Slipping the surly bonds of racism

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 2, 2020

Aerospace leader Sandford McLeod’s favourite poem, “High Flight,” speaks to his experience of interracial friendship during his Air Force boot camp days.
Photo by Warren Harbeck

Longtime coffee companion Sandford “Sandy” McLeod wrote me recently about how an experience he had as a teenager shaped his appreciation for Black Lives Matter. The aerospace visionary shared how his Air Force training days in 1958 helped him not only “slip the surly bonds of earth” as a pilot  (as John Gillespie Magee, Jr. wrote in Sandy’s favourite poem, “High Flight” – see my column for June 30, 2010). They also led him to slip the surly bonds of racism. In fact, as I reread Gillespie’s celebrated lines, I found inspiration for all of us in these racially tense times.

SANDY WROTE: When I entered the Air Force and I arrived in boot camp as a naive kid at the tender age of 17, my first roommate directly across from my bunk was an east coast Black Man. A very dark Black Man with shining white teeth. I had never before been up close to someone so very black. He was much bigger and stronger than me. At first it frightened me; I am not ashamed to say it. Total ignorance and rising fear at work. I will never forget that introduction in his shorts and me in mine. I did not know his name until he stuck his hand out to shake.

The following emotions came on instantly: emotional recoil and immediate defensive emotions, mentally tracking what was in front of me. And he is smiling; disarming, but can I trust that?

Plain stupid, but I was very young and did not realize at all that he was scared, too. His smile was defensive. He, too, had never before been in a military barrack block with 40 White guys, all muscular, working out all the time and ready for a fight. After all, I was White – from his side, representative of the well-known international so-called “White supremacy” in his world, including the iconic white pointy hoods, another stupid thing but a very large problem.

His hand was twice the size of mine and when we shook hands, something dramatic happened – the smile and hands together, firmness but not overly strong, just plain friendly. That changed everything. Names were exchanged and through our hands he and I were bonded for the next four months to make it through a grueling endeavour that was something else: military training with Cpl. Pritchard and Cpl. “Bucky” Talbot.

Bucky was a seasoned and strict drill instructor. He also was Black, and took his job very, very seriously. He had the power of a military god to teach us “know-nothing kids” to depend on each other no matter what! “We breathe the same, we bleed the same.” Bucky chastised us over and over for any sign of prejudice. If it raised its ugly head, that person was discharged unceremoniously and banished in disgrace.

In our-day-to-day training, our future survival was the most important target and obsession; to be the very best there is in our Air Force world. I believe now years later that Bucky and Pritchard, the dynamic Black and White “discipline-demanding duo,” did their job 100 percent; we lived through dangerous times. Eventually Black or White had no meaning. We were each other’s dependable, trusted buddy. We had each other’s back.

Finally, on graduation and posting to our new bases across Canada, we parted ways, once again shaking hands. We all grew up over an intense four-month period. I never saw him again, but I always will remember him, a very good, kind, strong and supportive man. We were friends. In hindsight, every once in a while I have felt embarrassment at my inability at 17 to understand we were the same. We breathe and bleed the same. It paid off.

—Sandy McLeod

SO, HOW DOES “High Flight” provide a timely take on Sandy’s experience of slipping “the surly bonds of earth”? Substituting “racism” for “earth” in the first line, you decide:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of racism
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”


© 2020 Warren Harbeck

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