Despite the Yoke

June 9, 2020
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My kids and I worked out in our backyard before the implementation of Manila’s “Enhanced Community Quarantine.” Since the lockdown, our Sunday morning tradition of kettle bells, calisthenics, and striking has morphed into an every-other-day agenda item on our Groundhog Day schedule. My 13-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son fussed and fought their way through push-ups, lunges, burpees, rolls-to-jumps, bear crawls, crab walks, prisoner squats, planks, tabletops, flutter kicks, and good old-fashioned sit-ups — boot camp-like routines designed to encourage behavioral compliance through physical exhaustion. And, like young marines, Tessa and Lev proved hard to manage but easy to inspire. Every other day for the last 12 weeks, we’ve hardly missed a day out on “the grinder.”

Halfway through one session, Tessa ripped open the Velcro strap on one of her boxing gloves with her teeth and asked, “Do you want me to join the military?”

My kids and I tend to have our deepest conversations during the lull between sets. Panting with their fingers intertwined behind their heads, Tessa and Lev have brought up everything from evolutionary biology to gender inequality. – Questions sure to win them a breather by sparking the sort of nurturing and formative conversations for which I became a parent in the first place.

Back when Tessa was Lev’s age, she dropped this doozy between rounds on the heavy bag in our garden in Kenya: “Did you want black kids?”

One of my eyebrows arched.

“Are you fucking with me?” is generally not a good start to a nurturing and formative conversation, so instead I asked, “What… What do you think you are?”

“I’m peach,” Tessa declared. Then, she crossed her arms and looked at me like a tiny lawyer with no further questions.

My wife, Iryna, is Ukrainian-American. I’m Black-American. We knew that race would eventually come up. I had not, however, expected a cross-examination concerning purported misgivings about the kid’s very existence.

“Sweetie,” I answered, “I wanted healthy kids.” An honest but incomplete answer.

Given my stint in the Marine Corps, we knew that the military would eventually come up as well. For Tessa’s question about joining up, I already had an answer locked and loaded.

But first, before the Marine Corps nostalgia gets even more overt than that last metaphor, I want to be absolutely clear on one point: Nothing about my military career was heroic. Even referring to my five and a half years in the Marine Corps as a “career” feels overblown. My time in the suck began with three uneventful years in Jacksonville, North Carolina: a town where a used car dealership, strip bar, tattoo parlor, and pawn shop — a collective of storefronts seemingly designed to ruin a lance corporal’s life — line the street leading to Camp Lejeune’s front gate. I bucked for embassy guard duty at the earliest opportunity and, after a couple years of glorified firewatch at U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I rode the G.I. Bill gravy train straight through my first master’s degree.

In many ways, the military served me. Referring to someone as a hero simply because they served in the military elevates the profession of arms to a realm beyond reproach and gives the dangerous impression — to both veterans and civilians — that only one type of public service really “counts.” This is not to say that I exactly go out of my way to correct civilians who make a big deal about my time in the Marine Corps. Hell. Half of the reason that I signed up in the first place was to be referred to as a former marine for the rest of my life.

But Tessa wasn’t asking about me.

“You don’t necessarily have to join the military, but you should do some kind of public service.” Bam. Like I said, locked and loaded.

Before the pandemic, I imagined myself rattling off that answer and then pointing to Tessa’s cherry-red kettle bell, plastered with a sticker of a half-bionic Pacific Island girl playing a ukulele, and quipping, “Now quit messing around and let’s get this workout done” — the sort of tough but tender scene that I would like featured on my parenting highlight reel.

But, out on the grinder that morning, my answer fell flat. From the call for public health and safety workers to social distancing practices, the pandemic necessitates a national galvanization unseen in my lifetime. No one had ever asked my generation to subjugate private interests to public ones. How Tessa’s generation views public service constitutes one of the most crucial questions we will face in the wake of this pandemic. An honest but incomplete answer wasn’t going to cut it.

So, I jabbered on about how the pandemic has illustrated the number of Americans who are not just disconnected from their military but also from almost every service rendered as a public good: education, infrastructure construction and maintenance, sanitation, safety, and — of course — healthcare.

When I paused for a breath, Tessa looked at me as if she wanted to ask the judge for permission to treat the witness as hostile. I hope that kid never loses her nose for bullshit.

The whole truth is that, as far back as I can remember, my idea of legitimacy has been knotted to serving in the military and a lot of that idea has to do with my father, Karl — a six-foot-two grizzly bear of a command chief master sergeant, whose 27 years in the Air Force represented more of a lifestyle than a career.

My old man had been that trope in military-themed stories: the master chief petty officer, sergeant major, and chief master sergeant who — with a fruit salad of ribbons on his chest — speaks in short bursts of acronym-heavy language and addresses officers with a tone of indulgent exasperation and just a hint of contempt. The career “non-coms” who have given up on the notion that salvation can be found in any particular commanding officer, but believe in their branch of service the way a Jesuit does the Catholic Church.

