George and Fred And The Impact They Had On
A White Boy From Up North
In the small New England town I grew up in we
had no Negroes… well, that’s what Black people were called back then anyway.
And as a farm boy living well outside of town, even if we did have any the chance of my meeting
one would have been pretty damn slim. That is, if it hadn’t been for
One day, sometime around when I was 7 years old,
a black family moved into our town. At about the same time I joined the
Cub Scouts. At one of the Pack meetings I remember what seemed to be
a brouhaha, as the Pack leaders prattled among themselves about what
to do with a request from the new black family in town for their son
to join the Cub Scouts. It wasn’t that the Pack didn’t want him in
the club, it was that none of the Den Mothers wanted him in their
And there it was, just like that, I was
introduced to the world of racism and discrimination. Of course, I
didn’t know it at the time. After all, I was just a kid. And, not
knowing what a black person was anyway, I couldn’t for the life of
me figure out what all the fuss was about.
But my Mom knew what it was about, and with nary
a nod to anyone or a care for what they thought she stepped forward
and asked to have the little boy join our Den.
All of our Den meetings were held at our place…
the farm I grew up on… some 15 miles from town. And over that
summer and the next I got to know George Armstrong Strait. The
new black kid in town. And he became my best friend.
As I recall, their family had come from
Louisiana when George’s Dad took a position as the Head Librarian at
the county library in Worcester, Massachusetts… the biggest library
in the biggest city around, about an hour from the small town I grew
George’s mom, who to me
was one of the tallest and skinniest, not to mention darkest
skinned people I had ever seen, was strangely beautiful and
elegant—at least to me, a wide eyed 7 year old. And George, well he
was just George. His voice was dark and husky for his age, while
mine was all squeaks and reedy.
For that summer and part of the next George and
I traipsed around our farm, went squirrel hunting with my Bee-Bee
gun, picked blueberries in the pastures of our neighbor’s farm,
chased cows, and built a club house together.
The club house was a right proper one, mind you,
in part because my Dad helped us build it. It stood about 7 feet
high, had Dutch doors on the front, a window that folded up so we
could hide inside it and throw grapes at the other kids in my
neighborhood if they were dumb enough to wander by while we were in
it, and an almost flat roof that we could climb up onto to defend
ourselves if we were overwhelmed by a counter attack. Best of all,
it had our initials painted on it. I painted mine in 2 foot tall
letters on the right side. George painted his on the top half of the
Dutch front door.
“GAS.” George Armstrong Strait.
Then one day George disappeared. He was gone.
Just like that. He never came back.
Because he told me stories of his grandmother in
Louisiana, over the years I came to assume that he and his family
moved back there, but I never really knew for sure.
If you were to ask me now, I would tell you that while the North was
certainly on the right side during the Civil War that
doesn’t mean that blacks were loved or welcomed up North, even
as late as 1952. The way the Strait
family was treated, I wouldn’t blame them for going back South to be
among family members that loved them. From my little boy
perspective, even I could see discrimination in many of the
people I knew. It was palpable in the stolid, stayed, New England
town I grew up in. And I’m not proud of it.
Anyway, when George and his family moved away
that was my last experience with black people… until I was drafted.
Fifteen years after George and I painted our
initials on the Club House, I was introduced to black people again.
From the time the Army got its hands on me
until I joined OCS about 6 months or so passed. Most of that time I
spent at Ft. Gordon, going through teletype operator training… and
it was during this time that I had my white face pressed up against
But unlike with George, this time I was a bit
apprehensive… bordering on being scarred.
Being a farm boy and a
virgin of the world at that, I was truly without guile or experience
in life. Being tossed into the Army scared the hell out of me. Going
through Basic was the most disrupting experience of my life. But as
I was soon to learn that was the easy part of it. For after having
my warm, comfortable world pulled out from underneath me, the Army
had something more in store for me… they sent me to Fort Gordon,
And this is where the story of George ends and
one about Fred
and Soul music
At the time I arrived at Fort Gordon the build
up to staffing Vietnam was fully underway. Unfortunately, while the
buildup was underway, the facilities needed to handle the buildup
For me, this meant being assigned to live in a
ten man tent. The one they assigned to me was out in the nether land
that existed between two sets of parallel barracks… one set on one
side, and the other on the other… with us and about 10 other tents
stuck in the middle between them.
In my tent there were 8 of us: me and 7 black
So for me, this was like meeting George
Armstrong Strait all over again… except that this time he was an
adult and he neither looked like, spoke like, nor acted alike anyone
I had ever known in my life.
The guys in my tent were a mixture of tough,
inner city kids from Detroit and other northern factory cities, and
southern country poor folk… really, really poor black folk.
Our bunks were placed along the outside edge of
the tent… down both sides so that there was a clear space in the
middle. The middle held a coal stove that we kept lit at night to
keep ourselves warm in Georgia’s cold, dry winter. With a footlocker
for each of us there wasn’t much room to move around, and so we
spent most of our time laying on our bunks, swapping lies.
