Southern Discomfort

A novel by TomJames2, soon to be published.

Mind bending in the Deep South, 1964/65

A 22 year old, ‘wet behind the ears’ Yankee from Boston experiences his first immersion into the Deep South.  Subsequently, in 1964, as a new Air Force officer, he meets two fellow lieutenants at Keesler Air Force Base (AFB) in Biloxi, Mississippi.  They become the inspiration for the main characters in this book.

May, 1964.  Crossing the border from Arkansas into Mississippi, I stop for a short visit to Greenville AFB, visiting a fellow Officer Training School classmate.  While there, we decide to take in a movie at a  downtown theater, my first taste of segregation.

We whites buy our tickets and refreshments inside and sit downstairs in the orchestra section.  The black patrons purchase tickets at an outside window, climb a staircase on the outside of the building, and sit in the balcony.  They have no access to drinks and food.

The atmosphere is subtly ominous.  No threats or fights occur, but dehumanizing discrimination is staring me in the face.  Clear evidence of a divided people is on display, one group wanting opportunity and hope, while the other, dominant one is controlling by subjugation.

Settling into the base at Biloxi shortly after, I find the racial divide dissolved.  We live in a cocoon.  Military protocol rules the day.  The social turmoil in the surrounding communities makes only an occasional intrusion into our minds.

On June 21st,  1964. I drive to class listening to the radio.  ‘In the news today, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were declared missing near Philadelphia, Mississippi.’

Classmate Lieutenant Tom Sturgis becomes a friend.  Tom hails from Cordele, Georgia, where his father owns a peanut plantation.  Having breakfast at a local café with Sturgis, he notices the paper place mat in front of him depicting major battles of the Civil War.  Sturgis snatches his fork and forcefully scours out Sherman’s March-to-the-Sea, white Southern roots on full display.

James Walker is a shocking revelation for Sturgis.  A graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Walker dispels the stereotype of a black Southern male.  A top student in our communications electronics class, James exudes intelligence, wit and confidence that forces Sturgis to reevaluate his prejudice.

The interaction between the two is overtly jocular with an undercurrent of racial jousting.  Walker displays an uproarious sense of humor while Sturgis is never without a stinging retort.   Their relationship provides rich soil for personal growth.  On 7 March 1965, both men are sitting in the lounge at the Officers’ Club watching television, when a news bulletin interrupts the programming.

‘A tragic event today has already been dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’.  Photos taken by Birmingham News photographer James Martin depict the violent suppression at a march by negroes demonstrating for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama.  The protest was blocked by the Alabama State Police.   Participants were attacked with tear gas, batons & whips, and trampled by horses on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.’

The events of the times affect the two men in different ways, but shared  experiences then, and later in Vietnam, compel the two men to face a tumultuous world together.

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