A Defining Moment
Contemporary definitions for defining moment
noun: an occurrence that typifies or determines all related events that follow
Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon
How do you feel about a subject? Any subject. What are your prejudices? How did you arrive at that point? Were these opinions and prejudices handed down to you or did you form them on your own after a revelation or after a personal experience?
My former boss started out to become a psychologist. He majored in psychology and did everything right, I suppose, but ended up in sales and management. But he never lost that urge to try and understand what made people tick. He, along with the help of a practicing psychologist and professor, put together a self-help tape designed to make people better at being a student. Entitled “How to Study and Why”, he had some sales success with that. Later he decided to do a project to help kids with the idea of prejudice and how to overcome it.
To do the research on prejudice, they set up some very casual meeting rooms and brought kids in for interviews. They wanted to try to help kids with the problem of racial prejudice.
They brought in the kids in groups and ask them to raise their hand if they knew what “prejudice” was/is. Several hands went up. They called on one little girl and ask her to define what prejudice meant to her. She said, “Prejudice is when people don’t like you because you have red hair.” She had red hair. A young boy said, “It’s like when they don’t like you because you have freckles.” Of course, he had freckles. Fat, skinny, big ears, short, tall. On and on it went. They soon realized that this was way beyond anything they had expected and were up to trying to handle as an academic solution. They soon abandoned the project.
I don’t recall hearing any conversations that were racially prejudicial growing up. But, it is probably because of a lack of awareness and that the conversations seemed normal and weren’t in a context of trying to teach me anything. Words and phrases that would have been stinging or hurtful to someone of another race, or sex, weren’t pointed out or challenged because, in most cases, there was no one present that would acknowledge having been offended. I was not around people of another race on a day to day basis. I always thought my parents and grandparents were kind and courteous to everyone. I don’t remember being disrespectful to anyone of another race, but they may not have agreed.
I went to an all-boys, all white, high school in the ‘50’s. There were no private schools in the community at that time. The exception was the Catholic School. I never knew that my friend, Harold Levine, and the Kaplan’s, were Jewish. I never heard anyone express anti-Jewish ideas in those days at my house. Again, I was oblivious to these views. I kept hearing that “separate but equal for the black community was just fine.
The premier private school in town, where people with money that could afford it would soon be sending their kids, was not formed until the year I graduated from high school. I knew no one going to private school at the time I was in high school. In the next few years churches started opening private schools in droves as de-segregation and busing began to be implemented. Then, many people who really could not afford private school started sending their kids to one of these schools.
My kids went to public school and I think they have done fine having done so although I am reminded from time to time that they “had to go to public school.” I resented all the “private school” people driving up to my door wanting me to support some fund raising project that their kids were involved in to help pay their private school costs. I don’t think a single one of them ever considered the irony of them doing so. I guess I have just revealed one of my prejudices!
When Seagary (SP) Brice came up to me one night at the Blue Top Café (Really a gas station, hamburger and beer joint (a Juke Joint) where the black customers had to go around to the back) in about 1958/59 and gave me a hug in the parking lot and said goodbye, I had no appreciation for what he faced as a young, nice looking, articulate black man in the rural south. He was following other young black men from the area who had found work in the growing auto industry in Michigan and he was going to work for the Pontiac Division of GM. In many ways, this was the real “emancipation” that allowed these young men to find a better way of life for themselves. He and his family had hired out to farmers in the area to help gather produce and do other farm work and I had met him when his family contracted with my grandparents for work from time to time and he came with them to work. I never saw or heard from him again. I have wondered many times about him and have never been able to track him down.
It was common in the summers and around holidays for a new Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile or Chevrolet with Michigan plates to drive through the area or be seen parked at one of the homes in the area. This meant that one of the young men had come home to visit their family.
I worked one summer at Coleman Meadows Pate wholesale drug company. I worked in the receiving department when I first started with a black man named Joe Griggs. Joe was well dressed, smart, and kind to me. On his lunch hour he would take the Coca Cola caps out of the Coke machine and bring them over to the dock door. He would lay them down flat on the concrete floor and line them up in succession. He would then take a 5 iron and hit them across the parking lot. (He would pick them up when he finished). He could hit them over and over and his club never hit the concrete. Try that sometime.
Joe’s passion was golf. He was good at it. He caddied at the Bowden Municipal Golf Course on the weekends. The course was closed on Mondays so he would rush out at 5:00 on Mondays to go play golf at the only course he was allowed to play at in the area at the time…..the municipal course that was closed when he was allowed to play. No one I knew played golf then. He gave me my first golf lesson. I never saw, understood, or recognized the problem he had trying to play golf! He never complained to me. He just accepted things the way they were.
