Declaration of Independence
The year I graduated from high school is the same year they put a man on the moon; and it just so happens that I turned seventeen that summer of 1969. Now, these two events might seem to have no relationship to each other, but as I look back on that summer, I realize that they are inextricably entwined, and set the course that my life has taken ever since. You see, I figured if America could put a man on the moon, there was no reason a kid like me, born and raised in a hick town of seven hundred people, every one of which knew everything there was to know about you, couldn’t strike out on his own. I’d grown up watching war films on our old black and white TV and at the ratty cinema downtown, and had always wanted to be a soldier like those I saw on the screen, saving the world from the nasty Nazis and Banzai troopers. I’d been a pretty good student, despite having attended the last segregated school in the county, and was in pretty good physical condition. There was only one obstacle that stood between me and my desire to don a uniform – my mother.
My father had been in the army. He’d been drafted in 1947, and served in segregated units until 1949 when President Truman integrated the armed forces. Dad had decided to stay on and make a career in the new army, and was serving in an infantry unit when the North Koreans streamed across the DMZ into South Korea in 1950. He was among the first to volunteer to go, and was serving as a platoon sergeant during the battle of the Chosin Reservoir. He was among the more than 6,000 who fell during that battle, and never returned home. Up until that time, my mother, like most other southern blacks, had been a staunch supporter of military service as a way for poor blacks to work their way up out of poverty and off the farms. When did didn’t come home, something inside her died. She wouldn’t even watch war movies on TV when we bought one, and gave me strange looks when I went into town to sit in the balcony reserved for ‘Colored’ to see the latest John Wayne war movie.
She was in the little room off our small kitchen doing laundry when I told her I wanted to join the army. She’d been taking clothes from the washer and running them through the wringer attached to the top. She stopped what she was doing, wiped the water and soap suds from her smooth brown arms and leaned on the washing machine.
Even though her back was to me, from the tenseness in her body, I could tell she was frowning. “Now Larry James, baby,” she said slowly. “I know you always like to watch them war movies, but the real army ain’t like the movies. Besides, I wanted you to go to college in the fall.”
She always called me by my first and middle names, much like the rest of the old folks in the south. I went by L.J., and that’s what all my friends called me. We wanted to be cool, so we avoid a lot of the old timey ways. Momma just called us uppity.
“Mamma,” I said. “I looked it up. I can join the army and still go to school, and they’ll pay for it.”
“You hush up, child! They telling you all that; don’t mean nothing. They got that war over in Vietnam going, and ain’t no way they gon’ let no black boy get out of it. You wouldn’t be having no time to go to no college.”
I knew all about the widening war in Vietnam. That was one of the reasons I wanted to join up. Some of my friends felt the same. I figured if my papa could fight in a war, I wouldn’t be a real man until I did too. “The recruiting sergeant over in Shreveport told me I probably wouldn’t go right away,” I said. “Besides, with my test scores, I wouldn’t be in the infantry. I’d probably be a clerk or a signal specialist.”
“They tell you anything to get you to sign up,” she said. “Then they send you off to get yourself killed.”
“It’s not like that, mamma,” I protested. “The sergeant I talked to is a black man. He wouldn’t lie to me.”
She heaved away from the washing machine and turned around to face me, her arms folded across her ample bosom. There were traces of tears in the corners of her almond eyes. For a moment she looked much older than the 37 I knew her to be. “Larry James, why don’t you want to go on to college? I been slaving away in the white folks kitchens and doing without to save up enough. With what I put away, and that eight hundred dollar scholarship you got for being valedictorian of your class, you can go to Prairie View or Wylie and make something of yourself.”
“I can go into the army and get enough money to go to a real big school. One somewhere up north where they teach you to be something besides a colored man who knows his place.” Now, I was the one close to tears. The last thing I wanted to do was get a degree that would prepare me to be an underpaid teacher at some little country school in one of the dirt poor counties of Texas.
