The year was 1942. My father, Bennie, as he was known then, was a skinny 18 year old Jewish kid from the Weequahic section of Newark, NJ.
He was drafted at 18 and sent to San Antonio, Texas, to become a Norden bombsight mechanic.
He was a nice Jewish boy, though he could take care of himself, when it came to it.
San Antonio, Texas, in 1942, might as well have been an alien planet, as far as his experience went.
He used to tell me that his commanding officers would say things like "Theys only two thangs in Tayksis: steers and queers. I don't see no horns on you, boy."
The Army must have seemed strange to a young man from Newark, New Jersey in 1942. Everything regimented, new culture, different kinds of people all mixing together. One thing he noticed was that there appeared to be a lot of anti-semitism. Comments about Jews were everywhere. Racism was rampant. It often rankled him to be in such an environment.
He was standing on a small staircase outside a building. A man stood in front of him, facing away. He was going on about the dirty Jews, a real diatribe. Without hesitation, Bennie kicked him, hard, in the ass, and knocked him down the small flight of stairs. There was some kind of a brief scrap, which was quickly broken up. There was no trouble from the incident.
But my father remembered this incident and told it to me thirty years later, with a mixture of pride and disbelief. And here I am, remembering it seventy years later. He was a gentle, thoughtful man, who liked telling jokes, writing poetry and singing. Not someone you'd call a fighter. But he was quietly passionate about injustice, and spent much time trying to address social problems in his own small way. I'm guessing that this incident was born of an instinct and a impulse that arose from this quiet passion.
I always think of my young father on Memorial Day, down in San Antonio, Texas, on a hot, dry, dusty day, far from his home and family. He'd been fixing bombsights in a hot, dry, airless room all day. He emerges from the building, and his 18-year old blood boils to see a man, on the staircase, spouting off about the dirty Jews...