Prey

August 18, 2015

The ninety-three-year-old man got confused as to where his daughter lived, so he stopped at a St. Louis intersection, to ask for help. And he got it. Two young men calmly walked over to him, reached into his slacks pockets and took all his money.

Unfazed, the old gentleman got back in his car and drove to another intersection, to ask for help. And he got it. Two young men climbed into his car and drove off. Police found the man confused and standing alone. He told them what had happened.

Imagine the laughter as the four thieves gathered in their respective hangouts and bragged about their crimes. It was like taking candy from a baby, man. Man, we got that old sumbitch!

Except.

The old gentleman is a Tuskegee Airman.

Would the four thieves know that moniker: “Tuskegee Airmen?” Would they have reacted differently? No. The old and vulnerable, to miscreants, are prey. The gentleman could have worn medals on his chest and they would have taken those medals and pawned them.

I was honored to be a part of the National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project, in 2001-3. Those men, having suffered virulent racism and hatred from their World War II white counterparts, wanted only to talk about fighter planes. It took me months to coax stories out of them.

The college football game they were bused to, in rural Alabama. After the game, the flyers waited for the bus to return. They watched a very drunk black man walk up to a white policeman who was directing traffic, and mimic the cop’s arm movements. The cop pulled his revolver and shot the man dead. And life resumed. And the Tuskegee Airmen were ordered to stand and keep quiet; they might have been lynched.

The white bomber pilot, whose shot-up ship was saved by a fighter plane, over Germany. The bomber pilot landed, bought a bottle of whiskey at the commissary and sought out the pilot who had saved his life. When he saw the man was black, he turned his back and walked away. He wrote his wife a letter, ruing the fact that he had been saved by a nigger.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s fighter panes had painted red tails, symbolizing red-tailed hawks. They were called the Redtail Angels. They were first class predators. In the last gasp of the war, Germany introduced jet fighter planes. Some Redtail Angels on patrol, seeing the jets for the first time, called them “blow jobs.” And using geometric equations, they shot down the first four jets they encountered.

At the Tuskegee Airmen annual convocation, in Colorado in the 1990s, an old white man using a walker and carrying a plastic shopping bag over his shoulder approached a fighter pilot, now in his eighties. The white man pulled out a bottle of whiskey, whispered to the pilot who had saved his life, and asked for forgiveness. The old men cried and embraced.

I think of “Wild Bill” Thompson, my Tuskegee Airman friend, who had seen it all. He had been a high school principal. He would have made inquiries, rounded up the thieves, and taken them to the Tuskegee Airmen clubhouse, in Chicago’s Bronzeville. There the boys would have witnessed brave men, dignified and fully empowered men, living history.

I know that those thieves aren’t going to read this. But you are reading it. You can proclaim your respect and love and pass it around, the story of the old man who was twice robbed, And you can tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, hawks turned to doves, to our children.

Peter Seeger’s banjo had words written on the drum: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” And he would sing: “When will they ever learn.” Cynics would answer “never.” Tree huggers would say “coming soon.”

Never coming soon.

Which is why thieves prey and standers-by pray, and nothing ever happens.

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