Racism is alive and well these days, seeming to flourish with the slew of heinous hate crimes inflicted upon its innocent victims. Research has proven that racists are made, not born and that human beings enter this world with an inherent sense of fair play. Sadly, seeds of intolerance take root and sprout cancerous weeds, which nurture hateful beliefs and encourage deviant behaviors, All of these encourage mistreatment based on differences–real or imagined. Though not always in violent forms, racism also surfaces through individuals in positions of power who channel their evil traits via subtle, cowardly acts in the workplace.
Historically, countless courageous souls have paid the price of the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of freedom, justice, and equality for all. Although progress is evident, the current spate of hate crimes and violence has made me skeptical about races gaining any future ground to equality.
As a retired Army Veteran and former civil service employee, my personal experiences with racism and discrimination in the Army and the obvious injustices that friends and colleagues shared with me continued to solidify my cynicism. But a single encounter and bonding with a Hungarian child in a foreign country broke through my wall of skepticism and helped to restore my faith in the human race. Through the eyes of this precious child, I discovered that there is still hope.
While serving as an Equal Opportunity Advisor (EOA) for V Corps, United States Army, Europe (USAREUR) in Heidelberg, Germany, I deployed to Taszar, Hungary, in 1997 as the EOA for OPERATION Joint Endeavor. Taszar was once a Soviet airfield during the Cold War. In December 1995, it became the primary staging post for peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. My first week proved to be extremely stressful and discouraging as setting up shop was my first major task. The antiquated buildings revealed years of neglect. Faded white-wash paint did little to cover the exterior’s embedded mold and mildew. I did my best to organize my work area in a building on a former training site. My cramped office, with cracked tan tiles barely covering the cement floors, was hardly bigger than a jail cell with no windows. The gas-fueled heaters resembled a contraption from an old1950’s space movie. The storage area behind my office was previously a shower area for the Russian and Hungarian troops from the Cold War era. The exposed, calcium-laden pipes and faucets coupled with stagnant water, which had probably settled into rusty pipes beneath the shower floor, made the air reek. No amount of air freshener could crack through that stench. Signs still in the Hungarian language hung on the creaky wooden door, which had outgrown its frame. This was my office, and I had to make do.
As word spread of my presence and availability, soldiers, consisting of active duty and Reservists, contacted me for assistance via email, but most often they took the time to pay me a personal visit for counseling. I listened intently to a myriad of racial, discrimination or leadership issues, which belied the Army’s message touting equal opportunity for all. I was amazed and appalled at the number of internal EO and leadership issues, which commanders left unchecked. I wondered how the Army could conduct operations in a former war zone and preach détente to the Bosnians and Serbs when all was not well on its own home front.
My hands remained full in taking care of the soldiers and in meeting challenges head on. Digging in my trench, I wrote weekly reports to my commander, not cutting any corners or diluting my information. I conferred with officers representing the USAREUR Judge Advocate General’s and Inspector General’s Offices. I remember the joy of working side by side with those officers who possessed the highest standard of integrity and dedication to our joint missions. I set up training sessions, and traveled to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to visit and talk with military personnel who had no EO outlet. I loved my job of interacting with the soldiers, counseling them about their issues or just being an avenue for them to vent. I felt a good sense of accomplishment when I saw that the soldiers always left my office seemingly in better mental shape than they came in. Often I felt like a psychiatrist without a degree to practice. At times after listening to so many problems, I became overloaded internally, but the soldiers’ difficulties far outweighed my own concerns about me. To maintain a slight distance ahead of the considerably increasing workload, I adhered to a self-imposed schedule of arriving to my tiny office at about 0800 every morning, seven days a week. To accommodate the soldiers’ long erratic shifts, most days I worked 10 hours or more with ease. I usually headed for my barracks after my body and mind screamed ‘enough already!’
Usually when Sundays rolled around, I thought of the most peaceful place to be to alleviate my week’s worth of stress: the makeshift chapel in an office building a short distance away.
