A Soldier's Life
He wanted to be a paratrooper. He was a good soldier, and a tough but respected drill sergeant, but he dreamed of jumping out of planes. He submitted his application as soon as they announced that Black soldiers would be considered for those positions.
William C Bryant, Sr. ca. 1944
Although the rules had changed, attitudes about Black soldiers had not. The white doctor who examined him was brusque, almost rude. It was clear that this doctor didn't think much of the idea of Black paratroopers. After the x-rays, the doctor denied his request, saying there was an unformed bone in his neck.
He had never heard of such a thing. It sounded ridiculous, like one more made-up obstacle to constrain him. He left the exam room convinced there was no unformed bone, only fully formed racism.
Leading his men through the Italian forest a few weeks later, he received word of a problem at the end of the line. He directed his men to keep moving and jogged back to resolve it. When he reached the rear, an explosion blew up the front, where he had been moments before.
He received a Bronze Star for successfully carrying a message through heavy fire to another camp. The message: We're Americans, too. Stop firing on us.
After the war, he went home to his wife and infant son. Graduated from college. Built a good life. Saw his son marry. Became a grandfather. Felt the insistent pains of an aging, aching back.
After the x-rays, the young doctor asked him, "Did you know that you have an unformed bone in your neck?"
Surprised, he answered, "I've heard that somewhere." Then, remembering the Army doctor, "What would happen if I had to do something like parachute out of a plane?"
"You would snap your neck and die before you hit the ground," the doctor told him. "Why do you ask?"
He shrugged. "Just wondering," he answered, grateful for the life that that long ago doctor had given him.