A brush with history

I had high entry scores going into the military on the 18th of October 1963, and, after the proper training at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, was sent back to Fort Polk, where I was eventually assigned to the Finance Section at post headquarters. My parents, who had prayed much for my safety, were ecstatic. As for me, I could not stand being confined to an office, and I hated it. I could never seem to get a good handle on the intricacies of my job, simply because I didn’t want to. That changed the day one of the two military police companies on post was assigned to me. I was to be their paymaster.

In those days, MP’s were picked first and foremost for their size, and you rarely saw an MP under six feet tall. These were big guys, and they commanded respect, for the Army had yet to succumb to political correctness, to allow physically small men and women into an MP Unit. As for instance, near a military post, a group of Army 82nd Airborne troopers meeting up in a bar with an equal number of US Marines, is a brawl waiting to happen, which off post would be handled not by civilian law enforcement but by MP’s patrolling for just this sort of happening. MP’s were selected on the basis of common sense. Being big made a statement.

The MP’s liked me, which was made apparent the day two MP’s walked into my office in uniform and informed my military boss that I was going with them. He didn’t argue. Even though these were two lower ranked MP’s and my boss was a Major, few people argued with physically imposing MP’s who were there ostensibly on orders from the Post Provost Marshall. Waiting outside was a deuce and a half, or two and a half ton cargo truck, manned by a very drunk MP. I can still remember the peculiar feeling of having two big, very drunk, MP’s pick me up and hand me to the two very drunk MP’s seated on the top of the cab,and being seated between them in what I was informed was the seat of honor. I was glad to be seated between them, because from the top of a deuce and a half to the hard pavement is a long way. Once I was safely ensconced between the two, off we went to give me a personal tour of Ft Polk. A trail of MP company vehicles followed the deuce and a half, each one manned by, and carrying drunken off duty MP’s, hollering, blaring horns and sirens, and otherwise loudly enjoying the benefits of a long awaited company party, to which I was informed I was the guest of honor. So near to Post Headquarters, such racket did not go unheeded, and soon, the other MP Company showed up, and with lights flashing, escorted the party participants back to their company area.

Why were not arrests of those MP’s made, you ask? Principally because there were only two companies of trained MP’s on post, with only 100 men per company. These MP’s had not asked to be in military law enforcement, they were assigned to it, and they did a good job. To have put these MP’s out of commission would have crippled the function of keeping order on the post of 40,000 soldiers. Trained MP’s were hard to come by, and the brass knew it.

The brass knew it that late summer evening in 1964, when a mini civil war erupted between two advance infantry trainee battalions, and which their cadre were ill equipped to put down. The wooden barracks holding battalions of 500 men each, were back to back, separated only by a football size field. I heard them before I saw them, a roar of pent up rage emerging from hundreds of throats, as they piled out of barracks into the field, pummeling at each other with fists, but what was more deadly, those with entrenching tools in hand hacking at each other with reckless fury. Very soon were heard countless sirens as every available MP arrived and piled into the melee, furiously swinging billy clubs to separate the fighters and reestablish order. Yes, the MP’s were needed, and the brass knew it.

But who could blame those combatants on the field? They were never to see another stateside post, for from this advanced infantry post, all were destined for an infantry line company in Vietnam, and so would their orders read, for Fort Polk was to send more men to Vietnam than any other military post in the country. Rushed out of eight weeks of basic training into eight more weeks of advanced infantry training against their will, these men, mostly sons of the poor, were angry. I say men, because there were absolutely no women soldiers on Ft Polk. Angry? Yes, these men were angry, for somewhere off post might be a lonely wife staying in a flea bitten hotel room, hoping to see her man that weekend. Angry? Yes, for that weekend might not materialize, for that man training somewhere within the confines of Fort Polks nigh 200,000 acres was told that the Army came first, that had he needed a wife, the Army would have issued him one.

To be separated from wives, sweethearts, and loved ones, and to have no communication with them for weeks on end, that was cause for despair. When a phone was available there was inevitably a long line in front of it, with every man in that line hoping and praying that when his turn came to call, the person at the other end of the line would be there, and if not, where was she?

Angry? Yes, for most soldiers were, or would soon be well aware of the public’s antipathy toward them, and the cause of it, in great part the radical and left leaning professors occupying college pulpits to educate what the soldier took to be primma donnas, escaping the draft to attend colleges, where they would learn to hate anything military, or so it seemed. If so, many of those primma donnas are in positions of national leadership today.

Yes, the MP’s were needed. On weekends that little bump of a town which was then Leesville, became the destination point for tens of thousands of trainees on weekend pass. To welcome them was every crook, shyster, and sleaze bag in Vernon Parish. These denizens of the lower regions were inveterate and incurable racists, therefore they did not cater to Black soldiers. Black soldiers went to another area of town, where the Black brothers and sisters of the White crooks plied their trade. But in central Leesville, in places like the one called “The Hole,” precisely because it was just that, young soldiers still in their teens drank their first beer, and experienced the perils of being defrauded by evil men and women. Leesville on weekends was wall to wall soldiers, far more than crooked civilian law enforcement could deal with, therefore MP’s were on hand to deal with and protect their own, for woe unto the soldier who was arrested by Vernon Parish law enforcement!