Instead of attending services, I always chose to retreat to my office. I possessed a dedication to a dangerous fault. But, one memorable Sunday would prove to be no ordinary one. Rather it would hold an unusual gift of encouragement. Just before services, friends who had sensed my somber mood earlier in the week stopped by to invite me to services. Their gentle prodding wore me down, so I tagged along with them. Even after the chaplain’s uplifting sermon, my spirits remained low. Before dismissal, the chaplain announced that he had a morale trip scheduled for that afternoon to the local orphanage in Kaposvar. The orphanage housed children of various Slavic ethnicities, but in my depressing state of mind and dismal disposition, I didn’t want to be around anyone, let alone orphaned kids. I felt I had nothing to contribute to them when I so badly needed uplifting myself. Declining the invitation, I headed back to my office for more solitude and to delve into the work that seemed to have no end.
Before their trip to the orphanage, my friends stopped again by to try to convince me to go, countering my hesitation with unwavering persistence. They promised me that it would do me some good to get away from my work for a while. Clearly outnumbered and out of excuses, I agreed to go. I loved all those guys for dragging me out of my office. Two Hungarian translators accompanied us.
The trip there took about 20 minutes. The driver parked in front of a dilapidated, two-story building surrounded by an imposing seven-foot high, black wrought iron fence. Faded, peeling pink paint hung from the aged wood strips around the entire building. Sun-bleached newspaper filled in the gaps left by several missing window panes. The only smile I could muster was brought on by the resemblance of this building to the Munsters’ creepy abode at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. I thought to myself, what could I offer these kids who had to live under these conditions?’ As the group headed toward the building’s gate, I reluctantly followed, unsure of my purpose there. A caseworker appeared at the entrance door and escorted us through the building, which cast a somber mood with its dark-brown tiled floor and maroon walls, no pastel colors anywhere in sight. She led us to another door, which opened to reveal the playground. Some playground! The area, though clean, resembled those located in abandoned stateside housing projects.
Entertainment for the kids consisted of a swing set with rusty chains, an off-center merry-go-round and a dented slide centered in a sand pit. All the equipment had seen much better days. The basketball court consisted of uneven cement squares and jagged cracks, through which weeds grew. Rusted hoops hung lopsided on the backboards as if they would fall off with a well-aimed dunk.
As if the sight of the playground was not enough to dampen my spirit, I learned that the kids spoke no English. I knew that my lack of Hungarian would put me at a communication disadvantage. Without giving me any instructions, my friends stuffed handfuls of hard candies in my field jacket pocket then headed out to certain areas of the playground to await the kids.
The sound of a creaky door caused me to turn toward the building. I noticed that a caseworker had opened a door of the orphanage. Kids of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities streamed out. Their demeanors varied. A few seemed withdrawn and kept to themselves. Others who had made friends with military personnel from previous visits ran to the familiar faces they knew. Being new, I chose to observe the activity from a distance, waiting and watching, trying to determine what I would do. From a far corner of the yard, a few kids had gathered and stared at me curiously, arousing an uncomfortable feeling, which took me back to my first day at a new school.
Sensing my apprehension, a small crowd of the kids inched closer, suspiciously eyeing me as if I were newly captured prey. I smiled but quickly took it back when none returned my opening gesture. “Now what?” While whispering to each other, a few of the children pointed at me, which indicated that I was the topic of their discussion. Since I could not understand their language, I got frustrated and wanted to leave, but could not. Not just yet. I felt that God had put me there for a reason yet unknown to me.
Looking toward the playground, I focused my attention on the soldiers at play with the other kids. After exchanging friendly hugs with the children, the soldiers handed out candy to the eager takers. From this cue, I remembered the candy in my pocket. I reached in and pulled out a handful of assorted sweets. A hush fell over my “observation group” as they eyed the colorful wrappers. Suddenly, they all bum-rushed me with their hands thrust out for their share of my sugary treats. I stood up to dole it all out, making sure each child got at least one piece. Some begged for more, but I ran out. Turning my pockets inside out, I felt the deep disappointment in their faces when I showed them that I had no more to give them.
