From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Ebony and Ivory

In my role as a VA psychologist, I had organized a peer support group for older veterans still struggling with painful military memories. I prayed that it would help provide closure on this difficult chapter in their lives.

On the afternoon of our seventh meeting, I walked into the brightly lit group room. Sitting in a large circle were nine gray-haired World War II veterans, all of them living libraries with their own unique stories. This assembly of “senior citizens” was an interesting representation of the different branches of the service. On this particular day, several vets started discussing the realism in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

“One thing really bothered me,” someone hesitantly remarked. All eyes turned toward the voice, waiting for an explanation. D. C., one of two African-American veterans in the group, shared that he only saw white soldiers in the film, even though many African-American men also fought for their country during World War II. He was worried the younger generations would not recognize the contributions of African Americans in American history— not realize that they, too, sacrificed everything and gave their lives for freedom and peace. Across the room, another dark face, somber and deeply wrinkled, nodded in agreement.

A faraway look came into D. C.’s eyes. He began describing what it was like to be a young black soldier during the days of segregation. He recalled completing boot camp and being on a train with hundreds of other young soldiers, chugging through the South, heading to the East Coast for the troops’ deployment overseas. D. C. noted that the men were all tired, hungry and restless after being cooped up for so long. A stop for dinner was planned en route; a hot meal and change of scenery were eagerly anticipated by all. When the train started slowing down, everyone rose to get off at the upcoming station.

D. C.’s voice suddenly lowered. “Before the doors opened to let anyone out, this young lieutenant walked into our car, saying he had an announcement to make. He stated that he was very sorry but that all Negroes would have to stay on the train, assuring us that he would ask the white GIs to bring back some food. He explained that people in the area were very prejudiced and that it would be better if we just avoided potential problems by staying on the train.” D. C. paused, then asked with a quivering voice, “Can you imagine how hard it was for that poor young lieutenant to have to stand up there and tell all of us colored soldiers that we couldn’t get off the train?”

The room fell silent. How many people, I wondered to myself, would be concerned about the lieutenant in that situation? My admiration for D. C. deepened.

Finally, Leroy, the other elderly African-American vet, chimed in, sharing a piece of his own history. In 1944, the nineteen-year-old Leroy, wearing his military uniform, was sitting at the back of a bus, anxiously waiting for it to start and take him home for his few days of leave. Other passengers boarded one by one, filling the vehicle to capacity. Finally, the driver got on and headed down the aisle, collecting tickets. When he arrived at the rear, without even looking at Leroy’s ticket, the driver told him that he was on the wrong bus and to get off.

Confused, Leroy asked where the bus was headed. When the driver told him, Leroy confirmed that it was his destination, too, displaying his ticket as proof. Again, without even looking at it, the driver repeated that Leroy was on the wrong bus and needed to leave immediately.

“But, sir,” the young soldier responded politely, “I just paid six dollars and thirty-five cents for this ticket, so I know it’s good. I’m going where you’re heading, so this must be the right bus.”

The driver responded firmly, “I am in charge, so I can decide whether or not you’re on the right bus. Well, I’ve decided that you are on the wrong one, so get off now.”

The other veterans in the room looked at Leroy sadly. This talented jazz musician was a soft-spoken man, an incredibly kind and gentle soul, undoubtedly now just an older version of the young soldier he once was.

He stared straight ahead and spoke once again. “There was this white passenger nearby who overheard the whole conversation. I can still see him. He was a really big man, wearing dark pants and a short-sleeved beige shirt. He stood up in the aisle. I thought he was going to make sure I didn’t give the driver any problems and that I got off the bus without making a scene. There was nothing I could say, so I started collecting my gear.”

Leroy slowly continued. “But that man, he said to me, ‘Stay right there, soldier.’ He turned to the bus driver and told him real calm like, ‘This young man is serving in the United States Army. He is risking his life for our country. He has a perfectly good ticket, just like the rest of us. He is on the right bus. If he gets off, then the rest of us are going to get off. Aren’t we, everybody?’ By then, everyone had been looking at us and listening to what was going on. At first, I felt a little scared and even a little ashamed. No one moved or said a word. Then that man in the dark pants started gathering up his belongings and repeated to all the other passengers, ‘If this soldier has to get off the bus, then the rest of us are going to get off, too. Aren’t we?’

“Well, it was like a miracle. One by one, every single person on that crowded bus started picking up their things and standing, ready to walk off at a moment’s notice. They all waited for the bus driver’s response. Well, do you know that man didn’t say another word? He just glared at me, grabbed the ticket out of my hand, walked back down the aisle, and got into his seat. All those other people just looked at me and smiled. There was no way that I could repay them. But mostly, I’ll never forget that man in the dark pants who stood up for me.”

Leroy’s eyes were not the only ones that were bright with tears. He slowly scanned the circle of aging men and said softly, “I can’t believe that I’m in this room today, talking like this with so many other veterans, sitting here next to each other, like black and white piano keys sit together to make one truly fine instrument. Once we were separated from one another—couldn’t eat together, couldn’t bunk together, couldn’t even serve in the same units. I don’t see the color of anyone’s skin in this room. All I see are men like me, just other American veterans who all served our country, who have the same color blood.”

Then Leroy reached out his right hand and took the hand of the man sitting next to him. John instantly did the same, and the gesture continued all around the room with Charles, Sam, D. C., Andy, George, Bill and Ron.

A peaceful silence filled the room, and it somehow seemed even more brilliantly lit than before. The men quietly exchanged smiles, untroubled by the emotional intensity and potential awkwardness of the moment. Finally, D. C. raised both arms high in the air, his strong dark hands still holding those of the men sitting next to him. He joyfully bellowed, “Amen!

As if rehearsed, the others instantly raised their arms, too, simultaneously repeating, “Amen!” They broke into laughter, then stood and hugged one another.

Amen, indeed, I silently echoed. Some prayers are answered before our eyes.

Karen L. Waldman

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