Monday, June 18, 2012

Meeting a Hero

One day back in the late 80's, a few of us helicopter pilot types met at the Hitching Post Saloon in Camarillo, California. We played pool and drank beer, but when we paused, my friend and coworker Roger said, "I want you to meet someone."

He led me to the end of the bar where an older gentleman sat sipping whiskey and reading the newspaper.
"Hal, this is R.J." I shook his hand, and was surprised by the strong grip from the slight, weathered-looking man.
"R.J. was one of the Tuskegee Airmen."

I was stunned. There, in front of me, was a man who played a part in military aviation history.

I sat with R.J. for a while. After a couple of beers, I get nosy, so I zeroed in on trying to understand what it was like to be a black man trying to become a pilot in a military where racism was still institutionalized.

The quiet, soft-spoken man had stories. Stories about how some of the training cadre made life unbearable for the Tuskegee cadets, and stories about how ill-received they were upon their deployment to combat.

But, there were also stories of training cadre and commanders who sought to compensate for the hatred the Tuskegee Airmen faced day in and day out. I asked R.J. if anything he encountered during his time as a black aviator had left him bitter.
"Not really," he said. "Except . . ."

He looked at me, seeming to weigh his words.

"They sent several of us to a different base by ground transportation to pick up some P-51's to ferry back to our base. There were only a few of us, with empty seats all around. About halfway there, we stopped at a camp to pick up some German P.O.W.'s. Even after everything we'd lived through, we were still shocked when we were ordered to stand to allow the Germans to sit."

R.J. paused, looking like he was somewhere far away, took a sip of whiskey, and met my eyes again.
"We were fighting for our country. They shouldn't have done that." He didn't look angry. He only looked sad.

He shook my hand again. I'd been dismissed, and I left R.J. alone with his whiskey, his newspaper, and his memories.