From the Anthology 

Veterans’ Voices

On the Road to Life

Charles Yeager

I'm turning 18, now I’ve got to register for the draft. My only concern is that I don’t want to go into the Army. I had dropped out of school at seventeen and worked as a bus boy at a hotel. Knowing I would be eligible in 1959 for the draft, I called my father in St. Paul, Minnesota, and told him of my need to go back and get my diploma.


I was able to get a job as a waiter on the Great Northern Railway. Working on the railroad was most interesting, from learning to walk and move while carrying foods and hot or cold liquids and not lose anything or drop it. We went from St. Paul to Seattle back to St. Paul, then to Chicago, and finally back home. This was a five-day trip with stays in Seattle and Chicago. When I got home, I easily made $200 dollars in tips, plus the 50 or 60 hours we worked at $5.50 an hour, which was my salary. Now at that time, it was good money, so all I did was buy clothes and save my money to go to school in the fall.


I had to go to summer school for two or three weeks, then night school for three or four months, all while going to day school and not having the option to fail any classes in order to graduate with my class of ’61. Mission accomplished!!! But not without drama, because St. Paul and Minneapolis were precursors to the Hippie generation. It was definitely jumping with the university right across the bridge.


After we graduated, everything the principal told us about what was going to happen, happened. The closeness was no longer there; people disappeared, some never seen again. Reality hit. Things were escalating in the world and getting intense all over. In the South, especially, with the freedom bus rides, which I wasn’t going to do. I’m not going nowhere where people can beat you and you don’t fight back. I went and worked the summer doing the railroad. When school started back, some left for college and five of us decided to go to the recruiters in Minneapolis. Somebody says let’s go to the Marines station. We all go view the film and listen to the sales pitch. I felt uncomfortable with the recruiter’s attitude toward us. So, when I asked the question whether I could get into photography, his reply was sarcastically, “No, you’re going into infantry.” So, one out of five stayed, two went to the Army, one Navy, me Air Force. I asked the Air Force recruiter if I could get into photography. He said if I pass and qualify for it.


So, I take the test. Pass. So, it’s off to the Air Force. Now this is my first time ever flying and it’s a prop plane. I’m sitting by the window behind the left wing when we take off and get airborne. The blinds were down, and I was chewing gum like mad, trying to keep my ears from bursting. I was half high from drinking earlier and you could feel the plane leveling off. Everything was coming together: my ears stopped popping and my stomach settled down. It’s late and I decide to raise the blinds and observe the view. The first thing I observe is this plane is spitting flames of fire out its exhaust. My first reaction is, “WFT!? Is this shit on fire?” The stewardess came by and reassured me.


Upon arriving at our destination at the airport, there was a bus waiting to take us to Lackland Air Force Base (San Antonio, Texas). Everything was cool. When we came off the plane, there stood our Training Instructor (T.I.), barking out all kinds of directions. Things went ina whole different direction. It’s around midnight when we get to Lackland and go to our barracks to put our bags by our bunks, then, we reassembled and marched to the chow hall and had midnight breakfast for the first time. First thing that changed, before we could sit, we had to stand at attention until our table was full.


When we get back to the barracks, it’s about 1or 1:30 a.m. So, I was getting ready to go to bed and start off in the morning. The T.I says, “If you go to bed, I want it made up just like it is now.” Nobody dared take off the sheets and get in bed, so everybody sat on their trunks or laid on the floor and tried to sleep. When5 o’clock came, it was on. Beds were still made, no sleep, off we go to breakfast. After eating, it’s off to get haircuts, being issued clothes and getting shots, then off to some kind of indoctrination program. Finally, back to the barracks after a freaking full day of orders and directions that I’m trying to process.


After learning how to make beds, about two or three days later, we’re introduced to what is a called their mantra of No One Left Behind. We went to lunch, got back in formation, then Sarge stated that the smoking lamp is lit, “If you got ’em, smoke ’em.” When it was over, we marched straight over to the Physical Fitness Test field. After push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks, then BAM! to the track, where we are to run one mile in formation. Now, this is when things got tight. T.I. says we would do another mile for everyone that fell by the wayside. He made it crystal clear, color don’t matter, we don’t leave no one behind. I’m second to last in the 2nd squad and then this fat dude starts to fall back. If he gets by me, the dude behind me is smaller, so I'm committed. I put his arm around my neck, a white dude to my right does the same thing and he had someone to his right who spelled him. It was a total of four laps with me carrying the fat dude one and a half laps. Fate intervened and the two that helped me became my best friends throughout basic and tech school.


