In the ward 1B room 128 at the Nursing Care Unit of the V.A. Hospital at Lyons, NJ lays a very ill elderly man, named Norman M. Mohammed. In his late eighties, Matthew, as I know him by his middle name is one of those rare men who will tell you stories of a time when Brooklyn schooled and sent its young to all services in defense of our national at a time its was mortally threatened. Matthew has told me much of his experience during that fateful time. I have listened to him tell me stories with an unusual similarity to those of my father who trained and travelled to the 1944-45 campaigns that carried my father across the Pacific in the runs with the battleship Wisconsin from the Panama Canal to Tokyo Bay. They are always about that which filled him with wonder and fear as he headed out from the home he knew.
I met Matthew in the winter 2000 six months after the death of my father. I met him at a soup kitchen where I at times volunteer in Newark run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Six days a week, Matthew as a volunteer of age 80 ran the serving and dining area of the mission, which daily served 100 men, women and sometimes children, with all the command of the soldier he had become in those years of war before returning home at its end. He called them to “line-up in oordeeerr”, ‘eat all that you are served…’ and “my tables aren’t looking clean enough” when they finished and returned their trays. He commanded them to stand during grace with their heads uncovered. He’d stand in defense of the nuns when necessary and sometimes took a hit to protect another volunteer. He’d move the crowd, mop the floor, clean the dishes, sing Broadway songs with the voice of Paul Robeson and leave for his home at the end of the morning with the dining area cleaned, the chairs folded and stacked, and the tables folded upward and lined like carrier airplanes in old WWII movies awaiting the next morning launch-which there always was.
In the fall of 2003, as we found ourselves in another war and I myself was considering volunteering to join the Provisional Authority in Baghdad, he told me another part of his war story. His early enlistment in the Army had gone well and since he had spent a great deal of his younger times in the Brooklyn Library he had scored in testing high enough to go to officer training in New Orleans and be offered a chance for a commission in the Army. Here is where the story starts to sour. With great enthusiasm he boarded a train south and mixed with all other soldiers about the cars, it stayed this way until…. Matthews stopped his story for a minute. “You know, Bill” he said, “The cars right behind the engine in the front of the train is full of the engine’s fumes and other smells. It is an awful experience during ride. I never had expected this to happen. When we crossed the line (Mason Dixon), they, white Army soldiers, came into the car and told us that we, the colored, had to go forward. All the way to New Orleans.” He shook is head, “I had never experienced the South.”
For a few minutes, he just stared outward at a very long distance inside his memory. And I held my breath for a few minutes waiting for him for I suspected more to come. “Bill,” he said, “I wish I hadn’t thrown the sign off the bus.” “What bus?” I asked. “The one that brought us back from a time in the town, just before I was to get my commission. It had a sign, ‘Colored in the back of the bus’. I threw it out the window and told the bus driver I wasn’t going to sit there. Some other white soldiers from the North also told the bus driver that I deserved to sit with them.” He stopped for a minute and smiled, “I really wasn’t going the sit by myself.”
“When we returned to the camp, the bus driver called the MPs and told them what had happened. I was brought before an officer and removed from the officer course. It was about three weeks before I was to become an officer.”
There it was. Here in the basement of an old church on a cold winter morning, I was sitting with a man who before Martin Luther King, Jr. had marched and before Rosa Parks grew tired of the burden of racism had stood up in the depth of New Orleans and challenged a man to treat him no better than anyone else and his Army to rise to a level equal to him.
Both failed him horribly and more to the point disgracefully and, yes, cowardly.
Matthew then told me he had cancer in his spine. He was in need of a Samaritan.
During the 2003 Christmas season, I wrote President Bush and the Missionaries’ contact, the Head of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives at the White House. A friend passed the letter to a regional news network which gave him a brief interview for MLK day 2004. Polite responses from the White House were received. But I had asked for only a pair of gold bars with a commission in the Army – that appeared to hard.
In March, I went to Baghdad as an adviser with the CPA; but, I left a contact point with the White House OFBI to continue pressing. An aide, Catherine, would find my wife and ask for the really hard task, could you get a reference from the Missionaries. From Baghdad, it was arranged. Then it went quiet.
In the past several years, someone asks a question, a promise to research is made. Then it goes cold. It is placed somewhere in the Army and as the Army does, it goes to ground. An approached friend who sits at the top of the VA bemoaned that the crime is not unique but too common to rectify. And stays on the side away from the victim.
And remains unfinished business for a nation that cries itself as better.
I need a Samaritan. One who will bring the bars of a 2nd LT, USA with a commission signed by the President to the VA in Lyons.
Matthew is dying and bedridden. We have a little time to correct an injustice.
This I believe. To become a Samaritan requires that one not be the priest or the Levite who passes on the side away from the crime’s victim as he lays on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; but, one who crosses the road and offers a hand to give the best he or she can.
And Samaritans so far have appeared from Iraq and Arlington among Generals who have offered a hand and passed it on to the one more hand that is needed to sign a commission.
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