In those days the story was bandied about regarding the member of an earlier tank company who was confined in the Vernon Parish Jail. Unit members positioned a tank in front of the jail, and pointing the tank’s cannon barrel towards the jail, made the suggestion that consideration ought be given toward releasing the prisoner. The sheriff allowed that the suggestion had merit, and the prisoner was released with undue haste. This story serves to illustrate the feelings the military entertained towards Vernon Parish law enforcement in those days.

This was then, the Fort Polk era that I knew, and the military police I became well acquainted with, and came to truly appreciate. I took care of them, and in the midst of their revelry, they remembered me. And, as I recall, from this point onward, my own chain of command began to treat me with kid gloves, for the members of my MP Company had my back. It had not been so with the person who was their last paymaster, nor was it so for the person taking care of the other military police company, for they were not so invested as I. In fact, months later, when the four tires were stolen from my personal vehicle, leaving it on its rims in my Company parking lot on the edge of the Pine woods, the MP’s quickly came to my office to inform me that they had solved the case. As it turned out, they had found not four, but twenty four tires. I remember the look of amazement on the faces of the several MP’s waiting by my car, when I told them that none of the tires were mine. “Lopez, what do you mean none of them are yours? What do you mean? Take your pick!” I was adamant. None were mine. Two MP’s took me back to my office. In my absence, the other MP’s placed a set of tires on my vehicle.

I began to spend a lot of time at the MP Company because I was intrigued by law enforcement. When MP Units were involved in a shootout, with two men breaking into an Ammo Dump at North Fort Polk, I begged to be taken with them. I wanted into the action but was refused. “No Lopez, we can’t be responsible for you!” My offer to write out a statement relieving them of any responsibility for me was rejected. Man, but I begged to go along, but to no avail. But they made it up to me, finally. “Lopez, someone needs to go to Fort Rucker, Alabama to pick up two deserters. We are short handed and can’t send anyone. Would you like to go?” Would I! “But how are we going to get clearance from my chain of command?” (Who would have thought to send a Finance Clerk to do an MP’s job?) “We’ll clear it for you to go Lopez. No one is going to refuse the Post Provost Marshall. We’ve already submitted your name and it’s been approved. There will be another guy going with you but you’ll be in charge.”

With only two under strength MP Companies on a 40,000 man post, they were indeed short handed, but the odds of me being selected to go would have been nonexistent, had it not been that MP’s of all ranks were fond of me. I took care of them, and they took care of me. So it was that in late 1965, myself and another soldier were outfitted with .45’s and hand cuffs, and travel orders to go to Fort Rucker, Alabama. “You will go by bus, but it will be an overnight trip by train coming back. Just don’t take the handcuffs off them.”

We took a Trailways Bus to Fort Rucker in uniform, which was not wise during that era. As I was to discover, given our mission, there would be out right hostility from some quarters.The bus took us through Selma, Alabama, where earlier in the year Martin Luther King had led his epic march. I was shocked at the conditions there. Poor Black people in great numbers were crowded on the north side of the street, on the sidewalk, lined up against the buildings. Braving the cold of that November day, their ragged clothing, and the dejected looks on their faces, bespoke of utter hopelessness in the face of absolute poverty, unlike anything I had ever seen before! The Reverend Martin Luther King may have marched in their behalf, but these people continued to live there. They were facing the repercussions for their part in the marches, and now, in great sadness, enduring the long wait for justice. One thing appeared certain; jobs for Blacks were virtually non existent. One remembers that virtually all employers in Selma were White.

The year 1965 was a time of utter and ruthless racial discrimination, and with the exception of Mississippi, nowhere else was this more evident than in Alabama. The year before, in Mississippi, civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner left their base in Meridian, Mississippi, to investigate one of a number of church burnings, in particular the Mount Zion Church, burned down by the Klu Klux Klan because the minister had allowed it to be used as a meeting place for civil rights activists. While there, they were stopped and arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. After several hours, he turned them loose, and then rearrested them, and turned them over to the Klan. The Klan took them to a remote place, and after beating them, shot and killed them, and buried them under an earthen dam, where they were eventually discovered weeks later. And in Alabama, church deacon Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and killed by a State Trooper eight months before we set out for Fort Rucker, and his mother and grandmother beaten, during a peaceful demonstration. Jackson died in a Selma hospital. During that time, beginning in East Texas and all the way across the South, dirty water fountains read “Colored only,” and Blacks could be seen ordering food at restaurants through a back window, for they were not allowed inside. “Don’t you be caught out after dark,” was the word to Blacks. These were sad, but harsh facts.

After a couple of days at Fort Rucker, the prisoners were handed over to us. The prisoners were White, and draftees, and obviously older than either of us, and looking very fit. I had just turned twenty, and my companion was about the same age. Neither of us had any law enforcement training. Our inexperience must have shown, for smirking, one of them said to us, “It’s a long way back to Fort Polk. I’m not going back.” The other one smiled, saying nothing. It was disturbing to me that they were handcuffed with hands to the front, where their hands clasped together could be used as weapons.

