Staff Sgt. Frederick Carter has lived in his retirement home in Valencia for six years. A five-bedroom, five-bathroom, Mediterranean-style home nestled in the Vista Hills community, its natural lighting and massive windows seem to blur the lines between the two-story home and the surrounding curated natural beauty outside.
“I don’t think there (were) any other black folks in this neighborhood in 2013,” said Carter. “Someone one time in the neighborhood stopped us and rolled down their windows, and asked if we were lost.”
The inside of the home has stained hardwood, open seating, large plants and pictures of family decorating the walls and furniture. His balcony, which runs the entire back side of the home, overlooks a crystal clear swimming pool, an outdoor barbecue patio for the family to sit under, and an eagle’s-eye view of a golf course.
“But if you grew up with that for a lot of your life, you learn to deal with that (2013 comment) or else you’re going to be pissed off a lot of the time. I tell myself, and I look at my dad, and what he went through in the ’40s and what his grandfather went through … that’s resilience.”
Tucked away neatly in drawers or briefcases are proof of a life that failed to beat down a man of unlimited optimism. He has pictures of when he was a smiling teenager in the Air Force, working down the street from a regular meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan. Pictures of when he had bombs dropped on him for being an American. And memories as a firefighter, where some people wouldn’t allow him into their home, even when it meant he was the only one who could potentially save their lives.
Carter’s retirement home is refreshing, it’s reassuring. It reflects his attitude toward life.
“That’s the key, no matter what is thrown at you in life,” he said. “You have to stay positive.”
Frederick Carter was born July 25, 1949, in Springfield, Ohio, to William P. Carter Sr. and Hazel E. Carter. His father, who was a U.S. Navy World War II veteran and had served aboard the USS Hornet in Guam, was a machinist working on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. His mother was a nurse.
Carter, the third of six children, described his father as a quiet man, and both parents were disciplinarians in the traditional sense.
“So typical of their generation, Dad was quiet and he didn’t say a whole lot,” Carter said, adding that his mom was also much the same way. “And if you needed it, he used the belt, and she used the switch.”
Carter said he had a happy, well-behaved childhood, and refers to his parents as his role models.
While growing up, he and his siblings were given responsibilities. Between chores around the house, completing school work and working the family garden, there was always something for him to do.
“It was a pretty big-size garden that we had, because people back then were more self-sufficient,” said Carter. “All the kids worked in the garden, which had potatoes, beets, corn, squash, cucumber … my mom canned almost everything. Both my parents were good with their hands.”
He said one thing that has always stuck with him was the idea of “family,” ingrained in him by his parents. Both of Carter’s grandfathers had been in and out of their childrens’ lives, and both his parents said to one another, “‘We’re never going to treat our kids the way our fathers treated us.”
His parents would be married for 73 years, until his father’s death a few years ago.
Carter and his siblings attended a Catholic high school run by “disciplinarian” nuns, who used a ruler as an extension of their hand. “Hold out your hands!” Carter remembered the nuns always said to him before he got rapped on the knuckles.
He took after his father — an exceptional athlete and sportsman — and made himself into a three-sport athlete, competing in baseball, track and cross country.
But for all his success on the field or track, he called himself an average student who knew he wasn’t going to college.
“I graduated in 1967, and in those days, if you weren’t college material, it meant you were going to get drafted,” said Carter. “And I’d rather choose than have them choose me.”
After graduating and working in a factory job for a little less than a year, Carter enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on May 20, 1968.
“That same month (after enlisting), my mom called me and said, ‘You got your draft notice to report to the Army depot,’” he said. They were a month too late.
“It’s the neatest feeling in the world when the pilot hits the afterburners,” Carter said, with a smile on his face five decades later.
After completing his basic training, where those in charge were “screaming and hollering at you the whole time,” Carter was sent off to learn how to be an aircraft maintenance specialist, or a “crew chief.”
Once he arrived in South Carolina and was put on a flight line, he said, nearly every morning he got to see the “neatest thing,” day-in and day-out, cutting through the thick clouds of dust and morning fog.
“We’d salute the pilots and then see the 20-foot, straight flame coming out of the afterburners … just watching those fighter jets take off in South Carolina.”
