|Killing the Goose...|
Chapter 7: The Klansman
Ford's Preproduction Interiors studio was in the basement directly across from the tool crib where we turned in our dirty smocks every Wednesday for new ones.
When I opened the door wearing my clean green smock with my tool tray in hand, there to greet me were four, white, smiling faces. Three of those faces belonged to men in green smocks. A short, ruddy-faced man with a big round head and thick lips introduced himself as Vic Clark. He spoke like the natives of Missouri where I took Army Basic Training. He was wearing a white shirt and red tie. He stuck out his hand and said, "Welcome aboard." He then asked me my name, as though he didn't already know it. I took his hand and told him my name. Looking me straight in the eye, he said, "I knew a old boy named Jasper in Indiana. Now that was one nigger that didn't mind workin'."
I don't know who was shocked the most. The other three modelers turned as red as a cartoon character who had just been given a hotfoot while I stood there with my mouth open waiting for my brain to catch up with my ears. Never in my life had anyone called me a nigger to my face without putting his face in jeopardy of instant rearrangement. The last person to even hint at calling me that almost lost his life.
Here, I have to take one long step back in time and one short step forward so you will know how close Vic Clark came to losing his life.
I was an acting squad leader for my Basic Training company Delta, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment (Training) in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. According to a shrink I saw in 1984, D-3-3 and C-3-3 were part of a classified experiment conducted by the Army and the Marine Corps at a few selected bases for some sinister purpose. He was a former Green Beret captain specializing in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although D-3-3 had nothing to do with why I was seeing him I got the feeling that he was glad to hear my story because it put a real name and face to his.
His story sounded credible to me because of the questions he asked before he told the group about the experiment. When I mentioned some of the things I had to do and couldn't do my first time in Basic Training other members of the therapy group gave me a fishy eye. But the shrink cocked his head and asked me if I had taken my Basic at Fort Leonard Wood or Fort Polk between 1964 and 1966. I told him that I had. He asked me if I was in a C or D company. I told him that I was. That's when he told us about the experiment. The Army's testing sites were at Leonard Wood and Polk. I don't recall where the Marines had theirs.
Each branch of the military has different missions and training particular to its mission. Where the missions overlap so does the training. Soldiers sometimes train marines. Marines sometimes train soldiers. Airmen and sailors sometime train soldiers and marines. Marines have a special, well-earned reputation for being tough and savage in battle because of the tough and savage training they have to endure to be called Marines. But if you are looking for a comparable challenge of body and spirit you can find it somewhere in any branch of the United States Armed Forces.
I concluded, therefore, that the military was not interested in finding the breaking point of physical and mental endurance by its barbaric treatment of the test groups. I guessed that there were "softy" companies as well and the top brass, especially in the Army, required extreme control groups to test what worked and what didn't for the war that was heating up in Southeast Asia. Because of its greater size, the Army would have to carry the heaviest load for the longest time. The differences in individual trainers before the Army had firmly established a professional cadre of drill instructors like the Marines in 1966, was too great to measure the efficiency of its overall Basic Training program.
Contrary to my doctor's opinion that the experiment was somehow unethical, I think that it was essential. To join the Marines before the experiment was to buy a ticket to gratuitous torment with obsolete equipment and second class status to the Navy. Joining the Army was a crapshoot. After 1966 the Marines became more like the Army in some ways and in other ways the Army became more like the Marines. Out of the five training companies in our battalion, Charlie and Delta finished fourth and fifth in every category of military proficiency.
As a barely 18-year-old acting corporal in the eight-month of 1964, I was in no position to see the big picture. Fortunately, we hadn't started going to the rifle range yet because it was hard for me to see anything clearly though the fog of four days with three hours of sleep. Earlier that day a drill instructor in the first platoon had knocked a trainee to the ground and kicked him until he had to be taken unconscious to the hospital. Another trainee from the fourth platoon had passed out from heat exhaustion after a grueling session of bayonet drill in the hot Missouri sun with a heavy M-14 rifle in his hands and a full canteen of water on his utility belt. His canteen was full because his platoon leader made him fill it up but wouldnt let him drink.
Normally, the trainees would be brought only to the brink of hospitalization. Otherwise, it had been a typical day in Delta-3-3.
