Smith: An Early Lesson in Life

Photo by Elliot Erwitt, 1950 in North Carolina

I spent several of my early formative years on Ft. Davis in the Panama Canal Zone and attended school on base with children of every race one cares to mention, so I knew absolutely nothing about the rampant racism that was still part and parcel of American society at the time.

My parents had long taught me to judge others according to how they treated me, by their character rather than skin color, even before MLK delivered his famous statement to that effect.

So … it was only natural that when we arrived in Columbia, South Carolina that I might break some societal taboo. And I did right off.

My Mom and me and my lil’ brother disembarked our bus and were waiting for my Dad to come pick us up, since he had flown stateside to find us a house near Ft Jackson a few days earlier. And a sign in the terminal caught my attention. It read “Colored Water”.

How interesting said my eight year old mind, as I went to the fountain to see what colors would pour forth, my mind already wondering how they could color water. Yes, I was disappointed to find nothing but clear, cool water such as I knew to come from any other water fountain.

But in the meantime, I suppose I had caused some of the old men and women in the terminal to catch a bad case of the vapors, as they stood appalled at the sight of a young white boy drinking from a fountain “reserved” for black people. My Mom hadn’t immediately noticed, but when she did, she beckoned me away from the fountain in a somewhat hushed tone.

Even after this, it would be sometime before my parents ever really discussed racism and the reason some people hated others over the color of their skin. They finally offered their thoughts after I finally decided to bring it up, feeling as tho’ I had entered a world totally foreign to anything I had know yet to that date, the animus, the slurs such as “nigger” and worse – yes, even my “peers” in elementary school knew such language.

HHhhhMmmmmm ….. Wonder where they learned it?

I’ve never known a person I couldn’t like, love or respect simply because they were a different skin-tone from me. I’ve always attempted to treat others as I would be treated and if they reciprocated in kind, they were always welcomed as friends.

I’ve seen the ugly face of racism from all the races in my lifetime, including from the black race. But by that same token, I have had many black people treat me much better than my white counterparts over those long decades.

And I can also never forget the Panamanian family that lived one floor up from us in Cologne. We lived in their apartment building until our base housing was prepared. The first time I wandered into their apartment at five years old, never having met them, they let me stay to play with their children on to dinner time when they even set a place for me, finally helping me find my way home as it became late. Afterwards, I would make frequent visits, and they started me out on my first Spanish lessons. …. HahaHahahaha…..

People are most usually quite alike, left to their own devices without outside interference. And being taught right from wrong, good from evil, begins in the homes, regardless of skin color.

April 7, 2023

Justin O. Smith ~ Author

~ The Author ~
Justin O. Smith has lived in Tennessee off and on most of his adult life, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1980, with a B.S. and a double major in International Relations and Cultural Geography – minors in Military Science and English, for what its worth. His real education started from that point on. Smith is a frequent contributor to the family of Kettle Moraine Publications.

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