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I hope Wingo had a happy life

In the early 1960s, I was in the military and stationed in South Carolina. I played on a military basketball team. I was the only white guy and the only officer on the team. The South was still segregated. So except for other military teams, only Black teams would play us.

At times I was the only white person on the floor or in the gym. Wingo was our point guard. He was about 19, maybe 20.

I had great fun playing with Wingo and the rest of the team. The Boston Celtics and their great fast breaks were our model. Our goal was wearing the other team down, and we were good at it. Wingo and I developed a great rapport. We had like minds, and our fast break mode of play suited us and the team.

Wingo was a Deep South Black kid. As a Northwest white lad, I am sure I was as strange to him as the ways of the Antebellum South were to me.

After one game Wingo told me, “I love playing with you.” I was on cloud nine until he added, “I don’t have to look for a friendly face or uniform color. I see a flash of lily white and throw you the ball.” So much for my pride. I later reflected that I was likely the first white person he had ever played ball with.

Totally unrelated to basketball, I needed a new field jacket. One afternoon I dropped into supply. The only other person in line was a full bird colonel. The supply sergeant was an older, Black NCO. It was still common in the early 1960s for NCOs to address officers in the third person as a form of respect.

The colonel asked for a new field jacket. The sergeant said, “Sorry colonel, we are out of field jackets. If the colonel will leave me his contact information, I will see the colonel gets his jacket when our back order comes in.” The clearly unhappy colonel barked out his contact information and stomped out.

Not wanting to be in the vicinity of an unhappy colonel, I paused before leaving supply. As I started toward the door, the sergeant asked; “What can I do for the lieutenant?” I answered that I needed a new field jacket and would check back some other time.

The sergeant then asked, “Is the lieutenant the lieutenant who plays ball with Wingo?”

I answered yes.

The sergeant said, “If the lieutenant will please follow me.”

Ten minutes later, I walked out with a new field jacket. I hoped I would not bump into the field jacket-seeking colonel with a new field jacket draped over my non-saluting arm.

Wingo, a young Black man from the South, and me, a young white guy from Oregon, taught each other a lot. We never discussed inclusion, but we modeled it as best we could to the world we lived and worked in. I hope Wingo had a happy life.

Larry Slessler lives in Medford.

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