Earlier that week a thin, blonde, thoroughly likeable kid named Hayes from southern Illinois who talked like a native of Kentucky had returned to the second platoon from a brief stay in the hospital. I was his squad leader. If it hadn't been for a 30-year-old former Marine and former Navy SEAL named Sears, who had joined the Army to become a Ranger, Hayes would have died. None of the other trainees, including me, knew what to do when Hayes said his last word and stopped breathing. His last word, by the way, was "shit." That is, it would have been his last word if we hadn't taken him outside when be began to shiver and convulse after burning up with fever and Sears hadn't rushed over from the 4th platoon barracks to revive him. The rest of us had already pronounce him dead.
Hayes hadn't been the first trainee to leave the company area in an ambulance. He hadn't been the first to be prematurely pronounced dead. Every time the ambulance arrived to take somebody away rumors swept though our three-story barracks that he had died. On this day, one of those reanimated dead guys was about to die again.
The training day had started as it always did at 4:00 A.M. We finished up as usual long after sundown with extra training in the hand-to-hand combat pits behind the barracks. I had just come in from running an overweight man in my squad who was black and blue from thigh to shoulder from being kicked for fallout out during a long run in full field gear. In my absence I left a college-educated trainee named Hobbs in my place and an older guy name Goyett to assist him. Without them I would have been lost.
While I was wheezing my way up the stairwell to my squad on the second floor behind my black and blue squad member, the trainee platoon sergeant intercepted me. He told me that it was my squad's turn to clean the latrine. There was going to be a company inspection the next day. Whenever we came in from training we were kept busy buffing the tile floors and polishing brass doorknobs anything to make it difficult for us to prepare ourselves for personal inspection and impossible to get more than two hours of sleep. Our D.I. platoon leaders told us that we were getting more sleep than we were authorized.
I willed myself up the stairs. At the top of the landing I stopped for a long drink out of the water fountain before breaking through the door without touching the brass plate to break the bad news to Hobbs and Goyett. Somebody from the first squad had the buffer going and I could see other members of the first squad tipping around with socks on the toes of their boots as they polished the brass fixtures on the doors. They called me a rich assortment of names ending in "asshole" for messing up the floor with my dirty boots.
I tiptoed into the second squad's room where everyone was scuffing to get their personal gear together for inspection. I told them what had to be done, put Hobbs and Goyett in charge and told them that I would be joining them shortly. Then I went to my room amid another barrage of colorful names ending in "prick," "asshole" and "motherfucker." Harrolson, the soft-spoken "acting jack" 1st squad leader I shared the room with shook his head at my bedraggled condition and offered to help me get my locker display ready. He didn't look so good himself but we both knew that we had to help each other in order to keep our strips, not to mention our room. Few of the starting acing jacks still had their job.
I don't recall whether I thanked Harrolson or not for his help as I slipped a pair of socks over the toes of my boots a few minutes later and tiptoed down the hall to the latrine.
If you're wondering why we didn't take off our boots, it was because we where subject to being called to formation without prior notice until midnight. Whenever that happened, we had to stop what we were doing and scramble down the stairs screaming "Delta-3-3!" at the top of our lungs. Then we had to find our places in the formation within a span of time that would have been impossibly short if we weren't already fully clothed. We had to stand at attention until further notice.
Once we stood in the dark for hours pondering the meaning of a wooden grave marker on the company lawn inscribed "R.I.P." It had been there since we first arrived from the Reception Center. We stood there at attention until two randomly selected trainees from the 1st platoon dug a deep, 2' x 3' hole beside the marker with spoons to bury a cigarette butt. The company first sergeant called it a "dead soldier." After an hour or so of watching the trainees dig with little progress, I had to smile at the stories I'd heard from marines of having to dig with a spoon a hole big enough to bury a man-sized coffin.
The absurdity of spending any time on a chore like this put a lot of things into perspective. It didn't add to our combat skills. It deprived us of the time and mental agility we needed to learn them. It was just plain stupid.
An hour after we were dismissed, we stood at attention in our regular morning formation. Charlie company was already doing its morning run in full field gear. This time we saw two markers inscribed "R.I.P."
That was a week ago.