Well, I made it through basic, so we go across the base to tech school. My three roommates are all white. We’ve done a lot of things together on base. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky; Cleveland, Ohio; and St. Paul, Minnesota, so from an early age, I was aware of racial differences and I only experienced open racism in Louisville. Now, two of them had no relations with Black folks, seeing as how one was from Tennessee and the other was from Cocoa Beach, Florida, where their interactions were limited to fighting with the Blacks from across the tracks. Two weeks into tech school, we get weekend passes, so we decide to go see the Alamo. We’re dressed up in blues, head to town to get a hotel room, eat and see the Alamo, and see what unfolds. 


We get to San Antonio, walk to where the Alamo is standing. We decide to walk up the street to the hotel and register and then go back. We walk into the hotel and a middle-aged woman comes out of an office upstairs, looks down and asks what do we want. We stated, rooms. She instantly says, pointing her fingers at us, “You two can stay, but he’s got to go.” I wasn’t expecting that, especially with my uniform on. So, we moved on to a restaurant for something to eat and when we got seated, the waiter came over and said, “Hey, you guys, look, I'm from New York so I don’t have a problem with you, but the owner says you can’t stay.” At this time, a pattern is emerging, so I said, “Hell, I’m going back to the base.” They kept insisting that we were gonna find someplace. So, as we walk out across the street, there is another hotel. We walk to the front door and a doorman steps out, puts his hand up and say’s “No El Negro.” Now this is coming from a Mexican. I just said, “Fuck it, I’m gone! You all stay and enjoy yourself.”


I walked back to where the buses left for the base and got me a burrito. Got on the bus, back to the base. Found the Airman’s club and drank a pitcher of .32 beer. On the following Monday, I told my T.I. about it. All he said was “Yeah, I know.” Needless to say, I never went back. My feelings were Fuck San Antonio and the Alamo. It really hit me that here I was willing to die to protect motherfuckers who didn’t regard me as equal.


I graduated from tech school and got my orders to Minot AFB in North Dakota. I arrived at my first base in March of ’62, two and a half weeks until my 21st birthday. When I worked on the railroad, I used to go through Minot on my way to Seattle. All I knew about Minot was it was the home of Roger Maris and it was cold just like Minnesota. I was not a happy camper in the least. When I hit the base, it was knee deep in snow. Everyone had on full winter gear, walking or riding. What caught my attention was the sign above the main gate that said, “Only the best come North.


The Cuban Missile Crisis 


I’ve been here at Minot for seven months. What’s a black man to do in this rural country that is not quite ready for an influx of Black people? My relaxation is to buy clothes, music and liquor, then go back to the base and party in the barracks. Even on base, we are a minority, plus we are a minority of Air Police, maybe 10 blacks out of the squadron. Now my taste in music went from jazz to R&B in contrast to the white boys who grooved on country. So, there was conflict because you couldn’t enjoy the music without competing sounds. On paydays and three-daybreaks, we either were drinking, gambling or listening to music.


On a lot of my paydays, I went home to St. Paul. I would buy a round-trip ticket, get on the train and go to the waiter quarters where they sleep. They all knew me or my father, so I'd ride for free and do the same going back, just getting there when they were ready to depart. When I arrive back at Minot, I would go to the ticket window and get a refund on my unused ticket. I went home so much in two years, they thought I was out of the service.


Now with all the acrimony, we were still aware of what was happening in the world. We were supposed to get off from day shift and start break. Before we can get off, we went on alert. We were awake a total of 23 hours on alert—no sleep. Then 12 hours on and 12 off for the duration of the crisis. It had a chilling effect on peoples’ psyches, knowing our base was one of the ten targets. I remember sitting on top of an ammo bunker loaded with bombs that were carried by B52s. So, I told the white dude that was guarding the ammo area with me, “Ain’t this a bitch! Here we are here in this situation where if they launch and it hits this base, it damn sure won’t pick out the Black folks and leave ya’ll alone.” After it was over, it seemed the hostilities abated. Being in SAC (Strategic Air Command) was no picnic. Peoples’ perception was that the Air Force was soft, but it was very strict and demanding. Its main thrust was mistakes are not allowed and constant combat defense training, to the point that we were known as SAC Trained Killers.


