And I think about what my own experience at one of these installations should have taught me about racism in America, but didn’t. Until now.
In the fall of 1968, at the age of 23, I was drafted into the U.S. Army in one of the last big pushes to “win” the war in Vietnam. I was a reluctant soldier, to put it mildly, but I did what I was asked to do, along with the nearly 300,000 other men who were drafted in 1968. After basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash., I was shipped off for advanced training at Fort Gordon, just outside Augusta, Ga.
I had spent my entire life in Washington state and had never been to the South. As the big Army bus rolled through the gate, I noticed a plaque proclaiming that the fort had been named for John Brown Gordon, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. I didn’t give it a second thought.
Later, on a drive through the beautiful city of Augusta, I noticed that the cemetery had a lot of Confederate grave markers. The gift shops sold a lot of souvenir Confederate flags. A tall brick smokestack still stood along the Savannah River, the last remnant of the Powder Works, which produced all the gunpowder for the Confederate army. None of that made any impression on me. Until now.
Trump has referred to the Confederate-named bases as “Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.” The Fort Gordon I knew was anything but. It was a relic of the two world wars and ought to have been demolished long before 1968. When we arrived, there were no barracks available for us. So for several nights we slept on cots in old canvas tents on the parade field, with kerosene heaters to keep us warm.
Finally, we were taken to some boarded-up barracks buildings that looked as if they had not been occupied since 1945. We used crowbars to rip off the boards so we could get in. Our building had holes in the floor and a leaky roof. Some of the windows had no glass. It was heated by an ancient furnace that required one of us, on a rotating basis, to stay up all night to feed it coal.
There were about 40 of us there, sleeping in metal bunk beds with thin mattresses and one Army blanket. We were all colors and ethnicities, from all parts of the country. I used to think of the Army as a great equalizer. Until now.
We were in training six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. We always looked forward to the brief time when we weren’t: the few hours every Saturday night when we could go into Augusta to drink and carouse like civilians. I was part of a tight group of a half-dozen guys who always went to town together. But one of us never did, and I hadn’t really thought about why. Until now.
His name was Max, an African American kid about 20 years old. I think he was from New Jersey. One Saturday night as our group was leaving for town, I pleaded with Max to join us. Max, as usual, was in his upper bunk reading a magazine. He stared at me for a moment, then just gently shook his head to say “no.”
For more than 51 years, I never gave much thought to why he wouldn’t go with us. Today, with what has been happening in our nation, I think I know. Max understood only too well that it wasn’t safe for a young African American man from New Jersey to be drinking and walking around downtown Augusta on a Saturday night. And it makes me wonder what Max felt while training to serve his country — and possibly die for it — surrounded by symbols glorifying men who betrayed their country to keep people like him enslaved.
At the end of January 1969, most in our barracks got orders to Vietnam. I assume Max did, too, but I don’t know for sure. In the Army, your buddies come and go. I hope Max made it home alive and well, as I did. I hope his life has been happy and productive, as I consider mine to be. But I never really considered how much harder his path has likely been. Until now.
And the reasons I haven’t are exactly why Fort Gordon — and the other Confederate-lauding installations — should be renamed. Now.
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