On this evening in the second floor latrine of the Delta-3-3 barracks it wasn't even close to midnight. My men were grumbling all of them. Galendo bitched non-stop by nature, which is why I remember him, but now Hobbs and Goyett were doing it, too. To diffuse what I thought was the problem, I looked for the worst job I could find and started in on it. The grumbling slowed but it didnt stop. Gradually a name began to drum in my ear. I looked around.
"Where's Hayes?" I asked.
That's when I learned why everyone was so upset, especially Hobbs and Goyett who were doing some of my work with none of my authority. Both of them told Hayes what we all had to do but he wouldn't follow the even-tempered Hobbs or the older more intense Goyett because neither of them had stripes. I did have stripes so I didn't think I would have a problem with Hayes. I was worried about Hobbs and Goyett. I needed their leadership skills and their good will to function.
I went to the squad room with eight angry and curious men shuffling closely on my heels. When I got to the door I did a double take of Hayes sitting on his bunk casually polishing his extra set of boots. He looked up at me then went back to his shiny black boots.
"Hayes," I said, "What are you doing?" I didn't say, what are you doing polishing your boot when you were supposed to be doing something else. He knew the rest of the question.
He didn't answer.
I was too tired to be angry. I was also too tired to argue and too much on the spot with Hobbs and Goyett to pull rank. Hayes knew that the trainee corporal stripes on my black armband were the same thing to the Army as far as he was concerned as the stripes that our D.I.'s had sewed on both sleeves. I had the entire United States Army on my side. Just as Hobbs and Goyett had come to me when they couldn't get Hayes to move I would go to the acting platoon sergeant. If he couldn't do it, he would go to the cadre platoon sergeant. Somewhere along the line Hayes would have to move. He really didn't have a choice.
"Come on, I said, "let's go."
Hayes turned his now seething face slowly up to mine and said, "I don't have to listen to you BOY!"
Hayes' hesitation before the word "boy" exploded from his hate-filled lips told me the name he wanted to call me but couldn't because of all the white witnesses in the room and all of the black trainees on the floor. That was the word I heard. It was the word he intended for me to hear.
I remember thinking that the last person who called be by the name I heard was a new kid in seventh grade from the Deep South. He was the first person I'd ever hit in the face with the intention of drawing blood. I remember thinking that every trainee in the company was in the same caldron of boiling horseshit and believing that everyone felt the way I did. I remember wondering whether Hayes had been thinking nigger all along every time he called me Garrison.
I don't remember tearing across the room, snatching Hayes out of his bunk by his shirt. I don't remember hoisting him in the air with one arm, spinning to my right and slamming him into his metal wall locker.
The next thing I remember after Hayes called me "BOY!" was looking up and seeing sheer terror etched on his face. Jeez, I thought, feeling vaguely as though I had dozed off in the middle of a dull movie and awakened to the frozen frame of an action scene. What's the matter with Hayes? He looked so scared that his grotesque, slack-jawed, wide-eyed visage scared me. He looked like a man in the grip of the devil stinking of brimstone and ready to drop him into the friary depths of hell.
Other strange things about the situation came to me in a stop and go succession of disjointed observation and questions. I was looking up at Hayes. Why? I was 6' tall. He was about 5' 9". Why did my mind seem to be so distant from my body? Then I noticed the back of my left hand in a fist directly in front of my eyes. I didn't notice that my fingers were curled tightly around his shirt where the flaps came together near the top. I didn't feel his weight pulling down on my left arm. My only physical sensation was tension in my right arm from wrist to shoulder. I couldn't see my right arm. I didn't know where it was.
To find my arm, I turned my head in short, jerky stages like a mechanical man and saw three astonished faces instead. That is, I could recognize only three faces in the small crowd of men just inside the door. Whatever had caused Galendo, Goyett and Hobbs to look that way had happened too quickly and stunned them too completely for them to do anything after they got through the door. I knew what it was when I saw my right hand.
My fingers were curled in a claw with my thumb firmly tucked in. My right arm was cocked to kill, shaking the way it would if I had drawn back the taught string of a heavy bow.
Instantly, my mind rejoined my body and my left arm, held extended and twisted too awkwardly to hold the weight of Hayes' body several inches off the ground, collapsed. It took longer for me to get control of my right arm but the horror of what I had almost done without knowing it must have shown in my face. I knew what madness was and I knew that I couldn't have been more than a second away from committing murder .