Soon after the crisis, I ended up going TDY(Temporary Duty) to Great Falls, Montana, Malmstrom AFB, to provide security for the Minuteman Missiles. Now, this was some kind of cool. We were at wo-man strike team, roaming over a hundred or so miles for a 12-hour shift. If we weren’t riding, sometimes we’d man the site for the 12 hour-shifts in rain, sleet or snow. Now being in Montana was not without problems. My first time on patrol as a two-man team, it was two Black dudes together. We get gas and use a government credit card and we got guns on our sides. That shit was new to them. We drive on until sunset. We’re coming up on a club with a few cars, so we stop to check and see if they noticed any strangers around. You would have thought we invaded a Klan rally and disturbed them. We had to let them know we were the guardians of those missiles all around, so you don’t want them blowing up. They thought for a minute and realized we had our .38s on our sides and they say, “Naw, we ain’t seen nobody. We’ll let you know if any comes around.”


The next time I went out on patrol, I had a White mate. Turns out he’s a country boy from Pennsylvania, who had never been around Black folk. Now, we work three days on and three days off, 12 hours on and 12 off. We’re not the most talkative, so we’re driving long stretches with the just the barest of conversation. Driving around in the mountains of Montana is most rewarding for all the sights that are just there to observe. They don’t call it Big Sky Country for nothing. Six months there was fun and insightful and definitely called forth in me a lot of growth as a Blackman in the ’60s.


Back at Minot, I have a shipment to England because I had written a letter to a Black congressman of Detroit, thinking it would bring about some relief. Nope, didn’t happen. When they got wind of the letter, my shipment to England was canceled and I was sent to Altus, Oklahoma, without a performance report.


On arriving, I was riding a Trailways bus. Along the way, I noticed a lot of white fields and then I noticed movement of an up-and-down motion and then it hit me, this is a cotton field. It’s beyond hot and here they were working at mid-day. Welcome to Oklahoma! This place is hot, cold, and miserable living. The plus side is they have a Black town (and I mean Black). It was a love/hate relationship for me because of the shortage of Black women, so much so, that I had a fool swing out of a tree as I was talking to a young lady. I let that shit go.


Here is where I experienced Juneteenth for the very first time. A few of us go into town together and it’s about sundown and people are out in the middle of the street in their part of town having a good time. We go into the club and get some drinks. When we finally come out, it’s night. The atmosphere is electric, people are dancing and partying, but on the outside looking in are all these white people looking on like it was a show. Most unbelievable thing I ever experienced.


My worst experience was going to jail for being Black in a restaurant. They claimed we were loud and acting up. When the police came, I was sitting on the toilet stool and this cop kicks the door off the hook and takes us to jail. The flight sergeant comes to see what’s up, listens to what the cop says and then tells him to keep us a couple hours. Nobody said anything to us. No one wanted to address the issue. We hadn’t done anything but be Black in a restaurant.


By this time, Viet Nam is heating up and we send a squad TDY over there. I change flights and meet the new squad leader, who decides to come to my room and tries to read me the riot act on how he expects me to perform in his squad. I had been drinking because I did not want to change flights because all my friends were there. He caught me at the wrong time. It’s just me and him in my room and he’s trying to come off as some power ranger. I let him know in military style that I had eight months and I’m outta here. “So get outta my face. I’ve been doing my job and I will continue to do my job.


Two weeks later, we’re working the Atlas missile complex, which was a whole hell of lot bigger with two access points. One is main entrance which I’m manning and the other is missile complex, where crew and missile reside, which my man is guarding. The duty officer and flight sergeant arrive doing their rounds. I check them in accordingly and they are on their way to check with him. Upon entry, there is a quonset hut that goes back close to the other access gate. I flash my light to let him know someone is coming, but no response! Speed limit is 5 miles per hour. If they get there and he’s sleep, he’s toast. Nothing to do but put my rifle on the ridges of the hut, haul my ass down the length of the quonset hut and hit his window, then turn around and run back to the edge of the hut as the truck was coming down the other side. He made it through the check no problem, and I had made it to the edge of the hut before they turned the corner. When they left, he came up and thanked me for waking him. I was faced with fuck him or would I like it if it was me? He was going on sixteen years and was just an Airman 1st, so he had been busted a few times, but he was cool until I checked out.


