Home Page          Shy Guy from Hollyhood High
 Young Don Edrington GO EAST,
   It was January 1, 1950, the first day of the second half of the 20th Century (or so I assumed at the time) and I was on the Super Chief heading east out of Union Pacific Station in downtown Los Angeles. My destination was the US Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. This would be my first time out of California, and to say I was excited would be an understatement.
   My orders read that I'd be assigned to Company K of the 1st School Battalion, and that I'd be attending an intensive fourteen-week course in construction surveying. I had only a vague idea of what construction surveying was, but it sounded like something a guy could get a job doing after he got out of the service, so I was looking forward to it. And, as a 10th grade dropout, I needed something more than my scant lettering and drawing abilities to get me by in the world.
   On board, we were told there would be an overnight layover in Chicago. This was an exciting thought. I'd heard about a part of Chicago called the Loop, and thought maybe I'd take a stroll around it as long I was there. Then I'd spend the night at the YMCA, and maybe see a little more of the city the following morning before having to reboard the train. Not too bad an adventure, I thought, for a 18-year-old on his first trip out of state.
   The ride to Chicago was uneventful. All I remember of it was eating, sleeping and looking out the window at the passing scenery. I'd have liked to have struck up an acquaintance with someone, but have never been the outgoing type who would introduce himself to strangers, and nobody approached me.
   Nor was the country at war in 1950, so there wasn't anything special about being a serviceman in uniform. In any case, I was preoccupied with thoughts of being 3,000 miles from Norma Jean (the 16-year-old with whom I was in love) and these thoughts probably kept me from enjoying the passing panorama as much as I might have.
   It was mid-afternoon when we arrived in the Windy City and I was glad I'd kept my GI-issue "horse-blanket" overcoat handy. I needed it as I got off the train because it was cold.
   A thermometer on a billboard told me it was exactly 30 degrees - two degrees below freezing and at least twenty degrees colder than I could ever remember it being in Los Angeles. But what amazed me was what I overheard one Chicagoan saying to another as I passed them on the street:
   "I can't believe what nice weather we're having. I hope it stays this warm all winter."
   Well, if this was what they called "warm," I'd take Southern California, thank you.

   After asking at the train station how to get to the Loop and the local YMCA, I headed downtown with my duffel bag on my shoulder. I'd only gone a block or two when a seedy-looking character sidled up to me and began walking at my side. "Just get here?" he asked. I tried to ignore him, but he persisted. "So you're in the army. Bet you've been to your share of whore houses."
   I said no, I hadn't - and tried to move away from him - but he stayed right with me. "You know, you don't have to spend money on whores," he said. "I can take care of you - we'll have a good time - there's a place right down the street just around the corner."
   I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing. I'd been in Chicago less than ten minutes and this pervert was trying to pick me on the street. My gut reaction was to punch him in the mouth - but, having never been the pugilistic type, I decided I'd think of something else.
   I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and could see that he was a pathetic-looking little character with a sad face who was maybe 35 or 40. I almost felt sorry for him. It was about then I spotted a policeman a little ways ahead of us. Without stopping I said, "If you're not gone in two seconds, I'm calling that cop over there." So he just grunted, made an abrupt about-face, and disappeared into the crowd.
   That got me to thinking that, in the future, I'd never again allow myself to look like a newcomer in a strange place. As long as civilian clothes were permitted off duty, I'd never again wear a uniform to town - any town. And I never did.
   Even when I went to Cuba a couple of years later, I immediately bought myself one of the square-cut white shirts with the embroidered pockets that most of the native males wore. (But that's a whole other story.)

   Well, the Loop looked like it might be an exciting place for someone who had money to spend and who was old enough to get into some of the places which were obviously for adults only - but I had neither the means nor the years. So I decided to get on a streetcar and just take a ride around town. Somehow I ended up walking on Lakeshore Drive later in the evening.
   A cold wind was coming off of Lake Michigan, and all I could think about was finding another streetcar back to the Loop and settling into the warmth of the YMCA. But I wasn't sure which direction to take - and there was nobody to ask. The broad street and expansive lawn that bordered the lake seemed strangely deserted for a big city like Chicago. I could see a pair of streetcar tracks and a trolley stop for each direction - so I knew there'd be transportation along sooner or later. I just didn't know which way to go.
   Suddenly a middle-aged couple appeared from out of I don't know where. And they were headed in my direction. Well, for me, approaching strangers to ask directions has always been a course of last resort. But I was cold and desperate.


