In the Cross-hairs of Racism's Killing Zone, 1968
By rg cantalupo
Devil* and Lonny were my best friends.
At Firebase Pershing, Lonny and I shared a two-man bunker. He slept on one side, I, the other. Devil lived in the bunker adjacent to us with Lee.
There wasn't anything particularly unusual about this set-up, except that I was white, and Lonny, Devil, and Lee were black, and this was 1968, three years after the war was no longer a "police action," seven months after Martin Luther King's assassination, five month's past Bobby Kennedy's, four months after the country erupted in race riots all across America, and less than a year into the current average of 50,000 draftees per month—mostly blacks, Hispanics, and poor whites—being inducted into the Army and Marines.
Vietnam—a reflection of the fissure in the United States between white and black, rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots—was a booby trap ready to explode if anyone hit the fine filament of the trip-wire called racism.
And, by bunking with Lonny, by Devil and Lonny being my best friends, I put myself right in the crosshairs of racism's killing zone.
Lonny and I came to the bush together. We were both from California, both high school athletes, both draftees against the war. We'd both grown up poor, raised by single mothers.
Lonny was wiry, lean, not a pound of fat anywhere. His eyes were a shade darker than my own.
I was his opposite. I was husky, short, strong as a pack animal, built for carrying, whereas Lonny's body was built for running. His skin was smooth, unblemished, the color of mahogany.
My skin turned olive-brown in the Vietnam sun.
So, though our skin colors were shades apart, our life experiences and interests were similar.
Besides, we were the FNGs for our first month until more FNGs arrived, and that bound us.
We were sent out on two man listening posts together and eight-man night patrols. We got the shit details together. He poured gasoline into fifty gallon drums while I lit the pungent stew of toilet paper, excrement, and piss, and stirred the soupy shit into flames.
Getting assigned the same bunker in Firebase Pershing was fine with us. We celebrated our first C-ration dinner in our bunker by promising to survive the year together, each covering the other's back when the shit got bad.
Spike*, a red-neck from Arkansas, hated that I lived with a black man. He thought it was somehow sacrilegious, a blasphemy to the white Aryan race. Oh, it was okay to be side by side with a "nigger" in a firefight, to be in the same foxhole together when all hell breaks loose—blood running the same color and all—but living in the same bunker together threatened Spike's notion of being white.
Out in the bush, in a firefight—black or white—brown or red—was just another face behind a weapon, but back in the base camp, red-necked whites and black power blacks clustered together, gathered in bunkers to talk shit about the other.
The red-necked good ole' boys thought Lonny and I were just faggots from California, and for the black power blacks my being white living with a black crossed some imaginary color barrier in their mind, or somehow diminished the power in their black fist.
I didn't give a shit.
I didn't like fist pumping black apostles of hate any more than red-necks.
I was a product of the tenements and saw the war as an equal opportunity killer, everyone wallowed in the same shit, and the enemy didn't care if your skin color was pink or camouflage-green.
So, I didn't see Lonny's shit, piss, sweat and blood any different than my own.
After three weeks in the bush he stank the same as I. The jungle rot between his toes looked as pink and raw as mine and smelled like the same green mold. And all that bullshit about black cocks being bigger than whites was put to rest one night when Devil, Lonny, and I got drunk and decided to have a contest.
I had an inch at least on Lonny, and my cock was thicker, but Devil put us both to shame.
I wasn't surprised. Devil was a big man. He was 6'2" and weighed over two-hundred fifty pounds. His thighs, biceps, head, neck, and yes, cock, were almost double the size of either Lonny's or mine. Black had nothing to do with it, bigness did.
Because Devil, Lonny and I hung out together there were rifts on both sides of the color divide.
Spike called me a nigger lover. He never said that to my face, but I heard the whispers and snickers as I passed by his bunker on his red-neck beer and poker nights at Pershing. The red-neck white bunkers seemed to be situated close to each other, four or five with Southern and Mid-Western whites bunkered together. Boys from Idaho and Montana, dumb as cows. Some came from rural towns whose only contact with a black man might have been in a high school football game, and were mostly followers. They were more ignorant than racist, but with someone like Spike instigating, they could be just as bad as their granddaddies in a white hood.
Out in the field, prejudices slipped under the mask of fear and hyper-vigilance, but in Pershing, the masks came off as the pot and beer came on. Rumors, petty gossip, prejudices flew like incoming mortars. And, by late 1968 there was a lot of shit flying around, both real and imagined.
Spike came up to me one afternoon after we'd come back from the Ho Bo Woods.
"I hear you're a darkie like your buddies."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
"I don't care mind you, darkies and Creoles all the same to me. I fucked a Creole from Louisiana once. Best piece of ass I ever had. She was just a shade darker than you but was still half-nigger blood."
"I'm Sicilian if that's what you mean. A lot of Sicilian's have black blood in their family history. Black Sicilians we call them."
"What the fuck is a Black Sicilian?"
"Means we have Moor blood running through our veins."
"More than what?"
"Moors. Black Arabs. Sicily was ruled by Moors for a couple of hundred years."
"Is that why some of you Wops have kinky hair?"
"I'm Sicilian, not Italian. And we don't have frizzy hair. We have curly hair."
"But these black Arabs were niggers weren't they?"
"Only you dumb motherfuckers call people niggers. We call the Moors Moors."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"Means the only niggers I see are white."
"Niggers don't have white skin."
"Niggers come in all colors, but mostly they come in white skin with Southern drawls like they have shit in their mouth when they talk. And there's only one thing all niggers have in common, Spike. They are all fucking dumb. They look in the mirror and see God's children and don't realize God ain't as fucking dumb as their stupid faces. Niggers are so fucking dumb they forget God only had one child and he was a Jew."
"Yeah, well where I come from you're a nigger. You live with niggers. You smell like a nigger. And one day you're gonna die like a nigger."
"Watch your back, Spike. One day that M-60 might jamb on you and you're gonna need a nigger like me to save your nigger ass."
*Devil and Spike were nicknames.
rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire. His memoir, "The Light Where Shadows End," was published in May, 2016. "In the Cross-hairs of Racism's Killing Zone, 1968" is an excerpt.