When the war broke full scale, they began extending everyone that had a year or more left. I only had eight months. With all that was going on in the world, I had thoughts of re-enlisting but when they bombed the church in Birmingham and killed those four little girls, it was like damn all the racism I had experienced. To still feel that you were not appreciated was pretty mind opening. Here we are being shipped off to die so somebody can kill my people whenever they want, and nothing is done. So, when I tell them I’m not re-enlisting, the sergeant is pissed that I didn’t want to stay in and told me be on guard. As our motto is Alert, Aware and Awake, no problem, I do what I was trained for. That wasn’t what I wanted to be, but I knew how to be good at my job. When I say SAC policy is “Mistakes are not allowed” that is what it means. Lesson learned is Know Your Job.


My remembrance of my buddies came from our shared experience of being Black and drinking and partying together. Sharing our thoughts and dreams of what we were going to do or be, knowing we won’t see each other again. However, one brother when he got out, 30 days after, drove from Altus to my home in St. Paul. We still had the same camaraderie, but I was back working on the railroad, and he got homesick.


My intentions were to go work for Boeing in Seattle. After buying my ticket and preparing to leave, my mother calls from Cleveland, telling me to come home because my sister was sick. So, I end up turning my ticket in and got a refund and bought a one-way to Cleveland. 


Once back, I ended up at J&L Steel for about a month. I almost lost the use of three of my fingers on my right hand working on a cutter that cut rolled steel sheets. Metal rings on metal cylinders with your fingers between them. All I saw from that point on was being lost in that environment. So, I quit, gave my brother-law my badge and told him to get my check.


I went to the sign painter that I knew to be the best Black sign painter in the city, if not one of the best Black or White. I asked him for a job, he told me he couldn’t pay me, but would give 60%of everything I sold for him. I worked with him for four months learning everything I could and he was willing to show me.


I had enrolled in school for architectural drafting and design. Mack had been going to Fenn College for architecture and one day I come in and there is a brush with paint still on it, just lying there drying out. Come to find out he had been hired to do site drawings. He told me I could takeover if I wanted. I didn’t have money or experience, so I went and became a map drawer for a title company in downtown Cleveland. I got the job because Iwas going to school for engineering and I was a vet. They had passed the Civil Rights Bill, so things sort of open up, temporarily. So it seems I am the only Black draftsman they ever had. So I am viewed as something different—not your average Negro.


I'd met a girl named Helen, and I’d managed to get her pregnant. Prior to all that, I made one other girl pregnant. However, we never got to communicate after I found out she was pregnant. After I got out of the service, I came back and saw her, she was felling some kind of way, but it wasn’t intentional. She didn’t want anything to do with me. I tried three times and she refused to see me or engage me in anything. I stopped trying and focused on the here and now. Before we got together, she had a boyfriend. She called him Ves. Never met him, but I went by one day to see Helen and as I’m talking to her, she tells me he is going back to Alabama. So that means they are breaking up and he’s moving on. As we are talking, someone calls out and says, “Is that you, bubba?” I’m like what the fuck, the voice sounds familiar but it’s not in the right place. Like who the hell is this? He comes out of the kitchen and, lo and behold, here is one of my good friends from Minot. McLeon Vester. His brother was called Ves. Well, all that ended well. After that encounter, I didn’t see him again and he and his brother were gone back to Alabama.


The year is 1967 and Carl Stokes is running for mayor. I see him in Public Square speaking. He is a charismatic and eloquent speaker, and he rallies the Black community like I’ve never witnessed before. It is only different from Obama in that it hadn’t been put into effect before like this. He garnered 80 percent of the Black vote plus twenty percent of Whites.


My First Encounter with True Black Power


On Aug. 31, 1967, I had twins, a girl and boy. With that surprise, it took nine years before we had any more, then we had two girls two years apart. I stayed married 14 years, then it no longer was working.


