Born to Hate
With prejudice normalized by your parents, your peers, and the state in which you live, how can you not be prejudiced? Benjamin Parker’s parents taught him that African Americans were Niggers, Jews–Kikes, and Catholics–Micks. All these groups were to be despised, avoided, and, if possible, eradicated. Communists, at that time, ran a close second.
Benjamin was born in 1910, the third son of a dirt-poor sharecropper. His father had been a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan. Ben was taught to blame all the family’s troubles on whatever minority group suited the situation, especially African Americans. He saw the Klan as a band of white knights seeking to rid the world of evil. By 1938, he had become an admirer of Hitler and his twisted rhetoric. Of course, that all changed on December 11, 1941, when Hitler sided with the Japanese and declared war on the United States.
Now, the Nazis became another target for Ben’s hatred, and 1942 found him in boot camp. He was aggressive, physically fit, and had quickly worked his way up to sergeant. He never hid his racist attitudes and was glad he did not have to fight alongside black soldiers. He couldn’t imagine sharing a foxhole with one.
Ben had grown to hate this war, the food, the weather, the brass. Everything about it stunk. He longed to be back working in his family garage in Memphis. Hell, he even missed Jim, the old colored mechanic now operating the business.
On December 16, 1944, Sergeant Benjamin Parker assigned to the 110th on the front line in the Ardennes Forest, witnessed all hell breaking loose. He was smack in the middle of it. What made him angry was that the brass had fucked up again. His return home had now been delayed. The Krauts, supposedly a defeated enemy, attacked with a powerful combination of armor and infantry, routing the Americans. Ben had lost most of his platoon and was trying to reach the town of Clervaux when a group of three men approached him. They were black.
Ben’s jaw dropped. “Shit!” He recognized the man in the lead as a cook who had served him at the mess. “Things must be fucked up if they’re sending you niggers up here to help.”
Before the black corporal could respond, a German mortar shell landed in their midst. They all fell to the ground. Two were mortally wounded. Ben had a re-arranged hairline from a piece of shrapnel.
The big man he had just insulted dragged Ben behind a stump. The blast concussion and resulting wound had knocked Ben senseless. He kept trying to get up but fell back every time. The corporal yelled at him to sit still as he checked out his friends. Finding them both dead, he removed their dog tags and crawled back to Ben, pulling him down as another shell landed meters away.
“Keep your honky white ass down!”
“You can’t talk to me like that nigg . . .” Ben lost consciousness before finishing the slur.
He regained consciousness slung over the corporal’s shoulder; his head pounded with each step as the big man clambered through deep snow towards the town. Ben looked downward, blood from his head wound intermingled with his rescuer’s trailing footprints.
Back in the forest, a young German sniper gripped his rifle as he moved forward through the snow. His group was assigned to capture the town of Clervaux. Horst Schmidt couldn’t know that the 8mm shell chambered in his Walther would set into motion events some seventy years into the future. He stepped to the edge of the tree line and spotted the corporal struggling towards the town with his human burden.
Ben raised his throbbing head towards the trees, he saw a muzzle flash and felt the thud as the slug just missed his head and entered the jacket of his rescuer. The big corporal stumbled but didn’t fall. He glanced back to the edge of the clearing. “Damn Krauts!” he swore and staggered on. Ben saw his rescuer’s blood now mixing with his own. He imagined they were wounded deer being pursued by a relentless hunter. Shit, we’re leaving a blood trail. They’ll be able to track us, too much blood. Then, he blacked out.
When the black corporal had looked back, Hans Schmidt, the young German sniper, hesitated before firing another round. In his short life, he had never seen a black person. He knew he had hit the man and was amazed that he was still walking with his wounded comrade slung over his shoulder.
“Scheisse,” he muttered. That moment of hesitation saved Ben Parker’s life, for a split-second later, an undercharged German mortar landed short of its intended target. It exploded two feet in front of the young sniper, ending his short military career and the Schmidt family’s bloodline in an instant.
When Parker regained consciousness, he was on a stretcher in an aid station. A medic was leaning over him, peering into his left eyeball. “You’ll be okay, Sarge. Although, you’ll have a hell of a headache for a few days.” Through the fog of his injury, he heard shells landing mixed with small arms fire and a lot of yelling.
“We’ll be moving you wounded out soon,” the medic hollered above the din. “Buzz is we are retreating to Bastogne, should be quieter there.”
“Where’s the nigger that saved me?”
The young medic motioned to the next stretcher, his gaze on Ben changing to a look of disgust. “That man had a name, sir. He was Corporal Henry Brown. So, I would hope for the rest of your life, Sergeant Parker, you remember him as Henry Brown, the man that saved your sorry ass and not ‘that ‘nigger.’ ”
The medic reached over and pressed a dog tag and a note into Ben’s palm. “Last thing Corporal Brown requested was that if you lived and he didn’t, I was to ask you to deliver this to his brother, Sal, who lives in a place called Clarksburg in Mississippi. He wanted you to tell his brother in person just what happened here. Again, if I were you, Sarge, I choose my words carefully when you tell his brother your story. But, in this short time I’ve known you, I doubt you’ll carry out his wishes.” He walked away disgusted.
Ben raised himself up on one elbow, looking at the shrouded figure beside him. That’s when Sergeant Benjamin Parker, the tough, bigoted, white supremacist from Mississippi, broke down and cried. He promised himself that if he survived this hell, he would be a different man, a better man. Eighteen months later, on his way to visit Corporal Brown’s brother, he was killed in a car accident. Sal Brown would never learn about his brother’s bravery.
Charlie Parker awoke in a cold sweat. He knew it was all a dream, but the sights, smells, and sounds of that dream were all too real. From the crack of rifle fire, thump of exploding mortar rounds, pounding pain in his head, to the crunch of snow his rescuer’s boots made, it was as real as if he had been there himself. Everything, every detail, played in his mind as he relived that horrendous day his father had experienced in Belgium.
He knew it was more than just a dream. He saw everything as it had happened. He saw it through his father’s eyes, experiencing it as his father had.
What made it even more unbelievable was that his dad had never told him about that day or, for that matter, much about the war. He made only a vague reference about how a black corporal had saved his butt. Charlie knew that dream was precise. Somehow, his father had reached out to him from beyond, sharing that horrific experience.
He started having the dreams when he turned sixty. Every year since they had become more vivid, more real. It wasn’t the only dream, but it was the only one that was about his father. The rest were about his own experiences. The common thread was a focus on his regrets and things that he had not done or should have done differently. He had made a list of them and vowed to somehow right his past mistakes. Now, at eighty-six with a heart condition and living in a retirement home. How could he possibly make things right?
He proceeded down the hallway with his walker, pausing to study the calendar of events for the day. He noticed there was a concert that afternoon at 3:00. Charlie didn’t usually attend these music events because they would leave him disappointed. The entertainers they hired seldom played his favorites. Charlie missed the music that had been such a big part of his life. Like music does for most of us, it brought back a flood of memories: good and bad, happy and sad.
The strongest of these memories were songs sung by Elvis, together with Charlie’s small participation in that part of rock and roll history. As Charlie reflected while reading the poster, the word Elvis caught his eye. So, this Evan Jackson fella did some Elvis tunes. What the hell, I might as well check him out. That’s the day…
Charlie Parker’s life and my own changed forever.
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