Some of the things you learn in any Basic Training company stay with you forever and kick in automatically when the situation calls for it. Part of it involves identifying specific kill points on the body and mastering specific killing techniques. But the most important thing is attitude.
What do you do after you give the enemy a proper left hip throw?
You kick him in the armpits and stomp on his nose.
What do you do when you are confronted by a superior foe?
You retreat Then you sneak up behind him with a two by heavy and bash his brains out.
You get the idea. In the Army it gets drilled into you, especially on the physically exhausting bayonet field where a few pounds of rifle with a knife attached to the barrel becomes so heavy that you think your arms are going to drop off:
"WHO ARE YOU?"
"I'M A HIRED KILLER, SERGEANT!"
"WHAT'S THE SPIRIT OF THE BAYONET?"
"WHAT'S THE SPIRIT OF THE BAYONET?"
"TO KILL! TO KILL! TO KILL!"
You learn that your most valuable weapon was not your bayonet or your rifle. It was your vision of yourself as the victor in any contest of life or death. That's what marines get just by being Marines. Its what a soldier gets when he understands what he's doing in the Army. You learn that no matter what situation you are confronted with there is always a way of taking charge and coming out on top. That's a lesson that you can apply to anything. The trick is to understand the situation as it really is and apply the best approach to dealing with it.
When I entered Vic Clark's Preproduction Interiors studio I thought that I was in a better situation than the one I had just left. How could it have been worse? Once I got over the shock of Vic's inspired greeting and caught myself zeroing in on his kill points, I realized that I was in a better situation with him than I had been with Harry Finley. With Vic I didn't have to guess where I stood or wonder who I could trust to tell me.
Vic had no doubt studied his little "nigger" line and asked me my name so he could deliver it. Just as Hayes hadn't actually called me by that name neither had Vic. He had applied the term to someone else named Jasper. And he had done it in such a way that even if his bigotry came under scrutiny by a higher authority it would show that he was pleasant to me as an individual and open to allowing for an exception to the rule.
You can't hold an irrational hatred for any group of human beings based on race without allowing for an exception to the rule. Common experience would call you a liar. Among the hardest of hardcore white racists there was room for a few "good niggers" and a few smart ones. With a small studio and a crew of only four men, including me, I could see that I had a chance with Vic that I didn't have with Harry. The other modelers who introduced themselves to me after Vic made his little speech all had something disparaging to say about him as they did so. Harry's friends wouldn't have done that.
Vic couldn't set me aside the way Harry had. Here, I was the only rookie. The size of the studio mattered because the Studio Exec, his two stylists, the studio engineer and his draftsmen could all see what was going on. It turned out that the personalities of the people in the studio also kept Vic in check. Whether or not any of them was thinking nigger when they said "Jasper," Vic's brand of racism was an embarrassment to all of them.
The Exec was known as "Gib," for Giberson. Gib was in his late forties or early fifties, shorter than average and smoother in manner. His interior renderings were suitable for hanging in an art gallery. Gib reminded me of my brother George. My brother was born cool. I think Gib was, too. Vic never used the n-word in front of Gib.
The senior stylist, who shall remain nameless, looked to be a bit older than Gib. He had graying hair, a slight overbite, a quiet, relaxed nature and an easy smile. I have to admit that I liked him but his presence in the studio underscored the absence of women. You'd never think of him as a pimp, but he was. He had two beautiful call girls working for him, a white one and a black one. He didn't boast about his second occupation, nor did he try to hide anything that he did with his girls or his wife to learn more about sexual pleasure. He was always open to new ideas. His most notorious experiment was dropping pepper on his wife's nose during intercourse to make her sneeze. No one doubted that he did it but it sure was hard to picture.
Preproduction Interiors' young junior stylist was the first person of my acquaintance to call himself an ecologist. He and I were the only ones in the studio who had ever heard of the word. To me, the idea of being a caretaker of the planet without concern for the well being of humans gave people like Vic Clark and Harry Finley plenty of room to maneuver and robbed the world of it greatest human potential. His definition of ecology worked fine with slavery and genocide. People issues that didn't impinge on his idea of the natural balance of nature had nothing to do with it. I was sorry to see that his definition won.