Being an artist is a high-risk profession. I got married again and moved to Ft. Lauderdale in ’83. In spite of not wanting to come back to Cleveland, it was the place where I got my training as an artist and four wonderful kids. So, I was still learning: Never say Never. So, every summer I would go and brings the kids down for the summer and then take them back. The twins went into the service: Kimberly joined the Air Force and Kim went in the Army.


Now, moving to Florida allowed me to start my own sign company with clients and equipment. The first company I worked with was the oldest in Broward County. When I gave him my card with my picture on it and told him I was looking for a job, he looks at me and says, “We some old Georgia crackers and we ain’t never hired no Black man.” All I could say was that I never worked for any Georgia crackers. He asked if I can I paint signs and I say yes, so he asks if I want to work tomorrow. I end up working a week while I found a place to live. I worked for the sign company about a year, then I was able to get my own shop. There was a shop across from the sign shop that was a screen printing shop. The owner was closing because of health, so I got all the equipment and moved into a warehouse. I was able to maintain myself for 25 years.


I’ve had many friends. Most were white, Haitian or West Indian and some Black Americans. The one thing I discovered was how much money I could circulate. Once I wasn’t keeping as much as I needed, I closed the business and went into school photography, the most fun job I have had so far.


In 2227, my wife has to move to Mississippi to take care of her two sisters. For all I have heard about Mississippi and Alabama, they are not quite what I expected. So there goes my mantra of “I ain’t going to no Mississippi or Alabama. (Never say Never). Well, the time I spent in Mississippi, I was able to experience the effectiveness of the VA and all they do for veterans. Since joining the VA in 1966, I never had any serious problems other than high blood pressure and cholesterol. My first encounter with medical procedures was when I had bladder cancer (That was a real scare!). I had just turned 62 and they performed the operation at the Miami VA. Once I was in Mississippi, I received an operation for blocked bowels and then a hernia mesh put in. The one thing I failed to realize was that the VA had many options for veterans in which they could be rewarded. Iwas always under the impression that other than a mailman that was all that was open to vets without injuries.


Once all my wife’s relatives were gone, there was nothing to keep us there. I told my kids of our plans to move to Tennessee. My youngest daughter told me to come home. Now they had lost their mother in2017. She died in her arms going to dialysis. So, Cleveland here we come. After moving back to Cleveland, I have enjoyed myself being around kids, grandkids and now a great grand. Of the four kids I have, my oldest daughter had two children while in the Air Force. On Jan. 4, 1994, she hit some black ice, slid into a school bus and my oldest grandson was killed, the youngest survived, but she died seven days later on me and my wife’s 11th anniversary. What a way to celebrate.


My first wife eventually started a daycare in her name, and, after a few years, my youngest daughter took over. She has taken it to new levels and is inspiring young kids. My grandkids all seem to be doing well with education. My daughter that passed left her youngest to be raised by his grandmother and siblings. Being in the car when they passed, definitely left him traumatized (he was two, the other was four and my daughter was 26). That was a trauma that still resonates with me today. Now in the four years that I’ve been here, I appreciate how my kids show me and their stepmother so much love and I appreciate that beyond measure.


Now since I’ve been back, I have had questions about my lost son that I only saw once. I didn’t know who to turn to, but Facebook is such a powerful force that all one has to do is put in your last name and see what happens. One thing I know for sure is that energy follows thought. One day, I’m with my youngest and she tells me about somebody who was looking for me to see if I was related. She calls the lady back and I talk to her. She inquires of me if I know a person named Brandon. When I tell her yes, she immediately tells me she and her sister are my granddaughters. It seems surreal, but one thing for sure God answers prayers. So now at this juncture, I am waiting on seeing them for the first time and feeling the love that we were never able to express in 43 years.


The one thing the Air Force taught me was resiliency and fortitude. The four years that I served brought me from a shy person to a person who will say what’s on his mind and what I will take and not take. It definitely made me a stronger person in how I handle things being a Blackman in America. My first grandson graduated from Bowling Green, my granddaughter graduated from Clark Atlanta and then graduated from Case/Western Reserve with her master’s. Now both have blessed me with great-grandsons. Being at the age I am now, I just appreciate life and all it has allowed me to see and partake in. If I could have done anything differently, it would have been to stay in the service as a reserve and put in the time to retire. All I do now is try to paint or do some graphics to keep my hand in the game. If I learned anything in life, it’s to have faith over fear and keep it moving.