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Berger’s Burg: Memories of a lost black airman friend

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The time was the early 1960s, more than a dozen years after our military banned segregation within its branches. The place was a U.S. Air Force installation in Germany. The individual was Isaac Powell, an airman in the U.S. Air Force. The observer was Alex Berger, a 17-year-old fellow airman.I first met Isaac during our basic training. He was a shy youngster of 19 from Chicago who boxed in Chicago's Golden Gloves competition as a middleweight. But rather than talk about it, he loved to hear me brag about my own street-fighting abilities. Although I had done some settlement-house boxing as a teen-ager, it was never on the level of the Golden Gloves. I would be questioned constantly by my buddies about the tough Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I was born, and where my fighting toughness supposedly was honed. All were enthralled by my exploits.Although most of my tales were fabricated (how else could I, a 118-pound storyteller, survive in the wicked world of basic training?), I was never forced to put my boasts into action. However, my comrades soon began clamoring for a boxing match, pitting Isaac against me, for the championship of the squadron. Luckily, Isaac declined. He said I would beat him. We had a very close relationship, but an unfortunate incident, while later stationed in Germany, ended our friendship. In an overcrowded transport truck, a few of us had to stand. Isaac, however, managed to find a seat. At first, I didn't notice that he was the only black man in the truck. Isaac good-naturedly kidded me that sitting was better than standing, but his heckling soon came to a halt when a standee shouted, "where I come from, it is the colored who do the standing." Isaac, shaken by the remark, just blinked. His powerful fists, capable of silencing the bigot, dangled at his side."Black boy, you'd better get your ass off that seat and pronto. Do you hear me, boy?" Isaac looked around, then turned to me. His eyes were pleading, "Say it's all right for me to hold my seat. Say it is all right."I knew that Isaac was outnumbered and, to avoid trouble, I advised him to give up his seat. Isaac deliberated for a few seconds, slowly rose from his seat, waded through the crowd to the furthest corner of the truck and cried. It was in that truck that I lost my good friend.In the succeeding months, I seldom saw Isaac because we were assigned to different areas of the base. But when I did come in contact with him, I tried to win back his friendship. "No," Isaac said, "I prefer to spend my time with true friends" (meaning airmen of his own race). Many airmen (white and black) shared this view and it wasn't long before the camp was divided into two racial factions. I didn't like this quasi-segregation arrangement that had developed, but I was warned to stay on my side of the track.Regrettably, Isaac had been assigned to a sergeant who was not known for his racial tolerance. Friends told Isaac to always "turn the other cheek." He did ignore the sergeant's verbal abuses until one day, in reply to a racial slur, Isaac punched him. The one stripe Isaac so meritoriously earned was taken away. A few more charges were to be written on Isaac's once spotless record. However, the most serious one occurred a few weeks later. It was the first anniversary of the squadron's arrival in Germany. A large outdoor party was planned to commemorate the occasion. Platters of sandwiches, salads and cakes were on hand as well as kegs of strong German beer. Our commanding officer hoped the party would unite the squadron.For the first time, the whites felt a common bond with their black buddies and extended their friendship to them. German civilians who had assembled to watch the festivities were awed by this mutual show of comradeship. But as the beer drinking went on, reasoning became addled and hatred blossomed anew.Whites began fighting blacks and blacks began fighting whites. The flailing fists of both races turned large areas of green grass to red. The few military policemen on the scene were thwarted in their attempt to restore order.Isaac, who had been restricted to quarters for a previous offense, saw the melee from his window. His outnumbered black buddies were taking a beating, and he raced out to join the battle. Uncontrolled fury described Isaac as he bowled over one antagonist after another. When order was finally restored, Isaac was standing over a hill of eight fallen bodies. Isaac was immediately brought before the C.O. and charged with breaking restriction and contributing to the riot. His past misdeeds were reviewed and he was declared unfit for further military duty. It was recommended that Isaac be released with a discharge other than an honorable one. I never knew the final outcome of the case because they shipped Isaac to another base. That was the last time I saw him. To this day, I often think of Isaac and the good times we had together. I will always be grateful for his honorable refusal to fight me. So, Isaac, as I do every Black History Month, I apologize for letting you down. You taught me how to be a better and more tolerant person. Thanks, buddy, and good luck, wherever you are. Postscript -The incidents noted in this column occurred many years ago. They are not indicative of our current military's racial policy, which has been very successful in promoting integration and racial tolerance.Reach Alex Berger at timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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