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Belle of the Ball
There was a strange irony in the Air Force sending me, a former freedom rider, to Keesler AFB. True, Keesler is where they sent all the hams, since it housed the Air Force's major electronics school. But, federal law notwithstanding, Mississippi in 1965 was still very much a segregated state. I found that out my first week on base, when my bunkmate Stu and I went into town.
Johnny's Offbeat Bar on Howard Street was a favorite hangout, and as Stu and I sat down to order a beer, the barkeep's eyes shot daggers at us and the whole place grew silent. "I'll serve you," the bartender spat in my direction, "but the n***er has to wait outside."
"You mean the Airman Second Class?" I prompted politely, and the barkeep answered "Yeah. The n***er second class can wait outside."
I allowed as how they didn't want my business after all, so Stu and I left Johnny's, never to return. From then on out we did our drinking on base, at the Airman's Club. But we did report the incident to our squadron commander, just for grins.
And that's how Stu became the belle of the ball.
Gulf Park College was an exclusive women's school in Gulfport Mississippi. Only the blue of blood and the plump of purse need apply. None of these debutantes would be seen dead with a low-life airman, except during the Spring Ball. Then, it was the custom of the College to call up Keesler Air Force Base, which graciously provided a selection of genteel escorts.
When the Headmistress spoke to our squadron commander, it was as though she were ordering in a Chinese restaurant, one from column A, two from column B, fortune cookie and hot tea. "We need forty Southern gentlemen," she specified, "to escort our ladies to the Spring Ball. They must all be five foot ten or taller, in full dress uniform with highly polished shoes, and they must all be good Christians."
"We can do all that, Ma'am" replied the Captain obligingly.
On the appointed evening, forty hand-selected airmen boarded the Blue Bird bus at the main gate, for the short ride to Gulfport. They were all Southerners. They were all gentlemen. They were all five foot ten or taller. They were all in full dress uniform, with highly polished shoes. They were all Christians. And they were all black.
When the Air Force bus pulled up on campus, the headmistress turned pale, and not only by comparison. "You!" she stammered at the first man off the bus. "There must be some mistake."
"No, Ma'am," grinned my friend Stu, gleaming white teeth framed in ebony lips. "There's no mistake. Now you might make a mistake, Ma'am, and I might make a mistake. But certainly not Captain Cohen."
The belles of Gulf Park College
Copyright © H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.; Maintained by Microcomm
this page last updated 14 June 2007