We took a bus up to Montgomery, where we were to board a train. I was sick and appalled by what I saw there. Hanging over the United States Post Office were two flags, one of which was a crisp, clean, Stars and Bars Flag, fluttering proudly in the wind. Literally drooping beside her, was a bedraggled, and dirt filthy, United States Flag. I was incensed at this contemptible treatment of Old Glory!

Worse was to come. Walking into the large Union Train Station, we sat down with our prisoners. A police officer approached, obviously drunk. “Where you taking them boys?” Without waiting for my answer, he continued. “No damnyankees is going to arrest our Southern boys! Turn ‘em loose!” It occurred to me that earlier in the year, 2,000 US Soldiers had been called to Selma to protect the marchers from State Troopers and lawmen. There was no love lost for soldiers in uniform in the aftermath. So here was this drunk police officer, armed and in uniform, angrily telling us he wanted us to turn loose our prisoners. An act of bravado? But then he placed his hand on his weapon. What to do now? Who expected this when giving me this assignment? How to proceed?

Well OK, I was not trained at the time to be a cop. But I was a soldier, no matter my job function. And I was no stranger to violence. Besides, I did not, and do not like to be threatened. At that point, I dig in my heels. Perhaps it is for this reason, one of my heroes is a Mormon Apostle by the name of Lyman Wight. When informed by Missouri Militia General Moses Wilson that if he would not swear against Joseph Smith, he would be shot by firing squad the following morning, he made his feelings quite clear.”Shoot and be damned!” I have always felt an attachment to Lyman Wight, both for his loyalty to Joseph, and for his utter fearlessness.

So here was this cop. Was he for real? Well, I would play along. I noted the pistol the cop was carrying. Cops in those days carried .38 caliber Colts or S & Ws, and some even carried .32’s. Placing my hand on the butt of the .45 I was carrying, I remember saying something like, “You’ve got that little pop pistol, and I’ve got this cannon. Pull your little pop pistol, why don’t you?” I’m sure I worded it more strongly, but at any rate…I was bluffing, but he didn’t know that. If you gotta bluff do it with verve, and be prepared to back it up. I never took my eyes off him, because he had been drinking, and no one should ever make a threat with his hand on a weapon. I was bluffing because it had occurred to me that although I was carrying a full magazine, I was carrying on an empty chamber, and if he had pulled his weapon I would have had to rack a round to get my own weapon into action, and he would have gotten into the game before me, and we were close enough where it would have been hard enough for him to miss me if he had pulled that gun. I didn’t know anything about this cop, but what I did know was that I did not go around threatening armed strangers while resting my hand on my weapon. It wasn’t nice. And my prisoners didn’t know me, and I did not know how they would react. After what seemed like a long time to stare a man down, he turned from my gaze. I knew then that I had him. It was at this moment that the quiet, tougher one of the two prisoners spoke up. He too had seen a glimpse of fear in the man. “Take these cuffs off me, Lopez, and I’ll whip his butt for you.” The cop turned and walked away.

The prisoner was now on my side, and on the way back to Fort Polk we sort of bonded. In fact, as we sat together,toward the end of the trip, he warned me that the other prisoner, who was being watched over by my companion, was planning to overpower my companion while on a trip to the bathroom, and thus make his escape. Having been forewarned, I traded prisoners with my companion, and we made it back to Fort Polk with no further untoward incidents. Upon arrival, I put in a good word for my prisoner friend. I wish I had followed up on him, for he was a good man, despite his failings. Five decades have passed, and I do not remember the names of any of those who took part in this story, but should he or others in the tale still be alive and by some miracle come across this piece, it is my hope that they will recognize it by the events and the part they played in it, and choose to get in touch with me.

For many of those of the South of fifty years ago that I am recalling, those were indeed hard times. That dirty and soiled US Flag was itself an act of rebellion, and indicative of the bitter feelings then rife across the South. But the South of today is much changed from the South I knew then. In 2005, on my way back from a visit to Georgia, I turned off the road to visit Selma, Alabama. I stopped in at a Church’s Fried Chicken establishment. Wherein I had seen utter poverty fifty years before, I now saw a well dressed and happy people, obviously well educated. Just then, an Alabama State Police car pulled up. Out stepped an Alabama State Trooper, probably six foot six in height. He was one of the sharpest police officers I have ever seen, physically fit to the max. He was Black. And today, fifty years later, one cannot find the Leesville I knew back then. In its place are orderly streets, with beautiful green lawns and trees where bars and clip joints once stood. And churches! Churches, and the works of a God fearing people are much evident there today. Yes, today it is a lovely little town, with even a memorial to the soldiers who passed through. It is well that they have done this, for of the thousands who died in Vietnam, a majority were those, who at one time or another, signed out to a weekend pass, with destination Leesville, prior to embarking for Vietnam. There is nothing which more signifies the change which has come to formerly segregated Leesville, than the sight my wife and I beheld a year ago today, of three young teen age girls, two of them White and one Black, walking down the street with hands entwined.