We could all agree on one thing: we did not like Yankees! I guess this was a carryover from the Civil War. I never really was around too many Yankees as a youngster and my early experiences as an adult traveling in places like New Jersey ( there for 6 weeks in East Orange ) did even more to confirm that Yankees were rude, overbearing, obnoxious, and generally not nice to be around. I was in a sales class run by Litton Industries ( now part of Northrup Grumman ) there and several of the group always seemed to be looking for a fight or argument. I roomed with a guy from New York City.
Somewhere along the way, I can’t say exactly what year, something happened. I believe this was about 1968 or 69. Bob, Dave, and I were traveling through Pennsylvania on one of our antique trips. A fast weekend up to get some cut glass and stuff that we could bring back and sell. We were looking for a lady’s antique shop in and around York, PA. We somehow got turned around and there were no GPS’s and such back in those days.
We were driving through what could be best described as farm land, but a lot of the neat houses beside the road only backed up to the farm land and were not actually farms themselves. Bob pulled the truck into a driveway of one such house and asked me to go to the door and see if someone would give us directions to where we needed to go. I would guess it was about 2:00 in the afternoon. I was preparing myself for a possibly rude reception but I knocked on the door.
The inner door was open and they had a screen door on the outside. A fellow came to the door and said, “What can I do for you?” I started to explain that we were lost and looking for the particular antique dealer when he interrupted me.
“Where are you from?”
I told him Georgia and then he asked what part of Georgia and I replied Macon.
“Do you know where Camp Wheeler is?” he asked.
I said I did and he wanted to know what was currently there and I explained there was basically just a drag strip out there then. He still had not answered my question regarding directions.
Historical Note: (Source, Wikipedia)
Camp Wheeler was a United States Army base near Macon, Georgia. The camp was a staging location for many US Army units during World War I and World War II. It was named for Joseph Wheeler, a general in the Confederate States of America’s Army.
Colonel A.R. Emery was the first camp commander. Troop capacity was 25, 890. A 1,000 bed hospital and a prisoner-of-war camp were included in the new camp. Solders trained there totaled 218,000. I also know that the CCC housed workers there as I have pictures of the base when my father was there. I believe this would have been during the Ocmulgee Park restoration about 1939. It was not an operating Army base at that time.
The War Department used the site area of Camp Wheeler as a mobilization center from 1917 to 1918. It was established on July 18, 1917 as a temporary training camp for National Guard units in federal service and consisted primarily of tents in a cantonment area for the 29,000 officers and enlisted men. The military closed the first Camp Wheeler on April 10, 1919.
The military used Camp Wheeler as an infantry replacement center from 1940 to 1945. The base was re-established on October 8, 1940, with construction beginning on December 21, 1940. Rather than being used to train entire units, the camp was an Infantry Replacement Training Center where new recruits received basic and advanced individual training to replace combat casualties. The camp was divided into three major portions: a cantonment area, a maneuver area, and a main impact area. At the height of the training effort, the camp contained 17,000 trainees and 3,000 cadre personnel. The camp was declared excess on January 19, 1946. Following a decontamination operation in the fall of 1946, the land was returned to the owners.
Among units that staged there was the 7th Infantry Division.
“Who do you have with you?” he asked and I explained that it was a couple of my buddies and we were up getting some antiques to sell to help cover our hunting costs. “Tell them to come in,” he said. Then he turned around and called to his wife, “There are three guys here from Macon where I was I stationed for a while in the Army. They are going to come in. Let’s get out the key lime pie and iced tea. I want to talk to them about Macon.”
So, here is a guy inviting in three guys he has never seen to have pie. We could have been escaped convicts. But, he talks about being in the Army in Macon, and then the conversation turns to guns and hunting. “So you guys like guns and hunting? Walk out here on the back porch with me.”
He had the back porch set up for a spotting scope and a shooting bench. He had an agreement with the farmer that he could shoot the groundhogs that were a problem for the land owner and also could target practice with his rifles. We took a few practice shots over his “shooting range”.
That afternoon, near York, Pennsylvania was a defining moment for me. The key lime pie and iced tea were good. Shooting his rifle on the range was fun. But the main thing that happened that day for me was a major change in how I viewed people from “The North” and my attitude toward “Yankees”. I realized what I should have known all the time: There are some real horse’s rear ends in just about every area you travel. And then, there are some really nice people who invite you, a stranger, into their house, ask you to sit at their table, and slice up the home made key lime pie. And it is these people that make the world a much nicer place. And, I would never see the world the same again.