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Always keep a friend, even in a prejudiced environment

I loved my friend. He went away from me. There’s nothing more to say. — Langston Hughes

As Black History Month approaches, I am reminded of one African−American whose name is not as familiar as many of the black legends, but who had a profound, personal effect upon me. Here’s why.

In 1948, the U.S. military banned segregation within its branches. Several years later, at age 17, I enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to post−war Germany. It was there that I met Isaac, a shy, 19−year−old African−American from Chicago. I immediately took to him when he told me he boxed as a middleweight in the Chicago Golden Gloves.

Rather than talk about his prowess with his fists, Isaac loved to hear stories of my exaggerated street−fighting skirmishes I was involved in as a member of the Geronimos as a child living on the then−tough Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Although most of my tales were fabricated — how else could a 120−pound storyteller survive in this world? — I was never forced to put my words into action. That is, until several of my buddies insisted upon setting up a “dream” boxing match pitting Isaac against me for the “ultimate championship of the squadron.” Mercifully, Isaac declined. “Berger is my friend,” he said, “and he would beat me.”

We were close until one unfortunate incident split our relationship. Several airmen were being transported to another location by truck convoy. In my truck, a few had to stand because of the lack of seats. Isaac, however, managed to find one. I had not noticed, but he was the only African−American.

It was not long before a voice was raised so all could hear: “Where I come from, it is the colored who do the standing.” Isaac was shaken by the remark.

“Black boy, you’d better get your ass off that seat and pronto.” Isaac stared at me, his eyes pleading, “Say it’s all right for me to keep the seat.” Not wanting any trouble, I advised Isaac to get up.

He rose, walked to the furthest corner of the truck and cried. It was at that moment I lost a friend. Whenever I did come in contact with him, I tried to win back his friendship, but he would not give it. Unfortunately, many airmen, black and white, formed cliques and divided the camp into two racial factions.

I was aware Isaac had been assigned to a bigoted sergeant whose verbal abuses went unanswered until one day Isaac punched him. The one stripe Isaac earned was taken from him. A few more charges were to be written on Isaac’s record, but the most flagrant occurred during the celebration of the squadron’s first anniversary of its arrival in Germany.

An outdoor barbecue commemorating the occasion was planned. Platters of sandwiches and cake were on the tables along with kegs of strong German beer. It was hoped that the celebration would unite the squadron.

It was a beautiful spring day and the affair was held on the lawn separating the Air Force installation from an old German castle that housed several hundred displaced East German refugees. For the first time, whites showed a common bond with their black “buddies.” The Germans, watching the festivities, were awed by this mutual show of affection. As the drinking went on, however, reasoning was addled and the intense racial hatred blossomed anew.

Under the eyes of the apparently pleased Germans, white fought black and black fought white. The fists of both races caused the green grass to turn red. The few military policemen on the scene were thwarted in their attempts to restore order.

Restricted, Isaac saw the melee from his window and instinctively raced out and joined the savage battle. Uncontrolled fury best described Isaac as he bowled over one antagonist after another. When order was restored, they found Isaac standing over a hill of fallen bodies.

Isaac was immediately brought before the commanding officer. His past “misdeeds” were reviewed and he was declared unfit for military duty. It was recommended that he be released with a dishonorable discharge. That was the last time I saw Isaac.

I think of Isaac often, especially during Black History Month. I will always remember the good times we had together.

Isaac, wherever you are, I apologize for letting you down on the truck. You taught me to be a better and more tolerant person. I could not have done it without you. Thanks, buddy.

Contact Alex Berger at news@timesledger.com.

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