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As for the prejudice you are finding there, understand that war does not always, bring out the best  in people.

You surely know by now, that a bigot ambushed in a foxhole won't be a bit concerned about the color of the

soldier who comes to save him. Danger tends to pull people together; after it has passed expect business as usual.

 

 

Letters between Father & Son--Topic: War

From To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir  (Gordon Parks)

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A Son Goes to War

By Gordon Parks

 

By November 1965 the bitter ordeal of Vietnam had escalated to a large-scale undeclared war, and as we plunged deeper into the futility of it, my youngest son David was drafted.

He was scheduled to leave on November 17. Several draftee friends of his--undecided whether they'd fight or not--had begun gathering at our place to discuss the situation. Overhearing them from my den, measuring the passion in their voices, I tried to decide who, in the end, would go and who would not. Besides David there was Morton and Arnold, two Jewish brothers; Joseph and Harold, two blacks; Johnny, an Irishman; Jimi, a West Indian; and Bruce, a young man from Pennsylvania. The Jewish brothers seemed hopelessly split on the issue, as were the two blacks. the Irishman and the West Indian were reluctant, but they vacillated with the stronger course of the argument, not knowing which way to go. David seldom ventured an opinion, but Bruce was definitely gung ho. "Those Commie bastards need their asses kicked real good, and I'm for getting it over with!"

Morton: You're beginning to sound like McCarthy.

Bruce: It's got nothing to do with him. I'm talking about Communist aggression.

Joseph: The communists haven't done anything to me. I don't have no reason for picking up a gun against them. If the war was against Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. I'd sign up in a minute. Don't give me that crap about aggression.

Arnold: Remember Hitler, Joe.

Joseph: And you remember Medgar Evers, Selma, and the Ku Klux Klan!

Jimi: Man, I just don't know. It's twelve of one, half a dozen of the other.

Harold: If we blacks are going to have a voice at the peace table, we'll have to fight for it like everybody else.

Joseph: Bullshit! Why don't you get with history, man. Get with history!

Morton: I'm going to be a rabbi--I'm strictly against killing.

Bruce: Even if somebody's out to kill you?

Morton: This is not our war--we're making it ours. We're as much the aggressor as anyone else.

Joseph: Amen, Brother rabbi. Amen.

Johnny: It doesn't matter who the aggressor is. We're in this mess either way. I don't want to kill anybody either; and I don't want anybody trying to kill me. But, well, this is my country and I suppose it's my responsibility to help defend it.

Joseph: You're white, baby. It's easy for you to think that way. maybe you feel you owe this country something. I don't.

Johnny: Perhaps you're right, man. Hell, I just don't know. What's your thinking about all this. Parks? You've hardly said a word.

David: I'm thinking, fellowsjust thinking.

It went that way night after night, without my knowing what David was thinking, or of how the Selma, Mississippi, and Alabama incidents had affected him. But I knew he was turning it all over in his mind, deciding in his own stubborn way. That's how he was, how we had been since he was a small child. He never talked to me about it--just showed me his papers when they came, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. I wasn't going to try and influence him one way or the other. It was his life and his decision to make. I was concerned, and I was prepared to back him up regardless of what he decided. But, if necessary, I would remind him that those whites he had seen in Selma did not reflect the nature of the entire white  society; that the blood of three white ministers. Reverend Reeb, Richard Morrisroe, and Donald Thompsonand many othershad been spilled in our behalf. Then, too, he had just finished reading Choice of Weapons, which had been published only a few months earlier.

I noticed he didn't pack any clothes the day before he was scheduled to go, and i slept very little that night. Elizabeth was equally concerned, but she held her silence. At dawn we heard David stumbling about. i got up and peered into the hallway, seeing only a pair of ski poles and some boots. as he going skiing, or tot he army? "What's up, David?" I hollered.

"My number!" he hollered back. "I'm getting ready to meet the man!"

I was relieved but unhappy. before he left that morning I put a 35mm camera and a large supply of film into his bag, telling him, "Take some pictures in your spare time, keep a diary, and get it off to me whenever you can. Good luck, and rememberwe're not anxious to have any heroes in the family." We embraced for a long moment and he was gone. naturally, we were worried, and we prayed he would come back someday, but we were aware and frightened of the odds against it. Considering the mood of the country he was off to defend, we could only hope that if he lived he would not have to return to yet another battleground. but with twenty-one million black voices chanting even stronger, "We shall overcome." It seemed that the revolt would go on despite the white man's stiffening resistance.

What David was heading for would be far different from what he was leaving. My children had loved the White Plains house. It had been a small bungalow on two lots when I acquired it back in 1945, but after our return from France I had purchased some adjoining properties, and redesigned and expanded the place. Where a field of wild sumac once grew there now sprawled a forty-foot living room with a shed roof and an oval, bubble-shaped skylight. Surely he would miss those snowbound nights when stars jeweled the sky and, with a fire blazing in the huge fireplace, we'd sit in darkness, drowning in Rachmaninoff or Brahms.

There were three fireplaces altogetherthe one in the living room, another in the dining room, and a third in an upper bedroom. During the holidays we kept all three burning. It was a rambling place designed for pleasant living and thinking, for reading good books and listening to good music. The summers were equally pleasant. A great towering willow and an army of strong oaks lorded over the garden that nature and a flower-worshipping gardener had created. Nestled in the center was a swimming pool--blue and cool under the hot sun, black and glistening under soft moonlight.

The wild flowers of spring always started things off. Bursting up from the earth impatiently, they spread in armies of violets, pinks, and blues, shooting up everywhere, taking over before the larger plants could overshadow them. trembling in the April rains and hugging the soil during high winds, they were so different from the tall, gangly sunflowers of my Kansas childhood.

Then came the heat of may, burning the colors one into another. only the wizened morning-glory curled into itself to escape those melting noons, while the pink and white Azaleas opened their petals against the light. in June and July all the plants ripened to every hue and color imaginable. I used to wish for that Bougainvillaea that took over our place in the south of France--that stubborn, discriminating species that graces only climates of its own desire.

All this and more David would miss.

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A letter to David somewhere in Vietnam (April, 1967):

 

Dear David,

I never thought that this war would hang around until you became a part of it. Sometimes I find myself wishing that you and Gordon would have been born at another time. But there has rarely been a time when men were not fighting one another.

As you know, we are having our troubles back here. The racial strife, especially in Alabama and Mississippi, is bad. But the televised performances of certain Southern lawmen are starting to fill the consciences of whites all over the land.

I mention this because it is something hopeful that might help you to tolerate one evil while we, back here, fight another one.

As for the prejudice you are finding there, understand that war does not always, bring out the best  in people. You surely know by now, that a bigot ambushed in a foxhole won't be a bit concerned about the color of the soldier who comes to save him. Danger tends to pull people together; after it has passed expect business as usual. There are bits of venom in some of your entries. You don't have time for it, and it doesn't fir you well. Do what you have to do an come home quickly as possible.

Elizabeth is expecting, so you will have either a new brother or a new sister when you return--maybe both. When Elizabeth does something she does it big. We are both astonished at the quiet of this place with you gone, although Elizabeth is not exactly the noiseless wonder. We miss you. Harper follows me around growling for those bones you used to save for him. Your ski boots yawn from boredom, and your empty bed looks like a fallen tree stripped of its bark.

That's about all. Try somehow to make peace with this miserable war you must fight. We love you and wish we could slice time off your absence.

                                                                                                        as ever,

                                                                                                        Dad

Source:  To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir (1979) by Gordon Parks, chapters 19 and 21.

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Related files: David Parks' Letters