Admittedly, I haven’t watched each part of the series, but on those occasions that I’ve tuned in to the television documentary on the 1960s it’s sent my mind racing back in time.
We all know that was a decade of discontent in America – many young men were drafted into the military, taken away from their everyday lives and thrust into a country divided by involvement in the Vietnam War. We’re told it wasn’t really a “war,” but rather a “conflict.” To those of us affected by America’s involvement, it was war.
Part of the series aired last Thursday dealt with the Civil Rights struggles, particularly the fight by many in Alabama – including Gov. George Wallace – to prevent two African American students from enrolling in the University of Alabama. It told of how Wallace had called up the Alabama National Guard to prevent those students’ enrollment, of how Wallace himself stood in the doorway of the registrar’s office to block the students’ pathway and of how President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had “federalized” those same National Guard troops to enforce the black students’ rights to enroll in that state university.
My mind, though, went back to that time in my life. I was fortunate to have avoided service in Vietnam and, instead, spent my overseas duty in Germany.
It was there I met Ernie Cammack.
On the first day of baseball practice at Monteith Barracks near Nuremberg, Germany, we were broken into groups – infielders, outfielders and pitchers/catchers. I broke to the latter when a big African American man approached.
“Hi, I’m Ernie Cammack. Ernie Cammack,” he said. I thought it was funny that he repeated his name. I soon learned, though, that he said his name twice on every occasion he met someone new.
When I say he was a big man, I say it because it was true. He stood about 6’4” and weighed at least 250 pounds. He was a catcher, I a pitcher on that baseball team, known as “DisCom.” It was the only team on the large base and players came from each unit stationed there. While Ernie served with a communications battalion, I was with the public information office of the Fourth Armored Division Public Information detachment.
I didn’t know then that we would become fast friends, meeting each day after our military work was finished, then traveling together every time we traveled to another U.S. Military base around Germany.
Ernie was an outstanding catcher – a great leader behind the plate and certainly our most powerful hitter.
More than that, though, Ernie was a great American, a great person.
Just a year earlier, I had driven through his native Alabama on my way to Fort Gordon, Ga. I had seen the shacks built on stilts. I had seen the water fountains and store fronts with big signs that read “Whites Only.” I had seen the signs pointing to alleys or to the back of stores that read “Black Entrance.”
I marveled that this man, Ernie Cammack, had grown up in that environment and still wore a broad grin on his face virtually all day long. Although our only contact came on the baseball field and, at times, in vehicles traveling to games, Ernie and I talked often about our lives. Certainly, if I had a polar opposite, it would be Ernie Cammack.
I grew up in lily white rural Iowa; he as a black in the segregated south.
He told me stories of the injustices he and others of his race had faced growing up in those years after World War II. Having never seen that, it was hard for me to believe. Just hearing Ernie tell some of those stories, though, I knew it was all true. He told of the segregated schools, the poor education there, the constant ridicule he faced.
“You just knew that you didn’t talk to a white person unless he talked to you, first,” Ernie said. “And, you never, ever talked to a white girl and you’d better not get caught even looking at one.”
Ernie, I could tell, was quite content to be in the Army, where he was, for the most part, treated as an equal. He’d already been in for more than four years and he talked of, perhaps, making the Army his career.
Many in his communications unit came down on a levy to serve in Vietnam. I have no doubt that’s where Ernie went after his service in Germany had ended.
After that one summer in 1967, our paths never again crossed. But, every now and then I’ll see something or read something that brings him back to mind. I still picture that strapping young man with a constant grin on his face and a catcher’s mitt on his left hand. Or, I picture him standing at the plate, taking a big swing and that small white ball traveling high and far over the left field fence.
And, I wonder. What ever happened to Ernie Cammack, Ernie Cammack?