According to federal law, only 1 percent of the U.S. Air Force’s enlisted personnel are authorized to hold the rank of command chief master sergeant. Part senior advisor, part mentor, and part superintendent, my father’s role was to utterly submerge himself in the collective and foster the group identity that dictates a command’s values. Through his confidence, competence, and poise, Command Chief Master Sgt. Karl Lewis Farria physically embodied the U.S. Air Force for the young servicemembers entrusted to his care. Born and raised in New Orleans, my dad often referred to the Air Force as his second hometown.

But, his faith in his country was less intense and never naïve. Karl didn’t confuse esprit de corps with patriotism or comradery with friendship. He maintained a clear-eyed understanding of the indisputable certificate of citizenship that he earned through his service. Karl never forgot that, in order to prove his worth to his countrymen, he’d had to don a uniform and the persona that went with it. He possessed what W.E.B. Dubois referred to as a double-consciousness: “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” He was an acolyte of what Ta-Nehisi Coates much later referred to as “that peculiar black faith that makes us patriots despite the yoke.”

Out on the grinder that morning — as we talked public service, patriotism, and race — I found myself again and again referring to my father. Karl Farria had been a sophomore in the autumn of 1970, when the Black Panther Party had two shootouts with the New Orleans Police Department in the city’s Desire Projects, which were blocks away from his school, Francis T. Nicholls High. Like most of the other urban rebellions that have taken place in the United States, the Desire shootouts were sparked by an instance of over-the-top police brutality. Accounts of the shootouts vary, but all 12 Panthers charged in connection with the gunfights were later acquitted.

From the roof of the Broussard Grocery on Piety Street, just outside of the Desire Projects, New Orleans Police Department snipers had shot and killed my father’s former classmate, 19-year-old Kenneth James — K.J. for short — Borden. Borden’s involvement with the Panthers remains disputed; but whether he was armed when he was shot does not — he wasn’t. In Showdown in Desire, Orissa Arend contends that, “One resident of the Desire Development was killed by covering fire police provided for an undercover officer fleeing the scene.” The undercover officer mentioned was a New Orleans Police Department plant in the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party.

In New Orleans, the Panthers conducted classes and provided free breakfasts for children who attended school on the “platoon” system, established a sickle cell screening program, and instituted a neighborhood cleanup schedule. But more than simply replacing the services of an absentee state and corroborating the injustice in this community’s daily existence, the Panthers legitimized a feral sort of black masculinity. Yes, many were misogynistic, arrogant, and dangerously naïve — but they were also young, black, and unafraid. Motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness, they preached violent self-defense and were uninterested in integration. In 1968, then director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, called the Panthers “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” Through its COINTELPRO program, the bureau brought the full force, ingenuity, and resources of the U.S. government to bear on the Black Panther Party. As Bunchy Carter, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, put it, “FBI been on our ass from the beginning. They let the local cops do the dirty work, but they’re always around.”

As Air Force brats, my brothers and I only visited New Orleans during holidays. While shuttling between the houses of my more than two dozen first cousins, we would pass the Desire Projects and my father would remind us of the shootouts the Panthers had with the police there back in 1970.

He filled us in on the bits that were left out of the accounts of the shootouts, like how K.J.’s corpse lay face down in a puddle of blood for two and a half hours while New Orleans Police Department snipers remained in overhead watch and uniformed police waited for an armored vehicle to buttress their courage enough to enter the neighborhood on foot. Meanwhile, K.J.’s corpse drained into the gutter. It was almost ten o’clock at night when three teenage Desire residents — a girl and two boys — braved the snipers who had already opened fire in their neighborhood to half drag and half carry the young man’s corpse to the police lined up outside the projects. Imagine that moment of absolute clarity when those black children faced those police officers on the edge of their neighborhood.

These are the stories communities do not forget. Memories, reminders, lessons that filter like bad blood through a people’s collective consciousness. The sort of anger that becomes a family heirloom.

Karl graduated a little over two years later. A little background on the namesake of my dad and K.J.’s alma mater, Francis T. Nicholls High School:

Before betraying his country and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, Francis T. Nicholls — West Point, class of 1855 — fought in the Third Seminole War in Florida. Following two postbellum terms as governor of Louisiana, Nicholls served as chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. During Nicholls’ second term as governor in 1891, he refused to stay the lynching of 11 innocent Italian-Americans in New Orleans (in 1891, Italian-Americans were still tight-roping America’s color line) — an event later depicted in the 1990 HBO film Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken.

So, in the summer of 1973, my father graduated from a high school named for a man who fought with determination — in fact losing an arm in the effort — for him and everyone who looked like him to remain in chattel slavery.

“As a kid,” my dad once told me, “you heard racist ideas and you couldn’t help but wonder if they were true. The Panthers helped me understand that they weren’t.” Karl had a long flirtation with the Panthers throughout high school but never joined the party outright.

