Regardless of Race, Creed, Or Color
Southeastern Arizona
November 13, 2001

What is America?

To some it is a very pale place.

I rolled out of Tucson and down through Sonoita. Had lunch in the quiet, one block town of Patagonia. Looking for a back way that I thought I saw on my
map to Sierra Vista I bounced through the Coronado National Forest on dirt roads. It’s a patchwork of property lines down there and I was weaving in
and out of private and public lands. First in a wide canyon along a dry creek bed, then into open desert plains with tall grass and horses, cattle, and the occasional gate leading to a ranch somewhere out of sight. Back up into the dusty mountains, fishtailing over the loose rock, navigating eastward with my compass whenever I hit a fork in the road. My instincts proved right and I wound up at the western gate of Fort Huachuca. The Fort is a large military installation that butts up next to Sierra Vista. But you have to be able to cross. You have to have permission.

The next morning I sat reading a small town paper at Reb’s Café in Benson, Arizona. Benson looks like one of those towns that sprang into existence as a railroad stop, but it’s hard to tell…no one I ask in town seems to know. There’s an easy answer in the Museum but, in the tradition of small town museums and historical society’s, most often staffed by volunteers, it has irregular hours and I don’t have the capacity to see through the mists.

Reb’s Café is a joint in the best tradition of joints. Small, wood paneled, big hello’s from the staff when you walk into the door and friendly nods of acknowledgement from the patrons. Pictures of James Dean adorn the walls along with a sign proclaiming “This is not a fast food restaurant. This is a GOOD FOOD restaurant. Be Patient! Good Food takes time.” And flags. Lots of US flags.

I browse the paper, listen to “Glad to Be An Okie from Muskogee”, and gnosh on the finest set of hash browns I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

I am a connoisseur of the hash brown. I have chased far and wide across North America for the finest spin on the spud. If, like me, you are willing to stare down the terror of the ever expanding waistline on a quest for the perfect hash brown, get your flabby behind down to Reb’s Café. It is worth the drive.

When I got to the gate at Fort Huachuca the day before, stopped as much by the explosively loud red warning and stop signs as I was by the lowered gate arm, I was greeted by a soldier in full combat fatigues, backpack, weapon present coming out of the small guard structure to the left of the gate. He strolled out, relaxed but ready. Gave me a friendly hello as he glanced in my window. He took a few steps along the side of truck and looked through the windows of the camper shell. He came back along side the window as I was telling him I was pleasantly lost and hoping to find a back way into Sierra Vista. He leaned forward to break the bad news that the only way I was going to get there was to drive all the way back up to Sonoita and around the base. He raised his left hand towards the guard shack and held up one finger. I didn’t know why.

This young man was polite, professional, helpful, friendly, and Oh Dear God, so very, very young. I guess anyone who is willing to face the horrors of combat in service of his country has earned the right to be called a man but…he was just a boy. Fresh and smooth and earnest and innocent.

It took me some time to realize that there was another soldier inside the guard station and the young man with whom I was speaking had let him know, with his hand signal, that there was only one person in the vehicle. The young man I was speaking with was from Fresno. His partner was from San Luis Obispo. This other young man came out of the gate, looking even younger than the first. He was a stunning mixture of races. He appeared to have a strong Asian influence, probably Filipino, but his skin, his eyes, his hair had traces of African and Caucasian traits. He was the melting pot.

The two boys had been in Arizona for two weeks as replacements for other soldiers who had shipped out. They would not, of course, tell me where but I’ve read in the local papers that a number of soldiers from Fort Huachuca are in the middle east. As I spoke with them I eventually figured out that I was only ever speaking to one at a time and they effortlessly glided through a complex choreography that would leave only one exposed at any given moment. They were always arranged so that, if I was looking to do harm, I would have to turn at severe angles to get a shot at both. It took me a few minutes to notice it but it made me think that they must be well trained.

I asked if I could take their picture and this made the San Luis Obispo native nervous. He was not sure that was allowed. Obviously, if I am standing off the base and snap a picture they happen to be in, I’m well within my rights. The image of the two of them, the white kid from Fresno and the mixed race young man from a beach town in California would have made a good shot. But I had no interest in causing them discomfort or doing anything that would get them in trouble with a higher up. I told them what I was doing, about the trip I was taking and why. The boy from Fresno, politely but firmly, informed me that they would need to cut off the conversation. In a time of war there are very strict rules regarding interviews and speaking with the press. I tried to explain I was not a member of the press, I was just a guy chasing a goofy rainbow.

He explained to me, in detail, how I should go about reaching Sierra Vista and sent me on my way. As I drove off I could see them, those two terribly young faces in my rear view mirror. It seemed wrong. It felt like I should be dragging my out of shape chain smoking ass up and down the mountains of Afghanistan, not these boys. I felt an odd mixture of pride in them and…a touch of shame that I am not the one protecting them.

As I sat daydreaming and half reading the paper, a contingent of five men took up residence in a booth behind me, securing for themselves a stunning view of the parking lot at Reb’s Café. They were loud and boastful and spraying testosterone on the walls with each breath. They talked of the crash in Queens of the American Airlines flight the day before. They talked about Bin Laden and the Taliban and the war. They talked about Homeland Security.

The talk moved through the various threats to America, anthrax and planes flying into buildings and threats on bridges in California and the like. And then I heard it.

“We should just get rid of ‘em all. All the Arabs. Then we don’t have a problem, do we?”

Timothy McVeigh. Ted Kaczynski.

“Why stop with the Arabs,” asked one of the others.

I don’t want to go into the details of the conversation. It’s too depressing. There were wildly creative slang terms for various races…every race save for white. There were off-color and hateful jokes. There were paranoid, impotent statements of rage. There was general agreement about the white man being discriminated against and that he should take his country back.

We the People…

I went back and checked the Constitution to make sure. It is, in fact, generally inclusive and does not specify that said people are of a particular race. It still has several amendments that say that a particular right applies to everyone, regardless of “…race, creed, or color”.

I had to leave.

On the way out I heard another loud and painfully racist joke and an eruption of boisterous laughter from the group. I thought about the two boys, the two soldiers on the gate at Fort Huachuca. Two young men who have signed on to give their lives, if necessary, to protect us. Two boys who will likely face the grim reality of war to defend, protect, and uphold the freedoms that we all enjoy. One white, one emphatically not. Side by side. Brothers in arms. Regardless of race, creed, or color.

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