I don't remember a thing about our Studio Engineer but I remember Milt Goodman, one of his two draftsmen. Milt was a Jew. Jews in Ford Styling were rarer than blacks and just as paranoid. Yes, I know that it's not paranoia if they really were out to get you. But who where they? How could we tell the bad guys who appeared to be good guys? Milt and I felt like the humans in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers whose minds hadn't been taken over yet by the space pods. To survive in this environment we had to figure out ways to identify the enemy.
It took Milt and I a while to feel that we knew each other well enough to share information about what was being said in my presence about Jews, what was being said about blacks in his presence and who was saying it. The answers were sometimes surprising and often disillusioning. The mere fact that he was Jewish and I was black was no guarantee that we could trust each other. As a wise observer of the human condition once noted, "If you want to roast an Irishman you could always find another Irishman to turn the spit."
The only other B-modeler in Preproduction Interiors was Doug MacNamara, a rosy-cheeked guy who stood about 5' 8" with the barrow chest and wide stance of a bulldog. Doug could not be called a rookie because he'd been a modeler for over two years and his experience showed, so did his irritation at still being a B-modeler.
An A-modeler name Roland McDonald was the next ranking member of the crew. We called him Mack. He was a little taller and much thinner than Doug was. He wore his hair closely cropped. He'd been in modeling for about six years. He had a relatively deep voice and perfect cadence for the hilarious stories he told without cracking a smile. His bad back made him walk stiffly. It also put to rest my lingering concern about my limp, which hadn't yet disappeared completely not that Vic's greeting hadn't gone a long way toward doing that before I found out about Mack's back bad back.
The working leader of the crew was a 6' 1", dark-haired Sculptor named Tom Beubian. A street in downtown Detroit is named after one of his French ancestors. I don't know whether Tom or Mack coined the phrase "the big impress" for a dazzling impression and "silver-tongued devil" to describe someone who had made a verbal faux pas. It could have been either of them. Another phrase that could have come from either of them was "a suave, sophisticated chicken de boner." That was a klutz with transparent pretensions of being suave, sophisticated, chic and debonair.
Tom smiled and his eyes glittered when he joked. He joked a lot. He put everyone, including himself on his list of targets to be made fun of. But you couldn't always tell whether he was laughing with you or at you because a bad mood swing sometimes pushed his light sarcastic wit over the line to ridicule. Tom's number one target was Vic Clark. Much of his humor at Vic's expense seemed to go over Vic's head. Whether it really did go over his head is hard to tell because Tom was far and away the best modeler in the studio and Vic needed him to function more than I had needed Hobbs and Goyett in Basic Training. Tom could therefore say and do pretty much what hat he pleased as long as he did his work well. He did all of his work, most of Vic's work and much of the other modelers' work superbly.
Shortly after my arrival in Preproduction Interiors I was joined by another B-modeler, Chuck Clayton who I would meet again at American Motors when I had matured enough to appreciate him. Chuck was as tall as Tom and he weighed about 220. He appeared to be neither muscular nor fat, just big. The first word that came to my mind when I met him was "jolly." I imagined that if he donned a white beard and a red suit with a pillow in the tummy he would make an ideal Santa Claus. Chuck looked to be in his middle twenties. He was closer to thirty. He was probably the most intelligent guy in the studio. He was also every bit as funny as Mack and Tom. He took pains to distance himself from Vic Clark, although it wasn't necessary. Vic took care of that on his own.
Chuck immediately assumed a fatherly attitude toward me, which I sometimes appreciated and sometimes resented. I appreciated it when I saw that he was watching my back the way Milt Goodman was doing and giving me the kind of advice about life in general that I could no longer get from my real father. I resented it when he presumed to show me something about modeling that I already knew. That was my mistake. Later experience taught me that I didn't always know as much as I thought I did and the tastiest plumbs of knowledge could hang on the branch of an overlooked tree. Anyone could point to the tree. If I had understood that principle back then, it would have put me farther ahead.
Stylist, engineers, draftsmen and modelers all worked for Gib but his stylist were the only ones he wrote his Performance Reviews for. An engineering supervisor wrote and signed the Performance Reviews for the studio engineer and his draftsmen. In the entire eight months that I worked in Preproduction Interiors, the Interiors supervisor Leonard Stobar never set foot in the studio. He signed the modelers' Performance Reviews. Vic Clark wrote them.