When my father enlisted six months after the Selective Service ended the draft for the Vietnam War, he was among the first generation of black veterans who served with the psychological sustenance provided by the Black Power Movement. He would need it. At 17 years old, he joined a post-Vietnam military that was bloated and resentful, replete with drug abuse and racial conflict. His motivation had been a sticky mix of learning a trade, needing money for college, and attaining a healthcare safety net.

He certified as a jet engine mechanic and worked on Phantoms, F-111s, B-52s — fearsome instruments of war that he discussed with great pride. When not on deployment, Karl spent his workdays on the flight lines of the military bases that I grew up on: Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana; Mildenhall Royal Air Force Base in the United Kingdom; Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, where he’d been an instructor at the jet engine school; Upper Heyford Royal Air Force Base, again in the United Kingdom, where his career-long role as a deacon at the churches we attended morphed into a full-blown calling to the ministry; and, finally, the frozen tundra of Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where I graduated from high school.

As an ordained minister, Karl had an encyclopedic knowledge of the scriptures while his storytelling voice often assumed a bouncy evangelical cadence as he relaxed into a little deviant grammar. Remembering how my old man could tell a story puts a lump in my throat. My brothers and I would squabble over the right to unlace his boots when he’d return from the flight line and tended to be at his most talkative. Then, we would literally sit at his feet, waiting for him to speak. These were my nurturing and formative conversations.

Karl told us that black Americans fought in significant numbers in every war since the American Revolution; that black men were with George Washington at Valley Forge; and that the first American to shed blood in the revolution that freed our country from British oppression was a black seaman named Crispus Attucks.

But he also told us that George Washington only allowed men of color to enlist in the colonial army after learning that the British were offering freedom to any slave who fought for the Redcoats. He described the first permanent Negro regiments — two cavalry and two infantry that, in brutal solidarity with their white officers, fought indigenous tribes in the country’s west — as “one of the greatest ironies in American history.” Many years later, he gave me a snort and a nod when I related this passage to him from Robert O’Connor’s 1993 novel, Buffalo Soldiers:

“You don’t even know what a buffalo soldier is, do you?” The Top asks. He pauses after firing for effect. “That’s when we let you guys in? — the black army. You poor bastards fought the peace, took on the Indians after the Civil War. It was a dirty job, you couldn’t get a white man to do it. Know what the pay was? Thirteen dollars a fucking month. Yeah. You know from the military magazines about the buffalo soldiers. Hapless chasing the hopeless — the oldest army story. You know what’s changed?” Sgt. Lee asks.

Stoney says nothing.

“Your per diem went up.”

Karl spoke of the counterbalance of prejudice and pragmatism that has largely defined the relationship between black Americans and the U.S. military. He related the stories his own father told him of the lynching of black World War I veterans: “They would strip off their uniforms before stringing them up.”

Karl discussed the unrelenting concentration camp terror of racism without naming it. He spoke without bitterness or self-pity. That’s just the way things were: his “injustice is inevitable, conduct yourselves accordingly” spiel. The longer renditions dipped into stories of the boys he’d grown up with: brown boys with craniums cracked while patting their jackets for cigarettes; brown boys in interrogation rooms reeking of ammonia and inducted into lives that would be more about prison than anything else; and brown boys spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for bad news. The world hunted brown boys from all sides and its best agents were men in uniform. “The first question they’ll usually ask you is, ‘Where are you going?’” The way my dad taught us, if you found yourself in a position to be asked that question, you were already wrong.

“Love your country,” he would tell us. “It’s the only one we got. You better love it. Try to make it better. But don’t ever get caught acting like it can’t happen. It did. It does.” So many black people have suffered so much brutality in the United States that, by default, the black veterans’ patriotism is layered, our allegiance plural.

As a lance corporal of marines, my life revolved around standing post, working out, reading, and trying to avoid working parties. Many of the non-commissioned officers in my unit bore little resemblance to the tyrannical but inspiringly proficient instructors at boot camp and the school of infantry. A few fit the widespread but rarely voiced public perception of a military populated by the country’s socioeconomic dregs — losers who couldn’t hack it elsewhere. Like all good lance corporals, most days I hated the Marine Corps.

Nevertheless, those years at Camp Lejeune gave my face some much needed texture. Doing a shit job for lousy pay that somehow contributes to the common good encourages a gritty understanding of citizenship. Hard decisions are best made by good people, and the best people are shaped by hard experiences. The military is a good place to garner such experience, but it is hardly the only one.

Out on the grinder that morning, I told Tessa, “I’d be proud if you or one of your brothers decided to join the military.” And I meant it.

But that’s not all I told her. I’ll be god damned if I let any of my kids get caught acting like it can’t happen. It did. It does.

 

Dewaine K. Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Rumpus, the Mantle, CRAFT, and the Southern Humanities Review. Syracuse University Press will release his first novel, Revolutions of All Colors, in October 2020. You can find more of Dewaine’s writing at dewainefarria.com.

Image: Wikicommons (Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps)