I remember watching every glorious air show with the Master Sergeant as he puffed Marlboros and toasted our tax dollars as they rocketed past and looped and rolled. Growing up on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base made me who I am.
Being military brats, my boyhood friends and I were global travelers. We knew geography long before our civilian peers.
I remember going to the base movie theater with my big sister, standing knee-high to men and women in crisp uniforms who shot to attention when old glory appeared and the national anthem was sung. I knew what it meant to be an American long before my civilian peers.
The Cold War was hot, and every morning I’d wake to the roar of Strategic Air Command B-52s. We saw the arsenal of democracy up close, and we knew the cost of being an American long before our peers.
The word “PRIDE” was painted in huge letters on one of the hangars for all inhabitants of our military village to see. I saw pride when I’d watch the Master Sergeant polish his shoes with cotton balls until they gleamed.
I got great free medical care in a cloistered world that, thanks to Harry S. Truman, was more integrated than the world of our civilian peers. The integrated feature of military life shaped me more than anything else. I grew up on a rainbow block with neighbors who had names like Goldberg, Hernandez, Jones, Yang, Ibrahim, Gomez and Sharif.
It was here I toyed with white supremacy for three minutes in 1962.
Chris Hernandez was my best friend. His dad was Mexican-American. His mom was Japanese. (Their home smelled delicious.)
We were 7, it was a Saturday and we were outside between our homes wrestling. We were having a great time until Chris landed a blow. I retaliated, knocking him down. I stood over him. I was king of the world. Why not? Everywhere I looked on television, whites ruled the world. Every minority was mocked on all three networks. Wasn’t every Asian like Hop Sing? Every Latino like Jose Jimenez? In a world of Tontos and Amos and Andys ,I was John Wayne, the King of Anglo-Saxon America.
I knew better. As the Master Sergeant would say, “You weren’t raised to delight evil.”
Looking down on Chris, I pinched my eyelids into slits, stuck out my tongue and made the face of every Asian I had seen caricatured in the old World War II Popeye cartoons.
If the Master Sergeant had been watching, I would have been dead. A street orphan with a third-grade education, he believed racism was pathetic, a form of snobbery practiced by what he called, with great disgust, “ignorant white trash.”
“Bigots delight evil. Do not disgrace our family name by thinking you’re better than anyone else.”
Before I knew it, Chris was on top of me. He stretched his eyelids wide open. “Oh, yeah? Well, my mom says all you white people look like surprised monkeys.” I was stunned. On that day I learned we all engage in racist stereotyping.
And on that same day, when I felt the Master Sergeant’s grip on my neck, I learned to apologize for racist stereotyping and to never assume he wasn’t watching. And listening. Before sunset, we all were back to playing kickball in the street.
Years later, when the segregationist Gov. George Wallace was on the Magnavox standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama, the Master Sergeant cursed him.
“That jackass delights evil. He’s making bigots happy. He’s encouraging them!”
In this era, when our commander-in-chief “delights evil” with his raw bigotry and his selective silence, I remember the rag-tag rainbow of Americans who taught me the meaning behind E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one, at a formative age.
They are why I stand with our fallen Muslim brothers and sisters at Christchurch. Why I stand with our fallen black brothers and sisters at Charleston, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters at Orlando and our Jewish brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
Go to the magnificent “Thunder and Lightning” air show. Marvel at our thrilling arsenal of democracy looping, diving and rolling across our big, beautiful skies. And then, look around you at the thousands of your fellow citizens gathered there with you and you will see what those fearless pilots have sworn to defend: a diverse society, rich with differences that stands together, united as one, against the enemies of freedom embodied in the authoritarian, the terrorist and the racists among us.