Life stories are full of surprises and similarities. I remember a man who stood up in a group we were in and told us about his life. When he got to his time in WWII he mentioned being on a ship that was hit by a Japanese bomber in Pearl Harbor. The ship sank and turned over and he and hundreds of men, some alive and some dead, were trapped upside down in the ship, mostly under water, for over a week. We were all surprised by his story, but as often was the case when a man had been in WWII it often took a lot of the allocated time as he recalled his life.
Another time a friend stood in a similar group setting and told about his life and he mentioned that when he was a senior in high school both of his parents committed suicide. When he brought that up we were shocked. It really had an impact on us. I don't think any of us will forget his story and how we felt when he told it. He didn't spend much time on this part of his story.
My own life experiences include the times in the late 1960's when the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights protests were something that dominated the news every day. I lived in Southeastern Idaho and after finishing high school I went to Idaho State University. I had grown up right there in the small town of Pocatello.
There were not many Blacks in the town, or even at the University, when I went. I didn't really experience seeing a lot of discrimination. The town had one part where most of the Blacks lived, but I hadn't given a lot of thought to that. The high school had it's first Black Student Body President a couple of years before I graduated and he was very popular.
Many from our high school left for Vietnam after graduation. The protests for both the war and civil rights were what you read about in the newspaper and heard about on TV.
At the University a daily routine for me for the first couple of years was sitting in the Student Union between classes. This brought some experiences which I have always remembered. Young men who I had gone to high school with sometimes stopped by and sat with us as they returned from Vietnam. They would talk about drugs and sometimes about the fighting. Several were reenlisting or going back and just checking the Student Union's social situation out.
The war had changed them. They seemed lost and cold and it was hard to keep a conversation going with them. They came and visited but didn't stay long. I felt that they were uncomfortable sitting with us.
Classmates were the regulars in these Student Union sessions. The classes were hard and it really helped to become part of the out of class study groups. New friendships were found and one that I found was a young man who was in one of my classes. He was an African who had come from his homeland to an American University. I had never had a Black friend. I didn't feel that I had any prejudges.
My friend and I spent a few months studying together and talking. He seemed so very interesting and I was grateful to be able to hear his story each day. One day in the middle of a conversation he changed the subject and looked me in the face and told me that he just did not want to be friends with me anymore? I was really surprised and had never experienced something like that before. I asked him why, and what had changed. He told me that in America the Blacks were hated by the Whites. When he said that I was surprised and challenged it. His response was to tell me to just watch the TV news. He then told me that the only reason I had been a friend to him was because I looked at him as an African and not as a Negro? He said that had offended him a great deal. What he said I also found offensive to me. He got up and walked away and we never visited after that.
It has been 50 years since this happened. There is so much about the civil rights movement that impressed me. I look back and see myself so isolated from those events while they were happening.
Each time we retell and think again about our life stories we see it a little different. That difference changes us. We see the connections in different ways and try to remake ourselves over as we learn from what happened.
This particular event left me feeling stunned and betrayed. It seems important to me as I look back at my life, but I still look for reasons for why it is important.
I did make a contact a few years ago with the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. I offered them a story written up to cover this time period at the local University. The story included the campus reaction to the war, the prior popularity of the High School President, and the event I reviewed here. They didn't have an interest in it and I don't think anyone that I had contact with could really relate to that time period?
So even though I am still learning I still can ask myself what this story taught me. Obviously this friend saw me very differently that I saw myself. I learned that I indeed was naive. I also learned that just being naive doesn't mean you don't care.