When I was in first grade, Ben Wells was my best friend. His family and mine lived in identical duplexes next to each other on an Air Force base in Plattsburgh, New York. At the northern end of the state, Plattsburgh had long, cool summer evenings and loads of snow in the winter. I thought it was heaven. Ben and I liked the same things. We climbed trees in our yards and played with his cat. We liked playing with our Hot Wheels cars and GI Joes. I also liked his sister. She was beautiful, but she was older and out of my league. She was a third grader.
I liked the smell of Ben’s house. Mrs. Wells burned incense, which I had never seen before. Mrs. Wells also made grilled cheese sandwiches that rivalled my Mom’s. I kept this secret to myself. In 1970, my family moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where the Air Force had formal training schools. Dad attended Air Command and Staff College. I attended third grade. Montgomery was very different than Plattsburgh. The weather was hot and humid. No snow. People spoke with a different accent than mine. One of my neighbors was Mark, a boy my age, and his older brother, Bubba. They used words that I had never heard before. One of them was “n...,” which sounded like a bad thing. When I asked Mark what that was, he said it was a black person. I knew about black people. Ben, my best friend, was black. And I told him so. Bubba said, “You should be ashamed of yourself for having a n... as a friend.”
As a kid, I had a short temper. And at that moment, I saw red. I yelled back at Bubba, “No! You should be ashamed of yourself.” Bubba shoved me to the ground and stood over me. He was bigger and scared me. I got up and ran home. I was crying, and they were laughing.
It was a rough year. In fact, it was a rough year for the whole state of Alabama. It was the first year of desegregation under Governor George Wallace. I was relieved when Dad’s school ended, and we moved. We went to South Carolina for the summer and then to Kansas and Nebraska. And then in 1976, we returned to Montgomery where Dad attended Air War College. I didn’t have a good feeling about returning, but when the Air Force tells you to go, you go.
Shortly after moving back, I was in a barbershop, and I recognized my former neighbors, Mark and his dad. I smiled at Mark and then looked at a couple of black men in the barbershop. I was trying to say, “See, I was right. Black people are not bad.” But I said nothing out loud. I feared his dad, and had heard him say the “N” word before.
That year, I attended ninth grade at Goodwyn Junior High, which had both black and white students. It seemed okay to have interracial friends. But I saw that many white adults – and even teachers – were just faking it. My PE teacher was the worst. The state allowed corporal punishment, and when my black schoolmates failed to bring gym shorts, he spanked them hard with half a baseball bat that was split down the middle. He almost never hit white boys. And he smiled when he did it. I hated him.
After graduating, Dad got orders to command a B-52 squadron at Loring Air Force Base in northern Maine. I was delighted. The local community had a small high school, and I made the junior varsity basketball team. I had no talent, but I was tall. And I quickly made friends with the most flashy and popular kid on our team, Ernie. He was fun, athletic, and good-looking. His big afro reached across his wide shoulders. He showed me how to jump and then to dunk a basketball. We shared three sports – soccer, basketball, and track. Ernie was a phenomenal sprinter. I threw javelin and discus. We liked the same funky R&B music – not hard rock and roll. Ernie organized weekend dances as a DJ at the base youth center, which soon became the most popular teen scene around.
In my final semester of high school, the Air Force ordered us back to Nebraska. At my last school dance, Ernie dedicated a rap to me. He rapped, “He’s white on the outside and black in the middle. Does he like rock and roll? He says very little.” He also said that I threw a spear and jumped like a brother. “This is the truth, and this is the fact -- that leads to the conclusion that my man is half black.” Though I lost contact with Ben, Ernie and I remain the best of friends. I’m proud of our brotherhood. I’m proud that our friendship has lasted through decades and across miles. And I’m proud to say that in this small corner, love conquered hate. I hope it catches on.
About the Author: Steve Ray serves as congregational president of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection.