One of the unique aspects of the Palm Springs Air Museum is the living history : the docents who engage the public. These volunteers number in the 300s, only 30-something are left from World War II. Averaging four volunteer hours a week, I’ve come to realize most of the docents don’t know the others if they work on different days. On the other hand I have the unique opportunity, by going every day, of talking to most, some who have now become friends. And then there are others who are fresh faces to me, entering the museum at different times during the year.
Last Sunday I had been talking to a WW II veteran and his niece, out from Iowa to visit her favorite uncle, Hank, her own father now long gone. While giving them an informal tour of the European hanger, a silver haired docent with white (almost) muttonchops I’d never met or seen before wandered over. All the docents are easy to spot by the khaki pants or shorts and white ball cap and shirt emblazoned with the Palm Springs Air Museum logo.
There was an awkwardness to the initial introduction. Our party of three now had a man who’d planted himself within our space. The nametag read “Tom” and he started talking about his experiences relating to Hank’s experiences. Within a few minutes both Hank and Kathy slipped away and I was left talking face-to-face with this man. But this is where sticking with something often yields remarkable results.
Tom talked about growing up in East Texas, that strong accent softened by years in California. His heritage was cotton farming going back to the days of slavery, emancipation and the changes World War Two brought for them.
“My great grandmother made sure the blacks working for her had the privileges she had. Each was given a cabin, a milking cow and twelve chickens. They were free to leave but most stayed and helped with the cotton crop. Unlike West Texas, where the land was flat and machines could till, plant and pick the crop, because of our rolling hills, we had to do most of the work by hand. I also worked alongside the blacks as a teenager but they called me “Mr. Tom”. My daddy was known as ‘Big Mr. Tom'”. We all called each other by our given names, but because we were white, habit and history dictated that tradition.
“When the war started most of the blacks who worked for us headed north to Detroit for work in factories manufacturing war machinery. The pay was better and they no longer had to do the awful work of picking cotton by hand in the hot Texas sun,” Tom said. “I on the other hand was still a young teenager and continued working until I turned eighteen and enlisted in the Army.”
I was still aware of my guests, Hank and Kathy wandering in the hanger but I was now hooked on Tom’s story.
Tom stayed in the army after the war ended in 1945 and when Truman forced the integration of the armed forces in 1948, Because of how integrated their farm was, now as a staff sergeant, Tom was eager to make sure his platoon met the criteria. On the morning of integration deadline, Tom checked with his immediate subordinate. “Did those men arrive?” “Yes sir,” his enlisted man responded. “They arrived last night.”
“Is there one of rank I can talk to?” Tom asked.
“Yes sir. There’s one sergeant.”
“Would you send him in, please? Tom ordered. “I want to meet him,” .
A few minutes went by and Tom busied himself with paperwork. He heard a knock on the door. Before he could look up, a familiar voice barked: “Good morning Mr. Tom,… Sir!” Tom stared up from his desk and before him was Charles, a farm hand he’d known six years before. The smile on Tom’s face now, as I looked at him, once again was one of a man who was transformed back in time. There was a twinkle in his eyes.
I did catch up with Hank and Kathy, but again I reminded myself of what could be missed by not giving someone a chance to talk, to tell a story, particularly someone who is now nearly ninety years old. It’s not long before these stories will be lost forever.