Those were the things that Carter said he wrote home about. The other stuff, the stuff that contributed to him wanting to get out of South Carolina, he largely took on all by himself for the first time in his life.
“I grew up in Ohio; that’s a northern state. And I’m going down South in the ’60s,” said Carter. “Those Southern boys are waving the rebel flag ,and it’s a different attitude.”
Once he went to visit Birmingham, Alabama, with a friend who had grown up in the city.
“They called it ‘Bombingham,’” he said, in reference to the white supremacist, terrorist attack of 16th Street Baptist Church that resulted in the injury of 14 people and the death of four girls. The first trial in the case was not held until 1977. Carter said that, in Birmingham in the 1960s, they still had three bathrooms: one for white men, one for white women and a third for minorities.
“I’m going down the backroads when I’m not working, and there’s a guy bringing people into a meeting,” said Carter. “He was standing there in his robes. It was a KKK meeting. That’s the way it is, that’s life.”
“Another time, we drove up to Fayetteville, North Carolina, and they had a huge sign as soon as you went into town on the main street, that had ‘Knights of Ku Klux Klan’ with a guy riding a horse and it said, ‘Fight communism and integration.’”
After two years of being in South Carolina with that, plus being young and wanting to see the world, Carter volunteered to ship out.
“Within three weeks of volunteering, I had my orders,” said Carter. “I was going to Vietnam.”
Da Nang, Vietnam
Da Nang Air Base was known as “Rocket City.” It was also the home of E-5 Staff Sgt. Frederick Carter.
“They’d shoot rockets and mortars, and sometimes they’d hit stuff,” said Carter. “You’d hear a siren, which used to make us laugh because the siren was always late.”
While in Vietnam, he worked 12-hour shifts in the wheel and tire shop, making sure the wheels on the F-4 Phantom Jets on base were always ready to go.
On July 4, 1971, everyone on the base, according to Carter, knew they were going to get hit. They were wrong, though. They were hit on July 5 in the early morning.
“(The Viet Cong) knew it was our Independence Day,” said Carter. “They started hitting us, and I knew because I could hear the asphalt landing on the tin roof of the wheel and tire shop.”
After hitting the ground to wait it out, Carter said he got up to return to his barracks. But where his barracks once stood was only twisted metal, piled rock and flame.
“My barracks had taken a direct hit and it got a few guys,” he said. “In most cases, I would’ve been in the barracks had I not been on duty. A few guys got killed and it injured even more.”
After having his fill of the military once returning home from Vietnam in February 1972, Carter was honorably discharged with a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and an Air Force Good Conduct medal.
He moved to California with just a couple hundred dollars in his pocket and a car, and was able to land a couple of jobs that required “heavy, tough work.”
While working in a gas station and going to El Camino College part time, Carter heard a radio spot for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
“A lot of black people at the time thought they’re not going to hire us, and so the department had a consent decree,” said Carter, adding that the radio spot was asking for minorities to apply to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He said he took test after test, from Hawthorne to Beverly Hills, passing each one but still getting rejected. But in 1979, he was finally hired.
He spent the next 33 years in the Fire Department, working as a firefighter paramedic, mostly out of Station 33 in Lancaster.
He said everything in his life, after leaving Ohio, required him actively searching out the good and positive. In South Carolina, the good was that he had a job and he knew he could leave. In Vietnam, the silver lining was that he lived. In the Fire Department, he knew he was seeing horrendous things every day, but he had a good family and a good attitude to get him through it.
“I’ve seen plenty of bad, negative stuff, with adolescents committing suicide, homicides,” said Carter. “I would put my life on the line for the public, and that’s what I was supposed to do, and for that I’ve seen plenty of good stuff, too. I’ve delivered a few kids. I delivered my youngest son in the back of an ambulance.”
“You see a lot of end of life, and because of all that, it’s just reinforced in me that it’s your duty to try and change some of that,” said Carter.
And much like his parents did for him, he taught his three children, and his four grandchildren, that regardless of what you see or how people treat you, you have to realize a need for family, keeping it positive, and there’s no shortcut to success.
“You got to work your butt off,” said Carter. “You have to work hard and bring up your family.”