For 4 months I lived in that tent and while you
might think that a Northern boy would be accustomed to cold winters,
no amount of snow can prepare you for Georgia’s unique version of
what winter should be. Some nights were so damned cold that even
with the sides of the tent down and the coal stove firing at full
blast we froze to death. On other nights the outside heat and
humidity were so heavy that even with the tent sides rolled up and
the mosquito screens down we just couldn’t get either a breeze or a
break. The simple fact is, Georgia’s weather stinks and there’s no
better way to learn that fact than to live in it in a tent.
Anyway, those were the bad nights. Not the best
nights… not by a stretch. But there were good nights too.
The ones I remember vividly were the nights when
the rain came down and the sides of our tent were rolled up so that
all that separated us from the rain was the
plastic-screen-cum-curtain that kept the mosquitoes out.
There, laying in my bunk, only inches from the
screen, I could watch the rain of Georgia pour down… literally, in
buckets, leaving holes in the red Georgia clay, inches from my face, as
it drilled down
into the soil… drilling down for hours on end, constantly... boring
little holes in the ground... on its way to hell.
For me, a New England farm boy, in love with a
girl back home, lost in this new Army experience… and now living in
a friggin’ tent with 7 black guys… somewhere in the middle of
Georgia, all of this was more than my simple mind could comprehend.
Night after night I lay there, listening to the rain… lonely,
forlorn, alone, and sad beyond measure.
And that’s where the black guys came in.
After all of these years I
don’t remember each of their names, but I do remember the guy who
decided a short while after I moved into
tent that he would take me under his wing and protect me. Where the
others saw me as some sort of a threat, or at a minimum someone who
they could toy with, and at worst someone to be subjugated, Fred
Peoples saw me as someone in deep, deep need of a friend.
Over the weeks and months that followed Fred
brought me into the world of black people. And I mean, in capital
letters, INTO the world of black people.
At night, as we lay in our bunks listening to
the Georgia rain assault the ground, Fred encouraged the other guys
to not only ask me what it was like to grow up on a farm, as a white
boy, but to also tell me of their life experiences. Like in any Army
environment, nothing was off limits. I swear, I learned more about
sex talking late at night with those guys than I ever learned on my
own... even until today.
With Fred’s encouragement we soon went from
being a tent of 7 black guys and one white kid, to a close knit team of
that couldn’t be separated. As we all now know, this coming together
and bonding thing is typical of Army life... but at the time I
certainly didn't know that. All I knew is that with Fred's help my
life went from being one of hell to one of happiness, as Fred and
the other 6 guys took me into their world. And what a world it was;
they brought me into the social world they lived in in a way that
most of us white guys would never see, let alone experience.
They told me stories of their family, their
growing up, the struggles they faced, vignettes of discrimination
they experienced… endless talk of food their mothers used to cook…
tons of stories about their grandmothers… and of course, stories
about the girls they chased.
Within a short time Fred noticed that when
weekend passes were handed out I spent my weekends on base, while
they headed off to Augusta to hunt skirts. And that’s when my intro
to the world of black living began in earnest.
Week after week I was
taken under one or the other of my tent-mate's wings, and dragged
along to town to party. But unlike the bars and clubs us white
guys frequented, like the old Whisk-A-Go-Go on Broad Street in
Augusta, my tent-mates took me to the outskirts of town, to crossroads and rickety shack bars that I would never have entered on my
own. Sometimes we skipped the bars completely and ended up in a
shotgun shack on a dirt road… a shack more flimsy than the club
house George Strait and I built. The only difference was, these
shacks had people living in them, and invariably girls waiting for
us in the ones we went to. There we partied… with cheap wine,
cheaper whiskey, and beer.
At first I was scared s$#*less and for the most
part hung back in a corner somewhere, furtively watching what was
going on and wondering if I would get out of that night alive. For me, the
whole thing was an eye opening experience. But after a few times I
began to notice that the black girls we met were as curious about me as I
was about them. Quickly, I began to see that as the only white boy
in the group, I was the freak in this circus, not them. And that’s
when the fun started.
With me in tow as the token white kid in the
group, I was soon cavorting around Augusta with Fred’s friends,
learning what life was like on the black side of the tracks. Not
surprisingly, black music was pervasive, and while up until then all
I knew about black music was Chubby Checker, it didn’t take long for
me to learn about soul… and that Augusta was the home of the
Godfather of Soul: Mr. James Brown hisself. With Fred Peoples as my guide and
his band of local girlfriends riding along and prodding us to spend money on them, we went to
every black concert that came to town. By far the best of all of
them was a concert James Brown put on at the Bell Auditorium. The
place was packed… to the rafters. That night my musical knowledge
blossomed, as did my love and understanding of a whole new genre of
music, and a whole new group of friends.
Eventually it all passed… I was ordered to
report about a half-a-mile up the road to the Signal OCS HQ. Fred and the other guys
finished their training and moved on too. The Army does that to you…
I tried to track Fred Peoples down a few years
back but all I could find was someone with his name and approximate
age that died in Georgia. I have no idea if it was him or not.
These days I still listen to Soul music, and
smile when I think of Fred and the guys, playing it nearly 24 hours a
day in our tent. And I think of those long Georgia nights… the rain,
the endless rain, the dirt road bars and shotgun shacks, the music,
and the late night stories we swapped as we drifted off to sleep.