My grandfather Jack O'Neill passed away this morning. Please keep him and my Grandma Jeanne in your prayers. I remember a conversation we had over a couple of beers on a spring night somewhere around 2005. We were talking about William Faulkner and that led to a broader conversation about race issues.
Grandpa Jack begin a story. "I remember when I went down to Texas after being drafted. It was a three-day trip by Army train. We got two meals a day; flapjacks for breakfast, a hotdog and a scoop of ice cream for dinner. The train was modern and went fast, but our car was old. It swayed back and forth the whole way, making everyone sick."
Welcome to the Army, I thought. I mentally tried to put myself in his Class B uniform. Riding away from Montana on a cramped train to Texas. Preparing to fight a war in the hot island jungles of the South Pacific.
He continued, "Our basic training was at Fort Wohlers, outside of Dallas. It was hot and I didn't like Texas. I remember one weekend they let us take a tour around Fort Worth. This was back before I drank, so it was more of a sight-seeing trip for me than anything. Most of the other guys went to the bars."
"At the end of the day, they picked us up in a bus, kind of a converted trailer. I went to get on and there was a sign right above the entrance, 'All negroes in the back.'" Grandpa pointed up from his recliner like the sign stood above the TV in front of us.
"It made me mad. I started to give the bus driver an earful. I guess he didn't know any better and was just doing his job; but I shook my head and him and went to the back of the bus to sit down. The black soldiers in the back thought I was crazy and was going to get myself killed. The white guys in the front were going ballistic, saying that I was a 'know-nothing Northerner' and plenty of other things; but I stayed back there all the way back to camp."
I looked at Grandpa and saw him again as a young soldier with close cropped hair and press Class B's walking through the rows of hollering drunken men to sit in the back of the bus. A young soldier from Butte, Montana who didn't hesitate to do the right thing when confronted with racial bigotry even though the civil rights movement was barely in its infancy.
I can't describe how proud I am to share the same blood as that young soldier. Rest in peace Grandpa.
NOTE: Here is a picture of Grandpa meeting my son Bodie this Spring.