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an odd choice for a hood ornament

March 16, 2011

The day that my wife Suzy, infant son Chris and I arrived in the Atlanta area for

my first duty station in the Marines, we stopped at a Dog ‘n’ Suds for lunch.  Just

as our carhop brought us our meal, we heard lots of horns honking.  A caravan of

cars drove by with Lester Maddox on the hood of the lead vehicle.

Maddox was famous for stopping black protesters from entering his restaurant by

brandishing a handgun.  He later sold the place rather than serve black customers.

The day we saw him in autumn 1966, he was campaigning for governor.

He won.  He continued to bedevil African-Americans by refusing to let the body

of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lie in state in the Georgia capitol building.  Maddox

stayed a staunch segregationist all his life, yet  appointed more black people to

state positions than any governor before him.

The clash of states’ rights and federal rule directly affected our housing situation.

Marines, as U.S. government employees, were forbidden to do business with any-

one who wouldn’t rent to people of color.  That seriously reduced our options, so

we bought a small mobile home with the help of my parents.

I was assigned to the Marine Air Reserve Training Detachment at a Naval Air

Station on Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta.  We even got the Army included

by shopping at Fort McPherson in Atlanta.  We were too far inland to involve

the Coast Guard.

I helped keep track of reservists’ records until the day I was sweeping out the

office of the sergeant major.  He’s the top enlisted man of the unit, its very soul.

He had a chart on his wall that showed the detachment’s billet MOS.  This was a

listing of all the personnel a unit was authorized to have.  I noticed that we had

an unfilled slot for an information specialist — a publicist, more or less.

I told the top the next morning that I had journalism experience.  By afternoon I

was out of the typing pool and editor of the detachment newsletter.  I got moved

to the office of the gunnery sergeant who handled recruitment.  For reasons he

couldn’t figure out, he had been in charge of the newsletter.  He hated it, so he was

happy to see me.

The gunny was a great guy with great stories.  He’d listen to the earnest young

men who wanted to be Marine reservists, then laugh at them after they left.  “It’s

so much B.S.,” he told me, “You know they’re just trying to dodge the draft, and all

the other services turned them down.”  This was back in the day when, due to the

draft, reservists were never called up.

My major publicity coup came when one of the reserve units we supported had a

change of command.  I got about 30 seconds of it on an Atlanta TV station.  The

next day the gunny said, “Man, you could go shit on the old man’s carpet if you

wanted.”  I chose not to.

As my status rose, one of the sergeants suggested I move our mobile home out to

his park in the country.  We could carpool to work.  I rented a space and arranged

to have the trailer moved as soon as  Suzy, Chris and I came back from a brief leave.

We returned to an empty lot.  The mover had misread the date.  Nothing had been

packed or secured.  There wasn’t much damage, other than the shock of getting

back to our residence to find it gone.  It’s the consummate home theft.

Near the end of my time there, I pulled funeral duty.  I was part of the 21-gun salute.

This is one of the strangest rituals we have.  Why do we honour someone who was

likely shot to death with more gunfire?

Anyway, I was standing in a cold drizzle in a huge cemetery with six other jarheads

when the hearse and mourners arrived.  It was so overcast that we could barely see

them.  And we were so far away on a ridge that I don’t think they saw us.  When we

got the command, we fired the first of three rounds.  It seemed the crowd jumped

a foot in the air as one.  None of my blanks went off, but we had enough go off in

each round to make  our point.

In the summer of ’67, my unit got orders to send a clerk to WestPac, the Western

Pacific.  That could mean Hawaii, Okinawa or Japan.  It usually meant Vietnam.

Every three-year man like me was going to go sooner or later, so I volunteered.

On my 21st birthday I was taking my overseas physical.  It was nothing like my

22nd birthday would be.

  1. March 17, 2011 1:24 am

    I remember some graffiti from the 60’s…”Lester Maddox, there’s a black agitator in your washing machine!”

    Oh, and while you were at Boot Camp, I was living happily just about 25 miles away out in Lakeside!

    • March 17, 2011 8:45 am

      I bet you were living more happily than I was. The Recruit Depot isn’t far from central San Diego. One day our platoon was waiting outside a building near a city street. The sight of civilians and traffic, even the sound of music from car radios was almost unbearably sweet.

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