|Home Page Shy Guy from Hollyhood High|
It was January 1, 1950, the first day of the second half of the 20th Century (or so I assumed at the time) and I was on the Super Chief heading east out of Union Pacific Station in downtown Los Angeles. My destination was the US Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. This would be my first time out of California, and to say I was excited would be an understatement.
My orders read that I'd be assigned to Company K of the 1st School Battalion, and that I'd be attending an intensive fourteen-week course in construction surveying. I had only a vague idea of what construction surveying was, but it sounded like something a guy could get a job doing after he got out of the service, so I was looking forward to it. And, as a 10th grade dropout, I needed something more than my scant lettering and drawing abilities to get me by in the world.
On board, we were told there would be an overnight layover in Chicago. This was an exciting thought. I'd heard about a part of Chicago called the Loop, and thought maybe I'd take a stroll around it as long I was there. Then I'd spend the night at the YMCA, and maybe see a little more of the city the following morning before having to reboard the train. Not too bad an adventure, I thought, for a 18-year-old on his first trip out of state.
The ride to Chicago was uneventful. All I remember of it was eating, sleeping and looking out the window at the passing scenery. I'd have liked to have struck up an acquaintance with someone, but have never been the outgoing type who would introduce himself to strangers, and nobody approached me.
Nor was the country at war in 1950, so there wasn't anything special about being a serviceman in uniform. In any case, I was preoccupied with thoughts of being 3,000 miles from Norma Jean (the 16-year-old with whom I was in love) and these thoughts probably kept me from enjoying the passing panorama as much as I might have.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived in the Windy City and I was glad I'd kept my GI-issue "horse-blanket" overcoat handy. I needed it as I got off the train because it was cold.
A thermometer on a billboard told me it was exactly 30 degrees - two degrees below freezing and at least twenty degrees colder than I could ever remember it being in Los Angeles. But what amazed me was what I overheard one Chicagoan saying to another as I passed them on the street:
"I can't believe what nice weather we're having. I hope it stays this warm all winter."
Well, if this was what they called "warm," I'd take Southern California, thank you.
COLD AND LOST IN CHICAGO
COLD AND LOST IN CHICAGO
FINALLY DECIDED TO ASK FOR HELP |
I moved quickly to meet them half way, and said, "Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to the Loop?" They stopped and looked at each other and then looked at me and just shrugged. I thought maybe they were hard of hearing, so, speaking a little louder, I said, "The Loop - do you know which direction it's in?"
Now they were talking to each other in voices so low I couldn't tell what they were saying. Finally the man turned to me with a smile and said something that sounded like, "Ja - der time." Then he pointed to his watch and said, "Ja, iss ten o'clock. Ja, ja. Gut nacht." Then they continued on their way down Lakeshore Drive.
Great, I thought - I finally break down and ask a stranger for directions, and what do I get? someone who doesn't speak English. I was beginning to think that stopping over in Chicago wasn't such a wonderful idea after all.
Well, I finally did make it to the YMCA and went to bed with all my clothes on, including my GI "horse blanket." Hopefully it would be warmer in Virginia.
The following morning I could see through the train window that it was indeed getting a little warmer as we headed south. I don't know just which route the train followed, but it was apparent that we were making stops in some other states below the Mason-Dixon line on our way to Virginia.
And when we stopped I could scarcely believe some of the things I was seeing.
"WHITE" & "COLORED" EVERYTHING
Each train depot had two sets of restrooms with a drinking fountain in front of each set. And they were all clearly labeled "WHITE" or "COLORED." This was an amazing revelation to a California boy. I'd been taught that the slaves had been set free and that there was no more discrimination between the races. Boy, was I ever na´ve.
I stayed on the train because, even though we were told there'd be time to stretch our legs, the idea of going into a segregated coffee shop or using a segregated drinking fountain somehow didn't appeal to me.
(Soon I would learn that there were many public places that blacks couldn't go into even in Washington DC, our nation's very symbol of liberty and equality - or so I'd been taught.)
Another revelation was seeing the way many people lived as the train moved along its southern course. The tracks would be lined for miles with bleak-looking shanties made from pieces of plywood, corrugated metal, cardboard, and just about anything else that could be slapped together. I could hardly believe that people lived in these shacks, which obviously had no electricity or running water. But the people were there - and the children would usually smile and wave as the train went by.
My trip to Fort Belvoir was turning into a learning experience that I hadn't expected nor been prepared for.
I COULD NEVER BE A REDCAP
WHY DO I ATTRACT THE NUTS?
WHY DO I ATTRACT THE NUTS?