For Whites Only

“For whites only.” I stood there and looked at the faded, crude, handwritten sign above the algae covered drinking fountain. As I looked around, the fountain didn’t really look out of place in the Fort Myers auto parts store in the 1960’s. Everything there was dirty, old and outdated. But that sign… I didn’t understand it.

As I watched the scenery go by on the long ride home back to Bonita with my father, I had a lot of questions. “What’s the difference what color you are when it comes to drinking out of a fountain? I saw the guys that worked at that place… what’s makes them think they’re so special?” My dad just kept his eyes on the road in front of him. “That’s just the way some people think and I suppose it’s their fountain.” I stuck my hand out the window and felt the warm summer air go by. “Well… it’s not right. I’ll sure never drink out of it!” My dad looked over at me. “Yeah? Well, I guess it just depends on how thirsty you are.”

Although my father was born and raised in the south, I can never remember him saying or doing anything particularly prejudiced. He basically put all people into two categories… people who owed him money (not good) and people who paid him money (good). So, my sister, brother and I grew up relatively free of any parental pressure to be prejudice. I don’t think this was an intentional lesson… it was more of a collateral one.

Decades later, prior to my son Nick getting his first tattoo, he asked me what I thought. I shrugged, “It’s up to you son, but people are going to judge you for what you look like, not for who you really are.” Nicks eyebrow rose, “But that’s not right Dad… that’s prejudice!” I nodded, “Yep… that’s prejudice, but generally, that’s what people do. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just telling you that when people don’t really know you, they instinctively fill in the blanks themselves.” Nick shook his head. “Well, that’s the problem of the people doing the judging, not the guy with the tattoo!” Then my eyebrows rose, “Yeah? Well… I guess that depends on how badly you want a job!”

My twin sons’ disdain for prejudice was first brought to my attention at a third grade parent teacher conference. The teacher was in near hysterics for what seemed like a solid ten minutes explaining how she was having such a hard time getting my sons to pay attention. “I’ll be talking right to them telling them what they have to do and right while I’m talking to them… THEY JUST START DRAWING PICTURES!” Both of her elbows dropped to the table and she cradled her head in her hands. “I mean… do you have this problem with them at home too?” I blinked my eyes a couple of times, shook my head and then said. “Uhhh… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” True story.

Anyway, once she calmed down, she told me that “on the plus side” when it came to who they made friends or socialized with Nick and Neil were oblivious to ethnicity or any of the usual learned social or economic prejudices that can begin manifesting themselves in elementary school. This was good news for two reasons… my kids were obviously socially well adjusted and relatively free of a problem that has plagued the human race for millennia and… I had just been handed an opportunity to get the heck out of that meeting! I slammed my hands on the table, smiled and stood up abruptly. “Well that’s FANTASTIC!” The teacher’s mouth was hanging open as I grabbed her hand and shook it. “Thank you so much for calling me with this great news!” As I turned and headed out of the door I called over my shoulder. “Come on boys… say goodbye to your teacher!”…. “Boys?… Boys?… BOYS!”

No Experience Needed

No experience needed?

As we walked in through the registration tent at the “1984 Case Backhoe Rodeo” with the hundred or so other men, my father, myself, and our good friend Bob noticed that there was no vetting process. No proof of experience required! Anyone who walked up with twenty dollars and signed in could compete in a competition that consisted of proving how quickly and precisely you could complete a series of nearly impossible tasks with a variety of extremely large, dangerous machines (backhoes and hydraulic excavators) whose controls had been reconfigured in a random, crossed up fashion. This was really exciting for my father and me because we were both professional equipment operators with decades of experience. Bob, on the other hand, was excited because he had always wanted to operate a piece of heavy equipment and now he was finally going to get to!

I think that most everyone would agree that although we remain blissfully unaware of our own limitations, we are almost always delightfully aware of our friend’s limitations. That’s what friends are for… to tell you when you’re about to do something incredibly stupid. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked Mike as he gave twenty dollars to the person at the table. “I’m signing up to compete!” he said with a big smile on his face. I rolled my eyes, shook my head and looked over at my dad. He was grinning from ear to ear. As usual he had his own priorities and right now he was very interested in seeing his good friend provide some entertainment and years of great stories by displaying his complete incompetence in front of hundreds of people. I leaned over and whispered slowly and clearly into Mike’s ear. “You… are… going… to… kill…someone.” Mike proudly placed his official entry lanyard around his neck and announced “Hey… I’m a commercial airline pilot! How hard could this be?”

Well… here’s how hard. The first task began with a 20-ton backhoes bucket hovering over a small but sturdy metal table. On the table there was an empty and rightfully terrified one-gallon beer pitcher. After you climbed into the seat of the already running machine, an official poured a little over one gallon of beer into the machines gigantic bucket and instructed you to fill the other container completely… with beer. “You spill it, you’re out! You take longer than 30 seconds. You’re out!”

My dad and I watched as Bob climbed into the machine. With his CAT baseball cap tilted just so and his calm, confident demeanor, he certainly looked the part. But my dad and I knew better. As I looked around, I thought it was interesting. Terrifying… but interesting. Why would everyone assume that he knows what he’s doing? The official backed up (thank god!) and held a flag in the air. Bob calmly reached down and pulled the throttle wide open, which caused my dad to start laughing hysterically and me to utter a phrase commonly used on construction sites. Then… Mike stretched and calmly gave a nod to the official.

Now, you can’t fault Mike’s reaction time. Because when the flag dropped he instantly shoved both controls forward… simultaneously vaporizing the hapless beer pitcher, driving the small table deep into the ground and shooting beer about 20 feet into the air. And then, just like a water skier that falls and can’t let go of the tow rope, Bob froze… causing the giant machine to continue pushing down until it lifted itself about 5 feet into the air.

After Mike was finally coaxed down out of the groaning machine and the crowd had finished laughing, he was promptly disqualified and asked the one simple question that should have been asked in the first place. “Have you ever run a machine before?” I mean… no one would ever consider a complete and utter lack of comparable experience or knowledge to be a positive trait or a qualification for something so important? Would they?