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Prejudice and Discrimination

February 16, 2015

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, one Saturday afternoon during the summer when I turned 12, two friends and I were walking in a small business district, not exactly on our turf, but on our side of town, a half hour’s amble to the east.  Several kids like us but who lived nearby came along, and somehow beyond memory we got into a conversation, then an argument, and then a braggadocio.  The upshot was that we agreed to meet outside the Candlelight Café (on East State Street), next Saturday, to fight it out.

My father and uncles had served in WWII, and now the Korean War was on, and my father had a WWII bayonet in its khaki holster, and a Navy long-bladed knife in its gray metal sheeth.  I brought them along to the Candlelight, and we stood around for awhile and the other guys never showed.  Maybe they had forgotten, maybe they had something more interesting to do.  We felt pretty good about it, if a little unreal; and I never gave it much thought until many years later when I realized how foolish and dangerous that had been, how late developing is the teen-age pre-frontal cortex, and how lucky we had been that nobody got hurt.

When my father was a teen-ager in Fort Wayne, roughly five years before the war, he and some friends came across a group of kids like them, and soon they were about to come to blows.  My father was a muscular, athletic boy, and he stepped forward to punch one of those kids, who prompltly pulled a knife.  That changed the situation, for the better, in the sense that both sides suddenly sobered and found ways to retreat.  But the impression of that knife, the mortal impressiveness of that knife, became an addition to the attitude that was strong in my father’s white, working-class family.  He had learned that all black males carry knives, will cut you, and will not fight fairly.

He told me his story in 1964, when my sister and I were involved in marches, and talking with all our family and friends about democracy and prejudice and discrimination. I don’t think that Dad, although he was passively, personally prejudiced, almost as an afterthought, an unthinking “truth,” ever discriminated—or had the opportunity to. After a year or so of following the civil rights movement, with his young adult children directly involved, he had thought a lot, and he came to agree with our ideas and to support our actions.

Years later Mom told me another story, about something that happened to our family around 1960. Dad had become a fulltime member of the Indiana Air National Guard, because it offered steady employment, as well as because he was proud to have served in the Army Air Force during the war. He had been “activated” for a year of the Korean War.*

Now he was in line for a promotion, which would help send his son to college. It looked like the position would be his; but he was called into the office of the Base Commander (a long-time fellow soldier and friend) and informed that another friend was getting the promotion instead. A number of colleagues, who were Masons, had pointed out to the Commander, who was a Mason, that Wayne was Catholic, and the other man was—you guessed it—a Mason.

*Just btw he did not see combat in either war; but because they had excelled in their P-51s, against Messersmits and Folk-Wolfes, the 163rd Pursuit Squadron’s pilots were sent to Korea, where they came up against Mig-15s and a number of them were killed.

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