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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.

For more continue reading past the tilted ampersand.

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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Military life has a lot of suck, but there are (3+ / 0-)

    a few compensations.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

    by Greyhound on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 02:02:28 PM PDT

  •  I spent 3 years in Missouri with an organization (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    houyhnhnm, kaliope, chimene, kurt

    in the 80's - in Columbia, supposedly a more liberal college town with its journalism school but aka "Little Dixie" (and where Sam Walton grew up & went to high school); in Springfield, "Buckle of the Bible Belt" during the time when Jimmy Swaggert was being brought up before the A of G board for his escapades, at a farm in "Windyville" in the middle of the Ozarks and in Belleville, Ill, the other side of East St. Louis from SL. Am I surprised by what's going on in "Misery"? No way.
    An unrelated police anecdote from that time: entering a small town near Lake of the Ozarks was a steep hill. Halfway down the hill, the speed limit changed abruptly from whatever the normal rural road speed was to 15 mph. I traveled that road at least monthly for a couple of years. I never went down that hill without there being a police car having pulled someone over or waiting to in a little pulloff area. (I had been prewarned by someone who was caught, so was never caught myself.)

  •  Integrating the services was a huge step forward (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Road to1 Escondido, kaliope, chimene, kurt

    Roosevelt started it and Truman nailed it home.
    And while nothing is perfect, it has made a huge difference in the way race is perceived.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 03:54:40 PM PDT

  •  This country is too far removed from total war (0+ / 0-)

    ... on it's own soil to understand that blood shed out of any body is still red, no matter the color of the wrapper. And that level of ignorance is rotting the fabric of what used to be the greatest asset this country had.

    But while social conditions in the armed forces remain a reflection of its civilian volunteers in terms of class segregation, culture conflicts, crime and boorish behavior, the overall quality of life created by a reasonably well - enforced level playing field regulated by the UCMJ produces behavior and a community mindset vastly superior to that of current civilian life in America.

    Which is damned depressing when you stop to think about it.

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