The following true story, took place in the Spring of 1961, in close proximity to a U.S. Army Base, “Aberdeen Proving Grounds,” in the nearby State of Maryland. As one might note, the name is indicative of its function as a military installation, part of the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department, tasked with the repair and testing of armaments.
We were dressed in our pressed khakis, every crease in place, shined brass belt buckle, shiny black boots, “army neat,” as officially required. On our left shoulder we showed the First Army Patch, indicating that we were from the New York area. We walked, the short way to the regular public bus stop, just outside of the high security entrance of the military base, and learned that there was a wait of, at least, 45 minutes, before the scheduled arrival of the Bus to New York.
In close proximity to the entrance to the military base and the bus stop, was an ordinary looking diner. If we may be permitted to briefly digress, we would point out that the quality and taste of enlisted man’s food and coffee, under the best of conditions, would easily qualify as a full, determinative defense, to any military charge of criminal desertion. This latter condition, might conceivably be accounted for by the huge quantities of food, required to be cooked, making careful preparation impossible, but more likely, by the U.S. Army’s typical personnel policy, which, for example, assigned auto repairmen to positions as cooks, and cooks to the position of auto repairmen.
Considering the scheduled 45 -minute wait, we entered the diner with the anticipation of enjoying the remembered taste of a good cup of coffee. The appearance of the diner was unremarkable, similar to the diners to which we had become accustomed. There was, in addition to several tables, a long food counter, at which six, or so diners were seated. We took a seat at the end of the counter and ordered from the counterman, a cup of coffee and a slice of, inviting looking, apple pie. The coffee and pie were delivered in a few minutes, and we began to enjoy it (privately, and bitterly, contrasting the same with the analogous abomination, served in the Army).
No sooner did we begin to partake of our coffee and pie, when a soldier, approximately the same age as we, wearing the identical sharply pressed tan uniform, bearing the same First Army insignia, entered the diner. After mutually exchanging a nodding hello, he sat down at the lunch counter next to us. It seems that, he too, was on a weekend pass, and was also waiting for the arrival of the New York bus. He asked us about the coffee and pie, which we recommended enthusiastically. He ordered the same from the counterman, who seemed, in response, to immediately freeze. We suppose that we should properly mention, at this point, that my fellow soldier was black.
Not only did the counterman halt in his tracks, but the six or so diners, sitting at the other end of the counter, angrily looked up and seemed to glare. Neither the fellow soldier nor we, had any idea of the dynamics of the situation, until the counterman approached us, and shockingly said to the other soldier: “Look man, if you want coffee in a paper container, you can drink it outside.” It took a while for us, to appraise the situation, but in a moment or two, we realized that we were confronted with an obvious and ugly occasion, of racial prejudice. The other soldier then peaceably left, and we, in a state of shock, quickly finished our coffee and pie. The counterman then approached us and said, as follows:” Look, I don’t really care that much, but if I served him, I would lose my customers.” We silently paid our bill and left. To this very day, we sincerely regret our remaining the few additional minutes required to finish the coffee, and not, immediately leaving the diner, in solidarity with the other soldier. But, perhaps in mitigation, we were absolutely stunned into silence and inaction.
The instructive point is, that right thinking people may not be experientially equipped to quickly identify, and at once appropriately, react to matters outside their (moral) life experience. Most associate and fraternize with others who share their high principles and life ethic in common. The cited experience was, in actuality, perniciously obvious, but took us a few minutes to recognize. Overt acts of racial bigotry, in our early days, were matters we merely read about in a newspaper, or were informed of by television, but did not witness. Seeing an unexpected, real life, example of this previously known, dreadful pathology, required a little time for its recognition (by us and, conceivably, the other soldier involved).
We certainly do not recommend that right- thinking American citizens, deploy their sensitive antennae, in a continuous, sweeping, radar-like reconnaissance, in the search for discrimination, or other hateful behavior. We do recommend, however, that good citizens remain aware of the existence of such evils and, to the degree that they happen to confront them, to respond, peacefully, but firmly and appropriately.