Boot camp.  What can you say about it?  I went through it myself.  So I know all the old clichés.  It’s rigorous.  Stressful.  And it’s the military.  The only difference when David Threnody attended it was still segregated.  Blacks didn’t associate with whites.  And whites didn’t associate with blacks.  And this is where Jim Crow comes in.  What it was like in Mississippi in the early forties, in 1941 before America entered the war.  That history that is well-known now—the opportunity David Threnody had then—to be part of something historical.  Joining and becoming  part of history.  Becoming one of them.  Becoming one of the Tuskegee Airmen…  That’s where Johnny Tribout comes in.  The friendship.  The friendship David had with him.  A white man (because Johnny was white).  And what happened with the father.  The father of a daughter.  The father the base commander in Biloxi at the time.  The overseer of basic training for the fresh recruits that came down on trains.  And the daughter who had relations, intimate relations with Johnny Tribout.

            And it’s psychological.  What happens in boot camp is psychological.  A test.  And that’s where the story leads next.  To something psychological.  Taut.  A mind movie with two parts.  Two different points of view.  Two different camera angles.  And told as such.  Like a screenplay—vignettes of what happened that summer of 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor.  The story of Johnny Tribout, and the father.  And the amorous relationship with Nina—the girl, the daughter.

            “Don’t believe in nothin’ that makes you feel bad.”

            Johhny Tribout is shining his shoes—his boots.  They aren’t bunkmates.  David stays in different barracks, with the other black men.  And they have different officers.  Different authority over them. 

You see Old Jim Crow ruled in the Army then as much as it did in the South.  Blacks had their own units, mess halls, barracks, bars—state-side, England, France, Belgium, it didn’t matter.  There were no black infantry units in the European Theater of Operation during the war.  There were nine Negro field artillery battalions, a few anti-aircraft battalions, and a half dozen tank and tank destroyer battalions.  Some did well, some were average, some were poor.  The causes of why some did poorly were familiar: they were untrained, with white officers who were the castoffs of other units, and usually they were poorly equipped…  Shortly after the end of the war Walter Wright, chief historian of the Army, commented that the real trouble was the inferior officers.  Blacks had to have the best, Wright insisted, because “American negro troops are ill-educated on the average and often illiterate; they lack self-respect, self-confidence, and initiative; they tend to be very conscious of their low standing in the eyes of the white population and consequently feel very little motive for aggressive fighting.”  And why should they, Wright went on, when every black soldier knew “that the color of his skin will automatically disqualify him for reaping the fruits of attainment. No wonder that he sees little point in trying very hard to excel. To me, the most extraordinary thing is that such people continue trying at all.”

And maybe that’s why Johnny says this.  While he’s shining his shoes.  His boots.  Why he says this to David.  About what you believe in—what you can believe in—and why.  Because Johnny knows himself.  Poor himself.  Illiterate himself.  Raised on a farm in Alabama.  Which is how he knows about Tuskegee—the opportunity David could have there.  His friendship trying to make that happen.  His friendship why the opportunity was lost.

            This where the psychology comes into play.  And not just the psychology used to train fresh recruits, fresh soldiers in basic training.  Those methodologies.  Those military methods are not my concern.  For I know them—I know of them.  What matters is what you see—what David saw when he returned to Mississippi, after what happened to him before the last time he was there.  What he came to know becoming a soldier in a segregated Army.  And what happens to a man in this situation not just on the exterior, but what happens interior—what happens inside when on the outside you are treated separate from the rest…

 

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