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Poetry Radio Project

Tuskegee Airmen

Larissa Anderson

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Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Col. John Mulzac
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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The Tuskegee Airmen made history during World War II as the country's first black military pilots. They fought Nazis overseas and they fought racism at home and abroad. Their performance paved the way for the end of racial segregation in the military forces. Now they've been invited to the Inauguration to watch Barack Obama make history as the country's first black president. Poet Marilyn Nelson talks about the struggles and the legacy of these legendary pilots.

---

Marilyn Nelson: We were stationed in Oklahoma when I was in seventh grade. I couldn't try on clothes in a department store in the local town. I couldn't have an ice cream cone inside an ice cream parlor. You could buy it through a window and eat it outside, but you couldn't eat it inside. That's what the United States was like. But on base, with my dad in his uniform, I was with a hero.

While they were at Tuskegee, most of the people who were there to train them were white Southerners, so they had to prove themselves against the low expectations that their own military trainers had of them. There was one incident, a group of officers, they're certified pilots and they went to the Officers' Club to have dinner - they're officers - and the Officers' Club arrested them because they were black.

My father died when I was in college, so I couldn't go to him for his stories when I started writing about Tuskegee Airmen. I was introduced to Burt Wilson. Burt was a member of the 332nd Fighter Group, this is the most famous group of Tuskegee Airmen, and I started working on poems about his stories. One of those poems was "Porter."

The pain of this poem is that this woman is faced with somebody who's wearing a uniform covered with medals and she thinks he's a Pullman Porter. She gives him a dime. The triumph of the poem for me, and what made Burt cry, I think, is that when he told me the story and he said she gave him a dime as a tip, he said, "I took it, too" and he shook his head because he was ashamed of taking it. But when I wrote it, I made it a triumph. I made him grin. And, I think that's what the poem says is that it didn't matter what this woman thought. What mattered was who he was, what he had done. His own greatness, not what she saw in him.

---

Porter
For Bertram Wilson, Lieutenant Colonel USAF (ret.) and for all of my "uncles"

Suddenly
when I hear airplanes overhead --
big, silver ones
whose muscles fill the sky --
I listen: That sounds like
someone I know.
And the sky
looks much closer.

I know my intimacy, now,
with the wheel and roar
of wind around wings.
Hello, wind.
Take care of my people.

The moon and stars
aren't so white now;
some of my people
know their first names.
Hey, Arcturus.
What's happening, Polaris?
Daddy said I should look you up.


You're even
more
dumb-founding
than he told me you were.

This is my other heritage:
I have roots in the sky.
The Tuskegee Airmen
are my second family.
This new, brave,
decorated tribe.

My family.
My homeplace, at last.
It was there
all through time.
I only had
to raise my eyes.

Tuskegee Airmen
uncles of my childhood,
how shall I live and work
to match your goodness?
Can I do more
than murmur name upon name,
as the daughter
of a thousand proud fathers?

Jefferson.
Wilson.
Sparks.
Toliver.
Woodward.
Mitchell.
Price.
Lacy.
Straker.
Smith.
Washington.
Meriweather.
White ...

One time, this was in the Sixties,
and I was a full-bird Colonel,
they called me in Kentucky
and asked me to pick up
an aircraft somebody had crashed
down in Louisiana.
I was supposed to fly it
to a base in New Mexico
and go back to Kentucky
on a commercial flight.

It's tricky business,
flying a plane that's been crashed.
You can never tell
what might still be wrong with it.


Okay, I flew the plane to New Mexico
and got on a flight back home.
I was in full dress-uniform,
decorations and medals
and shit
all over my chest.
The Distinguished Flying Cross
with two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters,
The Bronze Star,
a couple of commendation medals,
a European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal
with four Bronze Service Stars ...


When we landed in Chicago
I was standing in the aisle
when a lady --
a little grayhaired white lady --
asked me to lift
her suitcase down.
I said, Of course,
and carried it on out
into the terminal for her.
When I put it down
she handed me a dime
as a tip.

He looks down.
Then he looks at me and grins.

I TOOK it, too!

(Reprinted by permission of LSU Press from The Homeplace by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright 1989 by Marilyn Nelson.)

---

Lonely Eagles

For Daniel "Chappie" James, General USAF and for the 332nd Fighter Group

Being black in America
was the Original Catch,
so no one was surprised
by 22:
The segregated airstrips,
separate camps.
They did the jobs
they'd been trained to do.

Black ground-crews kept them in the air;
black flight-surgeons kept them alive;
the whole Group removed their headgear
when another pilot died.

They were known by their names:
"Ace" and "Lucky,"
"Sky-hawk Johnny," "Mr. Death."
And by their positions and planes.
Red Leader to Yellow Wing-man,
do you copy?

If you could find a fresh egg
you bought it an hid it
in your dopp-kit or your boot
until you could eat it alone.
On the night before a mission
you gave a buddy
your hiding-places
as solemnly
as a man dictating
his will.
There's a chocolate bar
in my Bible;
my whiskey bottle
is inside my bed-roll.

In beat-up Flying Tigers
that had seen action in Burma,
they shot down three German jets.
They were the only outfit
in the American Air Corps
to sind a destroyer
with fighter planes.
Fighter planes with names
like "By Request."

Sometimes the radios
didn't even work.

They called themselves
"Hell from Heaven."
This Spookwaffe.
My father's old friends.

It was always maximum effort:
A whole squadron
of brother-men
raced across the tarmac
and mounted their planes.

My tent-mate was a guy named Starks.
The funny thing about me and Starks
was that my air mattress leaked,
and Starks' didn't.
Every time we went up,
I gave my mattress to Starks
and put his on my cot.

One day we were strafing a train.
Strafing's bad news:
you have to fly so low and slow
you're a pretty clear target.
My other wing-man and I
exhausted our ammunition and got out.
I recognized starks
by his red tail
and his rudder's trim-tabs.
He couldn't pull up his nose.
He dived into the train
and bought the farm.

I found his chocolate,
three eggs, and a full fifth
of his hoarded-up whiskey.
I used his mattress
for the rest of my tour.

It still bothers me, sometimes:
I was sleeping
on his breath.


(Reprinted by permission of LSU Press from The Homeplace by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright 1989 by Marilyn Nelson.)

More stories from our Poetry Radio Project series

Comments

  • Comment | Refresh

  • By darwin bautista

    From las vegas, NV, 02/25/2009

    thanks

    By james moore

    From dunn, NC, 02/25/2009

    keep the stories coming

    By lee sang young

    01/16/2009

    thank you

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