“With courage and determination, you can overcome adversity.” Motto of the Tuskegee Airmen”
Jeff Manes wrote a SALT column about 67 year-old retired pilot Ken Rapier, a member of the Dodo chapter of Tuskegee Airmen (named after the dodo bird that became extinct because it lost its ability to fly). Rapier explained: “After World War II, even though all the Tuskegee Airmen had proved themselves to be superior pilots, none of them were given the opportunity to use their skills in the field of commercial aviation.” The goal of the chapter was to ensure that the Tuskegee Airmen would not go the way of the dodo bird.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commanded the Tuskegee Airmen. Rapier told Manes:
He finished at the top of his class at West Point. During the entire four years at the Academy, Davis was shunned by his classmates by giving him the “silent treatment.” He never had a roommate. He ate alone. Davis would go on to receive the Silver Star for a strafing run in Austria and the Distinguished Flying Cross for a bomber escort to Munich on June 9, 1944 [three days after D-Day].
Quentin Smith in 2012; NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins
Manes accompanied Rapier to Onarga Academy, a school in Illinois for troubled teenage boys. Rapier made a presentation to an attentive group and showed a short documentary entitled, “Who Says Black Men Can’t Fly?” The late Gary, Indiana, hero Quentin Smith was quoted in the film as asserting that German POWs were treated better than Tuskegee Airmen. Rapier explained: “There were times when the Tuskegee Airmen had to get off the train and re-board onto the coal cars while the German prisoners were placed in the nice cars.”
I edited a fascinating journal by former marine Edwin Bowers, a student in Steve McShane’s Indiana History course. Here is an excerpt:
Introduction: I graduated in 1981 from Hammond Morton, the year the steel industry died. Work was scarce for everyone. I recall the excitement of vandalizing a factory in East Chicago and seeing drug addicts in City Hall Park on Indianapolis Blvd while I played on the tank there. I remember living in a trailer park in Black Oak and listening to the coonhounds howl. As I got older after moving back from California, I recall endless hours of baseball at Wedgewood Field in Hessville and walking to Woodmar Mall that isn’t there anymore. It was the hub of teenage social activity for Hessville and Woodmar teenagers because the rumor was Gavit High School girls were easier. I recall cruising and drinking while driving to Blue Top Drive-In, street racing and blowing the motor in my Camaro. I had some good times in “Da Region.” After being away from the area for over 20 years, the first thing I did was drive past Morton High School. It was surrounded by 6-foot chain link fence and looked more like a correctional facility than a center for education. That is my perception of “Da Region.” After 27 years of marriage I dig the being single, having a girlfriend thing. I do miss the ex wife’s $110,000 income, but on the other hand I rarely have indigestion or heartburn anymore and that ain’t no joke!
18 March: This is the day 12 years ago that we moved to the assembly areas for the invasion of Iraq. An assembly area is the last position that you move to before an attack. It is typically far enough back that the enemy cannot observe you. For those that have not experienced war, it is a unique life defining experience.
19-March: It is the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. We suffered our first casualty about three hours into the incursion. I do not particularly find this day to be momentous; it is just a day like any other. However, I do feel melancholy during this time; I am never quite sure if it is the never-ending Northwest Indiana winter or just lingering emotion from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
21 March: We had a drill meet at Fort Wayne Concordia, so I spent the day with 30 high school kids, watching them perform and actually take pride in what they are doing. Watching the commitment to be at the school at 3:15 am so we can get on the bus. We went to Golden Corral after the Drill meet; teenagers and all you can eat buffets are a unique experience, like locusts on a fresh wheat field. The sad part is that for many this will be the only good meal they have for the next week. The high school I work in is at about a 55% poverty rate; that means that 55% of the children receive free and reduced lunches. That number is a bit skewed because the juniors and seniors do not always apply for it, so the number may be several percentage points higher. One of the middle schools is well over 60%.
cycle of Edwin Bowers
23 March: Am excited, heading to Arkansas in the morning on my motorcycle. The open road, gravel back ways and no people, just me and my bro. 21 years in the Marine Corps, multiple tours to every third world shithole, and the motorcycle is my calm, the open sky.
31 March: Holy glorious day of sun and warmth! The high today was over 70. I went to my Aunt’s house in Calumet Township, Gary. How much those areas have changed since I was a kid in the 60’s and 70’s is almost unfathomable. White flight, lack of employment opportunity, crime or just wanting to be away from the worse of the pollution: who knows which contributed the most to the change. Merrillville was where the rich people lived; now it is a place where you lock your doors when you drive through it, just ask Visclosky [held up in December 2007 while putting groceries into his car]. I worry about my Aunt; she is 87 years old and lives by herself. I cleaned her gutters out, inspected her roof, and picked up the yard. Just trying to be a good person, I have done things to atone for, the baggage of a misspent youth.
