Twenty years ago or so, a friend of mine arranged a dinner for me and some friends with a man who worked at the Martin Marietta plant near Denver.
He had been a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary African-American fighter pilots who escorted American bombing missions over North Africa and Europe during World War II. I was excited to learn that after the war he had been stationed for a time at James Connally Air Force Base near Waco, Texas.
My father and my uncle operated a hamburger stand on the airbase, which he had frequented. It thrilled me to learn that a genuine American war hero had eaten at my Dad’s place.
I asked him if he had ever been to the Health Camp in Waco, another of Dad’s and Uncle Jack’s restaurants. (The Health Camp, by the way, served burgers, fries and malts. There was nothing on the menu even remotely healthy, but that’s a story for another day.)
He got a funny look on his face. “No. Why would I?”
“I assume you left the base and went into town on occasion,” I answered. “You might have eaten there.”
How naive I was.
“There wasn’t much reason to go into town. Mostly the Black soldiers stayed on base. There wasn’t a lot we could do in Waco.”
Oh, right. “Well, the Health Camp would have served you. Dad didn’t believe in segregation.”
“And how would I have known that?”
He wouldn’t have, of course. The Health Camp may have had a policy of serving everyone, but it would have been business suicide to advertise the fact.
He went on to tell us stories about the times he did venture into Waco to eat.
“There were a few places that let us buy food and take it out.”
“At the take-out window?”
“Of course not. But especially if there was a Black cook, we could go around back and get handed bag of food out the kitchen door. The Black soldiers all knew which places would do that. But we didn’t know of any restaurants that would seat us.”
Suffice it to say that his memories of Waco were different and considerably less nostalgic than mine.
His story was painful reminder that those of us privileged to be born with the correct skin color lived in those days in a very different world than those not so lucky. That was one of the less appealing features of the time I’m chronicling in “Sleeper Ave.”
We still have much to do in this country on that front, but it’s also a reminder of how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.