His name is Richard, but we called him Chief. No, he was not a member of the police force nor was he a local Native American Tribal elder. He was, and is, a Chief Warrant Officer Four (CW4) in the Army, or “Chief” in the slang terminology of the military.
We ran our section together and, with no exaggeration, worked every single day of our deployment in Afghanistan. We were the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night and whoever made it to work first was obliged to give the other a hard time for being late. I did not know Chief prior to our deployment, but knew him very well by the time we were on our way home. You get to know someone when you work with them every day.
To say that we are opposites would be somewhat of an understatement. He lives in Washington, D.C., I live in small town South Carolina; he is single (and very successful at this if you ask him), I am married; he is an avid and sophisticated tea drinker, I cannot function without the caffeine-laced cup of Java in the morning; he loves his Redskins, I love the Cowboys; he is black, I am white.
Over the course of the year, we had discussions too numerous to count. Most of our conversations revolved around our families, our careers, plans for the future, sports, cigars, beer, liquor, women… OK, I’ll stop there. Many, many times, our discussions would also turn to race. We did not discuss race as a subject per se; we talked about race more so in the context of our everyday lives and in the context of our country at large. We rarely bypassed any related topic and nothing was taboo. In this arena, we were somewhat spoiled. We were able to ask each other questions which would, I am sure, seem out of line anywhere other than 8,000 miles away from home.
Chief loved to push boundaries. One of his favorite pastimes was testing the racial sensibilities of many an unsuspecting soldier. We often had visitors who would stop by looking for someone in our compound. Chief’s initial response, in these instances, would be to ask “What does he look like?” At this point my head would start rocking back and forth, knowing from experience what was coming next. Since we were all dressed alike, the poor soul, black or white, was almost forced to start with skin color just to negate a substantial fraction of the population. If the answer was “He is white,” this somewhat threw a wrench into Chief’s plans. If the answer was “Chief, he is African American,” his eyes would light up. He would generally respond in a gruff manner with something along the lines of “What do you mean he is African American? He is a black man is he not!?” If the answer was “He is a black guy, Chief,” Chief would inevitably reply with “Why do you call him black? He is an African American, for God’s sake!” The nervous stuttering would last for an uncomfortable amount of time and Chief would get a fabulous chuckle. Make no mistake; Chief was not a mean or spiteful person. To the contrary, as hard as he tried to keep up his grumpy, stoic façade, everyone loved him. He simply knew people. He knew also that sometimes, you needed to add a dash of humor even to the most sensitive of subjects in order to keep things “real.” His boots never touched an eggshell.
When it was time for us to head back to the states, I remember asking each other: “Do you think we will be able to have these conversations when we get home?” Sadly, we agreed that, no, we will probably not. Things still take time. Sometimes when you push the envelope, it pushes back. I am encouraged, though. As different as we all are, we are more so similar.
In the end, we were able to have these conversations, I believe, because we began our relationship on a foundation of mutual respect. We did not agree on everything. In fact, we did not agree on much. We understood each other, however, and became friends not in spite of our differences, but because we discovered that, really, we had very few differences which mattered. These principles transcend race, of course. These are the hallmarks of any good relationship, working or otherwise. Maybe that is the underlying lesson. Maybe the differences we can see, sometimes keep us from realizing, from enjoying, from building on the similarities which we cannot see.