I recall Woodmar Mall in Hammond and, given its splendor, would not have imagined that it would in time become obsolete. It opened in 1957 and was demolished in 2006. Once I went to a daytime showing of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and had trouble locating my car afterwards. The parking lot had been mostly empty when I arrived and quite full by the time the movie ended.
above, John Seneczko; below, grandson Ryan
According to Ryan Seneczko’s journal, his mother’s side of the family, named Beier, were farmers in Lowell for several generations, growing corn and soybeans. Ryan’s paternal grandmother’s family fled Poland prior to the Nazi invasion. His paternal grandfather’s family came from the Ukraine. He knew grandfather John Seneczko as a quiet man who was in the service during the Korean War. He was an instructor for new recruits and told Ryan only that he lost nearly half his friends in that conflict. Beyond that he grew silent. According to a 2012 obituary John was an accountant, an avid gardener, and a loyal White Sox fan. Ryan was in first grade at St. Mary’s in Crown Point at the time of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Following are excerpts from his journal:
March 9: When we entered Mrs. K’s classroom, she was glued to her TV screen. When everyone started glancing at it, Mrs. K shut it off. All I remember from that brief look was smoke coming from the top of a massive skyscraper. I didn’t know what happened until I got home and saw my mother, aunt, and oldest sister staring blankly at what appeared to be the same thing. Three years later, I had transferred to Solon Robinson School, and we had a debate about the election. Almost everyone raised their hands when asked, “Who wants George Bush to win?” Only one brave girl voted for John Kerry. The outcry showed the nationalist pride most students had for their country. By the time I was in high school, the war was so unpopular that the subject hardly came up.
March 12: In 2005 I was with my dad driving down Main Street and noticed people lined up as if expecting a parade. My dad told me it was to honor an American hero, Nicholas Idalski, who had died in combat. We waited with the crowd for about an hour, and the gloomy sky became even darker, as if the heavens were weeping for Idalski’s family. Following the hearse came a small bus open on both sides to make the family visible. The mother kept her cool although it was obvious that she had recently been sobbing. The father used his right hand to cover his eyes as if he were ashamed to cry in public for his fallen son. The image is still vivid to me and made me determined to serve in the military – something that stayed with me until high school.
March 18: We still don’t have all our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are on the war path in the Middle East again. Most people I’ve talked to don’t want to go though this again but feel we have no choice. Hoosiers have always been pretty nationalistic, and now that spring is upon us, I see more houses than ever with flags flying. On a side note, a local kid was struck by a freight train walking home from school. He was apparently wearing headphones and didn’t hear the train coming.
March 24: There is a lot of talk about who will run for president in 2016. My mom and aunt say that Hillary will be hard to beat. The last thing we need is another George W. Bush running around in the White House getting us involved in pointless conflicts.
March 30: I signed a petition to have the “religious freedom” bill that allows businesses to discriminate against gays repealed or reformed but detest how everyone is calling Indiana behind the times. That may be true in Southern Indiana but not here in the Region. The only bright spot is that this controversy will hopefully deter Governor Pence from running for president and have someone else voted into office as governor in 2016.
Steve Walsh at Lakeshore radio emailed: “Know anyone who might know something about a plaque honoring the USS Maine in East Chicago's Veterans park? The Navy sent out a lot of these plaques made from the wreckage around 1913. I went out to the site today. It's right next to city hall. It was placed by Admiral Schley Camp No. 70, of the United Spanish War Veterans. ‘Camp’ was that organization's term for Post, like VFW Post. This is one of the plaques created by sculptor Charles Keck - the same one they have at the memorial in Central Park in NYC. I need to find someone with a connection to the plaque to tell me how it got to East Chicago. I wonder why there was a local post for the United Spanish War Veterans in East Chicago? The city didn't have much of a population at the time of that war.” I suggested to Walsh that he look up the United Spanish War Veterans in the 1913 East Chicago City Directory. While not many people lived in East Chicago in 1898, by 1913 Inland Steel Company was employing many people, including, no doubt, some Spanish American War veterans.
Chuck Gallmeier confirmed what I first learned from Hollis Donald – that DeeDee Ige (above) is retiring. A strong, caring Communication professor who mentored countless students and young faculty, she had a unique, Sinatra-like voice with perfect diction. John Hmurovic had her to narrate his History of Gary documentary, along with Tom Higgins. When I attended a fortieth birthday party for IUN grad Lynette Jones, I was not surprised that DeeDee had been invited as well. Not long ago she told me that, like me, she hoped to play a role on campus after she retired. She danced with me when I retired. I had brought Dave’s band Voodoo Chili on campus to play a set the afternoon of the ceremony. Robin Hass Birky took a picture of us bogeying and sent it to DeeDee with a nice inscription about keeping joy in your life. DeeDee showed it to me at Robin’s funeral right before Kwesi Agrrey sang a Ghanaian chant in Robin’s honor. It is a moment I’ll never forget.