She looked at me and shook her head. “I declare, child, you as stubborn as a mule. You get something in that hard head of yours and ain’t nothing can shake it out.”
“Well, it’s like Big Mamma says,” I said, referring to my grandmother. “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. You’re pretty stubborn yourself, so I guess it comes naturally.”
“You watch that mouth of yours, boy, before I slap you up side that nappy head,” she said. But, there was the beginning of a smile on her lips. “Why in the name of the Lord you want to go in the army?”
How could I explain it so she would understand? I never got to know my father. I guess I thought if I joined the army, it would help me know what he was like. I knew better, though, than to bring him up. The hurt of losing him was still very real for mama, and I wouldn’t do that to her. “I guess I think it will help make me a better man,” I said. “Give me a chance to see the world outside Texas; learn a skill; and get an education at the same time.”
“I don’t suppose it’s gonna do me any good to try to talk you out of it?”
“No, mama,” I said. “My mind’s made up. I’m not going to college this fall, so if you don’t sign the papers so I can join the army, I guess I’ll sign on down at the pulpwood mill.”
Her eyes widened, and her lips curled into a snarl. “Don’t you be fooling ‘round with me, boy! I didn’t raise you to work in no mill.”
“I don’t want to do it, but I’ll need something to do until I turn 18 and can join up without your signature.” Mama was stubborn, but she was also smart. She knew from the look on my face that I was serious. Between me being in the army (which probably was scared to death that I’d get sent to Vietnam) and me working in the saw mill, I think she chose the lesser of two evils.
“Okay, I’ll sign the papers. But, Larry James, I hope you know what you doing.”
“I do, mama. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and it’s really what I want to do,” I said. “The sergeant will be coming to the house this afternoon with the papers for you to sign.”
“You done told him to come here before you even talked to me?”
“Aw, mama,” I said. “I knew you’d see reason, besides, I need to be signed up so I can leave for basic training in two days.”
“Oh, my Lord, what kind of child have I raised? That’s what I get for not taking a switch to you more often when you was little.” Truth was she’d only switched me a couple of times anyway. “I wished you’d had the decency to give me a bit more notice. Lordy, I got to get myself presentable.” She forgot all about the laundry, and rushed out of the room to change. That was my mama; once she went along with something she jumped in with both feet.
The next two days went by in a blur. The recruiting sergeant, a tall muscular black staff sergeant named Willard Jameson, came by and got the papers signed. He flirted a bit with my mama which got her all flustered and left me a bit red-faced; but he winked at me over the top of her head to let me know there was nothing to it.
When the big day came, I got up early, cleaned my room and packed what I thought I’d be able to keep during training. Mama made a big breakfast, and I had to spend an hour convincing her not to pack a sack lunch. She must have checked me over a dozen times to make sure her only son would be the best looking new recruit at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
When she was satisfied that I wouldn’t embarrass the family, we walked together up to Highway 84 to wait for the Greyhound bus to come by. Our town was too small for a station, so you had to wait beside the road and flag the bus down. The big bus pulled off the highway and stopped in a squeal and hiss of brakes, throwing up a cloud of red dust.
I hugged mama goodbye and climbed up the steps when the door hissed open. I told the driver I was going to Leesville, Louisiana and gave him the voucher that Sergeant Jameson had given me for bus fare. The wizened old white man driving the bus glanced at the voucher, stuffed it into a box near his seat and motioned me to the back of the bus. I hauled my small cardboard suitcase back, put it on the overhead rack and sat on the very back seat. The bus was almost empty; one old black man two seats in front of me, and five white passengers in the first four rows. The bus pulled back onto the highway and the highway and picked up speed, heading toward the Louisiana state line just 12 miles away.
I glanced out the back window. Mama was standing beside the road, left hand over her heart, right hand waving. The last thing I saw before we got too far away for me to see clearly was twin streams of tears glistening on her cheeks.