Tired of standing, I moved over to a worn, wooden bench behind me. Not letting me escape that easily, my new little friends followed me closely, watching and waiting for me to do something else other than sit. They chatted amongst themselves again, and the language barrier increased my frustration.
Out of the group, I noticed one child in particular who was intently focused on me. He was about six or seven, with a scrawny frame, a mop of thick blonde hair and beautiful, intense gray eyes. (I found out later that his name was Janos). He wore an ill-fitting, faded-green shirt and brown pants which were much too short for his long, skinny legs. I believe that curiosity compelled this ‘self-appointed leader’ to step from the group of kids towards me. Boldly, he hopped up on the bench next to me and folded his legs into a comfortable squat. Oh, oh. He leaned in and began to scrutinize my face. I sat still, feeling that he was about to take me through some innocent childlike ritual.
The others watched intently as Janos started his evaluation process. He reached out and gently rubbed my face with the back of his hand. Withdrawing it, he checked it carefully to see if any of my color had rubbed off on his hand. It didn’t offend me, as I realized that this was only a child trying to satisfy his curiosity at our differences. Never experiencing anything like this in my life, I was immensely surprised that I was probably this child’s first encounter with a person with black skin. I remained still as he moved on to my hair, cut in a high-and-tight flat top. He reached out and patted it gently all around. After completing his test, he tilted his head and looked at me curiously, waiting for some kind of response. I turned my head towards him and smiled. He returned one–a signal that I had passed his litmus test.’ Contented with his the results,’ he hopped off the bench and grabbed my hand, leading me towards the old merry-go-round. He grabbed one of the rusty bars to start the spin. As it wobbled on its axis, he hopped on for a few trips around. He and I laughed and giggled at the noise it made.
I stood near this contraption and waited for Janos to finish his spin. He came over to me and grabbed my hand again, gripping it tighter as he began to speak to me in Hungarian. Since I could not converse with him, I resorted to the international gesture for “I don’t know”–I shrugged my shoulders. Taking this gesture to mean I was hard of hearing, he repeated his words but only louder, hoping that talking louder would make me get it and understand what he was trying to tell me. Again, I produced shrug. He looked down toward the sand, disappointed that he could not convey his feelings to me and reach me language-wise. I thought that whatever Janos expressed to me was important to him, so I called over one of the translators to help me understand what he wanted to tell me. She asked him in Hungarian to repeat what he had told me. For whatever reason, little Janos clammed up, not wanting to share with her what he reserved only for me. After several attempts to get Janos to reveal his thoughts, she apologized and left. I had no choice but to leave it at that.
Janos grabbed my hand again and led me towards the slide. He climbed the stairs and zipped down the shiny chute, landing hard in the sand at the bottom and laughing with each thud. I was afraid he would hurt himself, but I felt that he wanted to impress and entertain me. After he slid down for the umpteenth time, he ran to me and gave me a big hug. I hugged him back. I lifted him off the ground and swung him around in the air. His delightful laugher made my spirit soar. I realized that this child was expressing his acceptance, an unspoken language which I understood perfectly.
Little Janos, a young foreigner who did not speak English, showed me a sincere expression of true friendship. And that touched me beyond any words imaginable. Unfortunately, I could not explain to him in his language how much comfort and encouragement he had given to me that day.
Regrettably, it was time to leave. The other soldiers and l exchanged more hugs with the children and said our goodbyes. As we boarded the bus, I felt a cloak of sadness engulf the group of kids as they gathered at the front door to wave goodbye. Though Janos didn’t smile when I hugged him goodbye, I saw him wave, and I felt this gesture was meant only for me. I will probably never see that little ‘soldier’ again. I hope and pray that as he struggles through his situation and blossoms into manhood that he will maintain that childlike quality of fair play, a human quality, which has eluded far too many of us, regardless whatever category we find ourselves in. Clearly, that quality is to judge others by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
By now, Janos should be in his early twenties. As the strong little character I remember, I believe he has succeeded in making it on his own. I am sure of where he is or how he is doing, but I believe in my heart that he made it.