I don’t remember the first time I heard the N word. It was as common as “pass the biscuits” or “sweet tea” in my house; a convenient adjective used for anybody considered dumber, lazier, or below you in status. Poor white folks needed it; it was their self-respect safety net, a free pass if you will. “Yeah, I might be sorry as hell, drink like a sot, and beat my wife, but at least I ain’t no n––––.” There was always the “at least.”
When I was a kid, I stayed with my grandparents during summers on their tobacco farm in Chatham County, North Carolina, thankful to get away from the low-income housing project where I lived in Durham. It was a good place to learn the basics of collective reliance. White folk and black folk had to work together in the summer to produce what they would need to survive the winter; not a complicated business plan. Without black labor, most small farms would have failed, so they were “colored” folks in the summer, and n–––’s in the winter.
Two of my favorite people in the world were Uncle Cliff and Miss May, who lived just down the dirt road. We’d prime tobacco on hell-hot days, and I’d listen to the jokes Uncle Cliff and Granddaddy would tell while sitting and sharing water from the same jar. Come dinnertime we’d go eat, us inside and the colored folks outside. When I once asked Grandma why, the answer was “that’s just the way it is.” I’d stand in the churchyard with the men after service on Sunday, listening to the talk about lazy n––––’s, sorry n––––’s, and how ignorant they were. I once asked my granddaddy how far he’d gotten in school. He said the second grade.
During my teenage years, we’d dance to their music every weekend, clap for them at clubs, and thought guys like Sam Cook spoke to our soul. But, when the night was over, it was “them dang n––––’s can sing.” I never played on an integrated sports team or went to an integrated school. In the fall of ’64, I went off to Western Carolina University, my first time away from home. To my surprise, I roomed down the hall from the first African American to attend the college. Henry Logan was the best basketball player I had ever seen until David Thompson at NC State. The small campus enveloped Henry, surrounding him with friendship and adoration, even initiating a brawl during his first game when an opposing player elbowed him in the face. Everybody loved Henry. But Henry was never invited to join a fraternity, attend a social, or even go to the drugstore for a milkshake and burger. I spent time talking sports with Henry; I was never sure if he liked me or not.
In 1965, the Vietnam War had started, school got uninteresting, and one weekend a friend and I took off to Florida in his MG, ran out of money in Miami, sold blood to get a room at the YMCA, and finally called my mother for money to get home. When I got back, my daddy stood me at the front door and explained how all he wanted to see was my behind going out of it. I hitchhiked to the recruiting office, and on December 2, 1965, I took my first airplane ride to basic training. There was no separation in those barracks, black guys and white guys slept on cots next to each other, ate together, and complained together. I’m embarrassed to admit to being a little surprised when they didn’t smell funny or do crazy sexual things. Guys from the mid-South and black guys seemed to have a common bond: music. I say “mid-South” because the boys from the Deep South were rooted in a dislike for black folks matched only by the northern boys.
The guy in the cot next to mine was a thin, shy, African American kid who didn’t speak for the first week. We were in the latrine at 0500 one morning to do our required shaving, even though neither of us had a whisker between us. He looked at me in the mirror, “This is some stupid shit, ain’t it?” It broke the tension and we laughed the stress of basic training right out of ourselves. His name was Jimmy “Dot” Dorsey, and he was from Washington, DC. I have no idea to this day what the “Dot” stood for.
After basic, Dot and I ended up at the same tech school in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was where I first noticed the realignment; blacks stayed with blacks, whites with whites. The war was picking up steam, and African Americans were questioning why they should go fight a war for a country that hated them, and sometimes things got downright ugly. Dot and I maintained our friendship but didn’t flaunt it outside the barracks. On the occasion Dot and I talked about such things we mostly stuttered; neither of us knew how to talk to the other about racial stuff. All I knew was Dot and I were friends, and he was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’d ever met. He loved his family and never missed church on Sunday.
Tech school was over after six months and by a stroke of luck, Dot and I were assigned to the same base in Japan. From San Francisco we took our first international trip, a miserable eighteen-hour ride over two days, finally arriving in Fukuoka, Japan, in the summer of 1966, two scared kids in a strange land. The atmosphere there was completely different; black and white soldiers got along well on the base. There were always some who held on to different attitudes, but they were in the minority. Our work was top secret stuff done in windowless buildings twenty-four hours a day, and since Dot and I were on different schedules, only on occasion did we have time to hang out together. But our friendship stayed strong, even when tensions rose after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.
In June of ‘68, Dot and I got our orders for Vietnam on the same day, both assigned to airborne units, him in Pleiku and me to Ton Son Nhut. That night we bought a bottle of Scotch at the club and went to sit on a stone wall that surrounded the bay near the base. We talked about our fears of going to war, worked on polishing off the bottle, and made plans about what we would do when we got home. We had reached the slobber stage, arms draped over each other and talking about how we’d been friends when America seemed to be going to hell. Dot suddenly stopped in midsentence. “You know if we were back home, we couldn’t even go eat supper together.” Sometimes we are stunned by a truth we know, but one we never thought applied to us. It was my first epiphany. I realized I had absolutely no idea of his vision of the world, and I was embarrassed and hurt to understand how ignorant I had been.
We got to the war in August 1968. The work was interesting, important, and always dangerous. On February 5, 1969, around 6 am, the EC-47 I was on lifted off and headed toward the Cambodian border. The pilot came on and said he’d gotten a message that one of our planes in Pleiku had disappeared just after midnight. I never gave a thought that anybody I knew would be aboard. When we landed that afternoon and went for debriefing, they had posted the names of the crew members lost. When I saw Dot’s name, my knees buckled. My best friend was dead and I had to go fly again the next day, no time to grieve. In his war movies, John Wayne always said stuff like “War is hell,” and “Good men die.” That was the day I came to hate John Wayne. That night, I made a promise to Dot that I would never forget what he taught me sitting on that stone wall in Japan. And I never have.
James Vernon “Dot” Dorsey is buried at Arlington, Virginia, alongside other heroes who sacrificed their lives for a country that didn’t value them. Years later, when I could find words, I wrote Dot the following letter:
I stood looking at the thousands of names engraved in that black marble until I found yours. There was nothing especially moving about it; I didn’t start weeping like it was a surprise you were dead. I found and touched your name and taped a poem I’d written after you died in 1969. I wanted you to know you deserved better. I’ve always wished I could ask what your last thoughts were as your plane headed into that mountain over the Plain of Jars in the pitch black of night, knowing that death had sought you out. Did you call for your momma? Did you pray? Did you think about your friends? Did your mind play a movie of your life? Or did you think by some miracle you would survive? I hope God put his hand on you that night, to give you the peace and absolution you deserved. You were a kind man, a kid whose momma raised him right, a man who went to church when all your friends were nursing hangovers. There were so many bad ones around us, why were you chosen? If he took you in order to teach me a lesson, to show me the peace we seek is within us, and the Devil lives in our fears of each other, lesson learned. Sleep well old friend.