It was one of the few times I actually cried during a funeral. And the really remarkable thing was it was the funeral of a man Id never met. It wasnt as if I was actually at the funeral. Like millions of others I watched the Rev. Martin Luther King laid to rest on television. In the intervening years, Im certain that it wasnt so much Dr. Kings passing that put a choke hold on my throat, even though it was one of the major events of my lifetime, so much as what it brought back to me. When I was a kid, I grew up in what was known a few decades before as Dogtown.
The southwest side of Galesburg was situated against sprawling rail yards, where immigrants came to take up the backbreaking labor that was the building of the railroads.
In the last half of the 19th century it was my ancestors, Irish Catholics running from the "Potato Famine." By the time I came along, mine was one of the few Anglo families left in the neighborhood, where those fleeing the civil strife of Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century took up the ill-paid chores of railroading.
Almost all of my early childhood friends were Mexicans. I believe Hispanics became the politically correct term, but Mexican was the accepted designation in my youth.
The closest of those friends was Tom Ascencio. Tommy and I went everywhere and did everything together. So it wasnt unusual that we planned on double dating for the homecoming dance. It was 1963 and I was in love with a girl whose parents were less than thrilled with their daughters taste.
In their never-ending attempt to dampen the romance, the girls mother let it be known that she had her reservations about her daughter double-dating with a "Mexican."
Of course, I was devastated, caught between the closest friendship of my youth and what I thought was the love of my life. I can still recall trying to explain my predicament to my mother at the kitchen table, keeping it low enough sos my father wouldnt overhear us in the next room.
Well, he did overhear and his response was short and to the point. "If I find out that you toss over your friendship with Tommy for this girl and her mother," said Pops clearing the kitchen door shaking his stubby index finger in my direction, "Ill kill ya and make another one just like ya."
Two years later Im in Southeast Asia and very concerned about anything but the bigoted social mores of high school. In the fall of 1965 I heard the story of Milton L. Olive III. On Oct. 22, 1965, while on a patrol, PFC Olive and four other members of his squad heard that distinct heavy metal clunk of a hand grenade landing in their midst.
"PFC Olive, with total disregard for his own life and safety, immediately picked up the grenade, held it to his stomach and fell on it, suffering fatal injuries," is the way the commendation on his Medal of Honor reads.
PFC Olive was born the day after I (Nov. 7, 1946) and in the same state (Chicago) but into starkly different circumstances. You see, he was black and even though we may have shared proximity of birth in both moment and geography, our views of America were distinctly segregated. And I guess when I saw the mule-drawn wagon bearing the body of Dr. King in April of 1968; I couldnt quite get the thought of two other people out of my head. One, a Mexican kid I grew up with, and another black man I would never meet but would always remember as having paid a far greater price for not only his own dream of this nation but the dreams of four other young Americans who owed and may still owe their daily existence to that heroic gesture.
You know, the question I always wanted to ask someone, but could never find anybody who knew: "How many of those four other faces in that Phu Cuong clearing that day in Oct. 1965 were white?" And, why should it matter?