By Alex Berger
The incidents in this column happened many years ago. They are not indicative of our current military, which has been very successful promoting integration and racial tolerance.
As we near the end of Black History Month, the wonderful stories of distinguished blacks still fascinate me. I read and listened to accounts of such famous personalities as Dr. Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Rosetta (Mother) Gaston, and even Flushing’s own composer, James A. Bland. Their fame is universal.
But during this month, in addition to thinking about these giants of black history, my thoughts also focus on another African-American. His name is not as familiar, but he had a profound, lifelong effect upon me. His story should be told and only I can tell it.
The time was the late 1950s. The place was a U.S. Air Force installation in Germany. The individual was Isaac Powell, an airman in the U.S. Air Force. The observer was Alex Berger, a 17-year-old fellow airman.
In 1948 our military officially banned segregation within its branches. It was during basic training in upstate New York where I first met Isaac. He was a shy black man of 19 who hailed from Chicago. Isaac had once boxed as a middleweight in the Chicago Golden Gloves, but rather than talk about it he loved to hear me recite tales of my own street-fighting skirmishes when I was a civilian.
Although I had done some settlement-house boxing as a teenager, it was never on the level of the Golden Gloves. I would be asked continually by the fellows about the tough Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I was born and raised, and where my “fighting toughness” supposedly was honed. Isaac and the rest were enthralled.
Although most of my tales were fabricated (how else could I, a 120-pound storyteller, survive in this wicked world?), I never was forced to put my boasts into action. Several of my buddies, however, insisted upon setting up a “dream” boxing match, pitting Isaac against me for the championship of the squadron. But Isaac always declined. We certainly had a close relationship, but one unfortunate incident in Germany split up our close friendship.
One morning several airmen were to be transported to another location by truck convoy. In our truck a few of us had to stand because of the lack of seats. But Isaac managed to find a vacant one. I hadn’t noticed, but he was the only black man in our truck.
As if my aching feet were unable to tell me, Isaac, good-naturedly, kidded me that sitting was much better than standing and I should have been faster finding a seat. His heckling soon came to a halt when another standee loudly said, “Where I come from, it is the colored who do the standing.” Isaac, shaken by the remark, just blinked. Those powerful fists, capable of silencing the bigot, dangled motionless.
“Black boy, you’d better get your a– off that seat and pronto. Do you hear me, boy?” Isaac looked around, then turned to me. His eyes were pleading, “Say it’s all right for me to hold my seat. Say it is all right.”
Realizing that Isaac was outnumbered and not knowing how many others would come to his assistance, I advised him to get up. He deliberated for a few seconds, slowly rose from his treasure, waded through the crowd to the furthest comer of the truck and cried. It was in that truck that I had lost a friend.
In the succeeding months, I seldom saw much of Isaac because we were assigned to different areas. But when I did come in contact with him, I tried unsuccessfully to win back his friendship. He preferred, he said, to spend his time with “true friends,” airmen of his own race. Many other airmen (white and black) shared this view and it wasn’t long before the camp was divided into two racial factions. I didn’t like to see this quasi-segregation arrangement that had developed, but my views were not shared by too many others, so it continued.
I was aware that Isaac had been assigned to a sergeant who was not known for his racial tolerance. The sergeant’s verbal abuses went unanswered until one day, in reply to a racial slur, Isaac punched him. The one stripe Isaac so meritoriously earned was taken from him. A few more charges were to be written on Isaac’s once spotless record. However, the most serious one occurred at a later date. It was during the celebration of the squadron’s first anniversary of its arrival in Germany.
A large outdoor party commemorating the occasion was planned. Platters of sandwiches, salads and cakes were on tables, and several kegs of strong German beer were also brought in. Our commanding officer hoped the party would unite the squadron.
For the first time in a long while, the whites felt a common bond with their black buddies and extended their friendship to them. Germans who had assembled to watch the festivities were awed by this mutual show of comradeship. But as the drinking went on, reasoning became addled and the intense hatred blossomed anew.
White fought black and black fought white. The flailing fists of both races caused large areas of the lush green grass to turn red. The few military policemen on the scene were thwarted in their attempt to restore order.
Isaac, who had been restricted to quarters for a previous offense, saw the melee from his window. He realized that his outnumbered black buddies were taking a beating. He instinctively raced out and joined the savage battle. Uncontrolled fury best described Isaac as he bowled over one antagonist after another. When order was finally restored, they found Isaac standing over a hill of fallen bodies.
Isaac was immediately brought before the CO and charged with breaking restriction and contributing to the riot. His past misdeeds were renewed and he was declared unfit for further military duty. It was recommended that he be released with a discharge other than an honorable one. I never knew the final outcome of the case because they shipped Isaac to another base. That was the last time I saw him.
To this day, I often think of Isaac and the good times we had together, especially our duet harmonizing “That’s the Story of Love” in the squadron’s talent contest (we placed second). I will always be grateful to him for his refusal to fight me. If we had crossed gloves, I probably would not be writing this column today.
So, Isaac, as I do every Black History Month, I again want to apologize for letting you down. You taught me how to be a better and more tolerant person. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks, “buddy,” and good luck wherever you are.
Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 140.