It was a steamy Georgia morning, July 1975. I was about to embark on half-day adventure with a friend to visit an old historic district called Pigtail Alley.
Somehow, I was one of two cadets at UCLA selected to go to the Army’s parachute school at Georgia’s Fort Benning. Still pretty dumb at 19, earning my jump wings in the face of danger seemed like a dream come true.
Of the 300 in our training class, only one other than myself was from Southern California.
David was from Long Beach. He had some family in nearby Alabama and managed to borrow a cousin’s car for the weekend.
This was our last weekend at Fort Benning as on Monday and Tuesday were our last qualifying jumps. The class was to be disbanded after graduation at noon that Friday.
So, this weekend was our only and last chance to venture off-base and explore the deep South.
David and I hit it off pretty well. Being with David felt like a long, lost brother in a sea of rednecks, cowboys and Yankees.
We polished our boots in the Day Room after hours every evening readying ourselves for the next day of training. We reminisced about surfing in the Pacific and going to Dodger games. Hanging out with him for those three weeks in Georgia reminded me of home.
We had heard Pigtail Alley was a nearby representation of the antebellum South. Rumored to have grand plantation estates and Civil War-era museums, who could resist going to a town called Lumpkin?
As we drove half an hour or so we stopped at a diner for lunch.
The two of us proudly exited the car with shaven heads in civilian clothes. Striding up the three wooden steps we paused as we saw a sign in the diner window.
“NO BLACKS” it read.
I thought it a joke, perhaps perpetuating the ambiance of the old South. We entered the diner hungry and eager to get some lunch before continuing on our adventure.
As we approached a heavy-set man behind the counter reached below the countertop. He briskly set a shotgun down, laying it flat on the countertop. His right hand on the trigger, he slowly angled the barrel in our direction.
“Can’t you read” he said with a nasty Southern tone while projecting a serious glare.
I said with pure innocence, “We are soldiers from Fort Benning and would like to have lunch.”
“If you are with him, you are not welcomed,” the man bristled as he tightened his grip around the shotgun.
I hadn’t noticed until that moment that David was black. I was confused.
My first thought was that this ignorant buffoon should be thankful that David joined the Army to protect him and his country.
David took me by the arm and shuffled around to the door. We went back to the car where I sat in disbelief.
I was in shock but David was not.
“That’s why my family moved from here to Long Beach. In L.A. no one cares what you look like. In the South they hate us. They think we’re animals that can speak,” David said sadly in an unemotional voice.
As we proceeded down the highway, David had been trying to convince me to eat at a “white only” diner without him. I refused. I told him I would not give money to anyone who thought like that.
We viewed a number of diners that had the same signs posted.
Finally, we found a café just at the Lumpkin city limits with a sign reading “BLACKS ONLY.”
David went inside to check if I could join him. He came out smiling proudly and invited me in. We sat at the bar together, two soldiers in training far away from home, and enjoyed a fantastic Southern meal.
This experience really stung me and burned at my soul for years. It still does.
A few years afterward I was stationed at Fort Benning for about a year. Understanding that indoctrination is generational, I felt and still feel offended when good people and good friends are judged by their skin tone alone.
Black Lives Matter is a movement with two messages. First, that blacks and those of all races are to be valued and respected equally.
Second, that the systemic practice by police who target, hunt down, and apply brutal punishment, and even deadly force to young black men, must end.
Who could say no to that? Are not all lives precious?
Jonathan Kraut directs a private investigations firm, is the CEO of a private security firm, is the COO of an acting conservatory, is a published author, and Democratic Party activist. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or of other organizations.