   I moved quickly to meet them half way, and said, "Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to the Loop?" They stopped and looked at each other and then looked at me and just shrugged. I thought maybe they were hard of hearing, so, speaking a little louder, I said, "The Loop - do you know which direction it's in?"
  Now they were talking to each other in voices so low I couldn't tell what they were saying. Finally the man turned to me with a smile and said something that sounded like, "Ja - der time." Then he pointed to his watch and said, "Ja, iss ten o'clock. Ja, ja. Gut nacht." Then they continued on their way down Lakeshore Drive.
  Great, I thought - I finally break down and ask a stranger for directions, and what do I get? someone who doesn't speak English. I was beginning to think that stopping over in Chicago wasn't such a wonderful idea after all.
  Well, I finally did make it to the YMCA and went to bed with all my clothes on, including my GI "horse blanket." Hopefully it would be warmer in Virginia.
  The following morning I could see through the train window that it was indeed getting a little warmer as we headed south. I don't know just which route the train followed, but it was apparent that we were making stops in some other states below the Mason-Dixon line on our way to Virginia. white.jpg
   And when we stopped I could scarcely believe some of the things I was seeing.

   colored.jpg Each train depot had two sets of restrooms with a drinking fountain in front of each set. And they were all clearly labeled "WHITE" or "COLORED." This was an amazing revelation to a California boy. I'd been taught that the slaves had been set free and that there was no more discrimination between the races. Boy, was I ever na´ve.
   I stayed on the train because, even though we were told there'd be time to stretch our legs, the idea of going into a segregated coffee shop or using a segregated drinking fountain somehow didn't appeal to me.
   (Soon I would learn that there were many public places that blacks couldn't go into even in Washington DC, our nation's very symbol of liberty and equality - or so I'd been taught.)
   Another revelation was seeing the way many people lived as the train moved along its southern course. The tracks would be lined for miles with bleak-looking shanties made from pieces of plywood, corrugated metal, cardboard, and just about anything else that could be slapped together. I could hardly believe that people lived in these shacks, which obviously had no electricity or running water. But the people were there - and the children would usually smile and wave as the train went by.
   My trip to Fort Belvoir was turning into a learning experience that I hadn't expected nor been prepared for.

   Incidentally, my first awareness of any kind of real-life racial segregation in our mid-century society came when I took the train from LA to Fort Ord. I'm referring to the Redcaps. Although I'd seen them in the movies, I didn't realize that all train porters were, in fact, black. I remember thinking at the time that this wouldn't be a bad job. You'd get to see the country and, hopefully, make some good money earning tips - but of course I would be disqualified for the job.
   It also occurred to me that legions of blacks were automatically disqualified for jobs around the country for the opposite reason. I didn't seem fair - but trying to put an end to this sort of thing would be left to braver folk than I during the ensuing decades.

   The train didn't actually stop at Fort Belvoir, but rather in a little town called Accotink. (I remember thinking that this sounded about as funny as Azusa, Anaheim, and Cu-ca-monga, the three town names Frank Nelson would routinely get a laugh out of each week on the Jack Benny show.) Anyway, I'd have to take a bus to get on base.
   I don't know if I just naturally attract the nuts or what - but, as I was waiting for the bus, a wiry little old black man came up to me and started poking his left wrist with his right forefinger, while looking me straight in the eye.
   "You see this black skin?" he demanded. "You know what that is? That's the color of the devil - that's what that is! And do you know what color God's skin is? It's white - just like yours! You see, you're going to heaven - but me, I belong to the devil!"
   I was speechless. I tried to smile and say something like, "Oh, that's ridiculous," but I really couldn't get a word in edgewise.
   Finally, he grabbed my right hand and started shaking it vigorously. "You take care of yourself, son," he said. "You do the right thing and you're goin' to heaven. But don't you worry about me. It won't do no good. It's too late for me, but you're gonna be all right." Then he gave my hand a final shake as he turned and quickly walked away.
   Now I was even more positive I was never going to look like a stranger or a tourist in a new town again.

Other encounters with someone of color are chronicled in the following story:

Korea - Best Friend Decides to Start His Own Church
Shy Guy from Hollyhood High
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