My dad was always fascinated by how and why things worked, but at the end of the day, he was most concerned with character. He believed that most of life was an object lesson, and he always found ways to pass those lessons on to his kids.
One day I was complaining to him about the unfairness of life. I forget the situation, but I know he agreed that I had been wronged. His response has stayed with me for many years, even though it took me a while to completely figure it out.
“When I was in the service,” he said, “they didn’t want to teach us how to fly planes, so we taught ourselves to fly.” We. Blacks. African Americans. He was teaching me how to respond well to outside influences.
The Tuskegee Experiment
Tuskegee is located about forty miles east of Montgomery, in the heart of Alabama. Founded by General Thomas Simpson Woodward in 1833, the town was allegedly named for a nearby Native American tribe, the Taskigis. Through the years, it has been best known for Tuskegee University, which dates back to 1881, and the school’s first president, Booker T. Washington.
In 1940, the United States Army Air Corps selected Tuskegee as the training ground for its fledgling program to train black pilots, who up to that point had been barred from flying in the military. This was the Tuskegee Experiment. Until 1946, when blacks were fully integrated into military training. Tuskegee trained roughly a thousand pilots, none of whom were shot down during World War II bombing runs in Europe. Tuskegee also trained all the support personnel that kept those planes operational throughout the war.
My father was part of the Tuskegee Experiment.
I never knew this until my dad’s funeral service in 2004, when someone shared the story during one of the eulogies. Why hadn’t he told me about Tuskegee? Maybe it’s because he believed the greater point was the lesson. What’s important is not the accolades and memories of success but the way you respond when opportunities are denied.
Because I was just a kid, I didn’t think to ask for more details when he said, “We taught ourselves to fly.” It sounded easy. The lesson, which I did not understand clearly until much later, was that you shouldn’t allow external issues to be a hindrance, whether those issues are based on race or any other factor. Things will go wrong at times. You can’t always control circumstances. However, you can always control your attitude, approach, and response. Your options are to complain or to look ahead and figure out how to make the situation better. I use what I learned from that lesson daily. On my game days I would use it almost minute by minute.