If Tom Beubian had written my P.R. he probably would have knocked off some points because of my insistence on doing some things the wrong way when he was trying to teach me the right way. That state of affairs wasn't his fault or mine. It was Harry Finley's.
Just as there was a right way, a wrong way and an Army way of doing things in the Army, there was a right way, a wrong way and a Ford way of doing things at Ford. There was no right way of doing everything, only good ways and better ways depending on the purpose of the job, the available time and equipment and the preference of the modeler. I saw in Harry's studio that not everyone could produce the same high quality of work using the same methods. A good modeler had to know what worked best for him. But he also had to know what modeling conventions worked best for Ford and what didn't work for anyone.
These were not easy lessons for any young black man to learn in the 1960s outside of a regular production studio where race could have been a hidden part of the curriculum.
Cheating was not an issue because the models that we created were not intended to represent production vehicles. I was put off by the liberties that Tom took with engineering information and balked every time he tried to show me something that ignored them. It made me think that he might have been sent to Preproduction Interiors because he couldnt cut it in a "real" studio and therefore nothing he said or did that was counterintuitive put "the big impress" on me. In truth, some of the most important lessons a modeler has to learn are counterintuitive because the principles that govern them are unique to automotive design.
Many years later I would find myself in Tom's position encountering the same resistance from some of the women and one Korean man I tried to tutor that I had shown to Tom. In my case and theirs the issue was trust. I new from my experience in the Reserves that I had a knack for teaching, that different students responded to different training techniques and that some students were just plain stubborn. One white rookie I tried to teach fell into the stubborn category. He insisted on doing everything his own way no matter who his teachers were or what they tried to teach him. From Tom's perspective I must have appeared to be like that rookie.
The good thing about working in Preproduction Interiors was that I actually got to work as a modeler and to experiment to my heart's content. Those experiments put me and Ford a step up on the competition in the long run. In the short run it often made me look foolish. In a studio top-heavy in men with a keen sense of humor, that was foolish indeed because my failure rate exceed my success rate by a considerable margin.
Eventually, I had enough direct experience with the stylists and draftsmen to gain some confidence in my abilities and to know what I was missing by not having those opportunities before. Tom gave me more responsibilities and less supervision. The stylist also came to trust me more with interpreting their sketches and Vic spent less time talking to me with his hand running across my clay surface.
Vic seemed to have an aversion to manual labor. He touched the clay mostly when he wanted to check a surface or pretend that he was checking a surface. He didn't have a C-modeler to order supplies or keep track of time cards so he took care of those things himself. Otherwise, you could usually find him standing around telling tall tales or sitting in his reclining chair in the back room next to his tool chest reading newspapers and magazines.
When Vic did venture out on the floor, he seldom had anything to do with the models expect when our conversations inspired him to tell fantastic tales about hunting, fishing and, of course, modeling. A typical Vic Clark story involved his "eyeball knife." An eyeball knife was a knife that modelers used to draw lines in the clay with a steady hand and a sharp eye. They were as varied in size and shape as the modelers who used them. Just as professional baseball players had a favorite bat, modelers had a favorite eyeball knife. Vic used a paring knife that he claimed was so special that a man once offered him 1,200 dollars for it. Vic turned it down, of course.
Stories like this made it hard to believe any of his extravagant claims. I didnt even believe him when he proudly told me that he held a high post in the Michigan or Indiana Ku Klux Klan; I don't remember which. But when he reached in his wallet and pulled out a timeworn card with his name on it proclaiming him an Exhaled Cyclops (or some such thing) of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan I had to reconsider the possibility. Even if he printed it himself to put the big impress on somebody, it left no doubt that it was how he saw himself and wanted others to see him.
Vic didn't have something racist to say in my presence or Milt Goodman's every day. Sometimes he went for weeks without showing me anything but kindness, patting me on the back for exceptional work and offering words of encouragement. During one of these stretches I came into work early and saw Vic alone in the back room with his butt in his chair and his head in a newspaper.
Vic looked up at me thoughtfully, lowered his paper and said with words and gestures you can guess, "You know, Jasper, you're all right .But I just can't stand niggers. I wish I could line all of'm against a wall and then take a machine gun with a looong ammo belt and mow'm all down."