys figured they were in business. After all, there were 'enemies' everywhere.
So the American economy soared. GIs went to school on the GI Bill. Most families got by on a single income, housing boomed, the auto industry boomed, the birthrate boomed and America led the way in almost everything. It was a damned good time to be an American. You couldn't tell us that we weren't something.
Of course, you also couldn't tell us that we were poisoning ourselves and our planet with noxious chemicals, or that we were a deeply racist and hateful society, or that our agriculture and economy were unsustainable, or that our war machine was anything less than just and pure as the driven snow. There were some rumblings about the latter when President Eisenhower, former five-star general and WWII hero, ironically tried to warn us of a new and grave danger to our fragile democracy. The irony derives from the fact that he had been instrumental in establishing the beast of which he now warned. He spoke to the nation on January 17, 1961, as he was leaving office after 8 years as President. He talked about the Military Industrial Complex and how its growing influence had the potential to warp or even destroy our democracy. Most people didn't know what the hell he was talking about, and those who did mostly remained silent. The rest, as they say, is history. That we ignored his warning is a pity beyond measure. Everything he warned us about came true in the worst possible way, leading us inexorably to this sad place in time where the MIC drives our economy, our government, our foreign policy, and increasingly, our domestic policy.
My dad was a redneck farm boy from a small town just south of Racist, Mississippi. I think two things ameliorated his culturally inherited racism: his deeply religious mother (who embraced all the wimpy liberal Jesus stuff in the Bible, having been born too soon for the ConservaBible), and serving in the integrated military. It's hard to hang on to prejudice when you have some actual experience to mess with your calculations. So, while not exactly a pillar of racial understanding, my father had managed to pull back from his cultural programming, give the matter some thought and shed himself of the worst of his unfortunate upbringing. Going back to the Mississippi delta country to visit was strange though. That place never seemed to change.
My father's family were extremely poor, as were the vast majority of people coming out of the 'great' depression. A wealthier neighbor owned the land on which they lived and worked, making them sharecroppers. They kept a modest portion of the proceeds of their labors and gave the rest in payment for the use of the land and a rough wooden farmhouse equipped with a stone fireplace and a wood stove but without plumbing or electricity. It was at times a hand to mouth existence and depended largely upon the vagaries and capriciousness of the weather...among other things.
One winter someone stole the family cow. The younger of the nine children depended on the milk from that cow for survival, especially in winter, making its loss a serious matter. As hot as it was in the Delta country in the summer, in winter it got bitter cold. The day the cow was stolen, the ground was frozen so hard that there were no tracks to be found and very little hope of ever recovering that cow. Tragedy was averted only when a neighbor came forward and gave the family a cow. The family who donated the cow weren't themselves well off. They just had a spare cow and enough compassion and charity in their hearts to give it away to a neighbor in need. The poor often do heroic things for each other.
I don't have the experience or knowledge to speak in any definitive or incisive way to the African American culture of the Delta. I now understand that it was richer and more multi-layered than I had any consciousness of all those years ago. It gave birth to the Delta Blues for one thing. I can only speak to what I remember seeing with youthful eyes. And what I saw were lots of little shanties and shacks with lots of little children running around playing, and large groups of adults and older children working together chopping cotton or picking it or some such - which is something I have done myself. It's alright for the first hour or so, but it's commonly done from just after dawn to just before sunset, 'can see' to 'can't see.' It's ceased being fun by a good measure by the time it's over. The worst part is the sun. It tries to cook your brain. I guess to some extent it does. Feels that way anyhow. If you tried to do it without a good straw hat or pith helmet, as was the fashion, it would for sure.
I had two uncles who never left the farm. They hired groups of black workers to help them work their crops when they could afford to and the season was just so. I can't quite remember if the daily wages were a dime or a quarter, but it was one or the other, paid at the end of the day in coin. Can you imagine chopping cotton beneath the Mississippi delta sun, in one hundred plus degree temperatures all day long for a dime...or a quarter?
I chopped cotton some with my uncles and their helpers, but I was a soft city kid who sunburned easily and I never made it through a whole day. By lunchtime I was up at the house or lying in the shade. No, I never chopped cotton for a whole damned day beneath the relentless southern sun – not until many years later on the Draper Prison farm where I once again turned my hand to agriculture. Those guys didn't give a shit about my sunburn.
But I digress.
The point I was trying to get around to is that while my relations were dirt poor, it mattered in their society (our society) that they were poor but white. Being a poor black in that neighborhood was a whole other matter. Time moved slow in the Delta and slavery had only been over for a minute, and folks hadn't fully adjusted to the new circumstances, particularly white folks. So it was altogether possible to occupy the bottom rung of white society's ladder while maintaining one's superiority. So while my relations had it better than most of the area's black population only barely...they did enjoy white privilege. There must have been those among them or like them who felt it was all they had. That would explain a lot actually.
Children in my father's family went to work as soon as they could and got a healthy dose of it on a daily basis. They started where they could, picking tomatoes or whatever and worked their way up. By the time my dad was twelve he was plowing a mule. And the mule as often as not had differing ideas about what it wanted to do with its life. It balked and complained and refused to take orders. It slung dad around a good bit too from what I've heard. He speaks of it still as his own personal hell. He always got the work done though, but with some lingering questions about who it worked harder, the boy or the mule.
All this hard work made him strong and tough. He nevertheless never fully enjoyed the work and dreamt of giving it up. At seventeen he joined the Army and said goodbye to the farm. The Army seemed like summer camp to him. He sailed through boot camp setting a number of records, one of which was the obstacle course. Broke the record the first time he ran it. Upon graduation from boot camp he was promoted and made a drill instructor on the spot. So now he was teaching what he'd just been through to other recruits. He loved it. Compared to the farm it was easy peasy. He enjoyed the light-hearted exercise and good-natured competition. And the pay was ridiculous. He was in hog heaven.
So I was raised by a soldier who was grateful to the Army for saving him from the farm, and who never had any reason to question his leadership. His patriotism was unbesmirched by doubt. He loved America and the US Army, not necessarily in that order. He was gung-ho baby! We lived in the heady post-WWII John Wayne era and it was easy to believe that we were the good guys. Just a bunch of well-meaning heroes trying to lend a hand. And there were those like my dad who were just that. The best Americans...among the best anyway. Unlike their leaders who so often turned out to be among the worst.
I too had no reason to doubt or question any of it. My dad was John Wayne. Living proof of American righteousness right there in my own family. And if your dad's John Wayne, how can your country be anything less than true blue? It's good to be vested in a righteous cause. I loved knowing that we were the good guys.
I didn't know about Col. John Chivington or the Sand Creek Massacre.
I didn't know about General Smedly Darlington Butler, enforcer for capitalist gangsters.
The JFK assassination, Gulf of Tonkin, My Lai, Kent State, Jackson State and Watergate hadn't happened yet.
Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were still alive.
George W. Bush and the American embrace of torture and preemptive war were a long way off in the unimaginable future.
Things look different depending on what kind of light you throw on them. I used to take unabashed pride in my father's service, but I don't see military service in the same light anymore. World War II is a long time gone. I now realize that no one is fighting for anyone's freedom, no one is protecting democracy, and the only American way of life at stake is the right of American fat cats to profit hideously from their shabby and shameful mistreatment of others.
I still find much to admire in my father. Anyone who knows him does. But I now view his life's story as perhaps no less triumphant but much more tragic. How sad that his options were so few (as are the options for so many young people today): dire poverty or military service. Serving as cannon fodder and enforcers for rich greedy bastards is no way to live one's life. As Clint Eastwood once said, there's no future in dying.