It was a bright, sunny day in North Carolina in the year 1963. We were members of the Army 82nd Airborne on burial detail from Ft. Bragg rumbling down a country highway to a nondescript town. The Vietnam War was just beginning, a fact we were acutely aware. Our unit was to be sent there a mere two years later, my other sergeant to be killed a short time after that fate.
Every veteran is entitled to a military burial along with a 21 gun salute at their funeral and this was our mission. (A 21 gun salute means twenty one fires, not literally 21 guns. The custom originates in naval tradition, where a warship would fire its cannons harmlessly out to sea to show that it was disarmed, signifying the lack of hostile intent. So, a 21 gun salute really means 21 volleys, not 21 guns).
In charge was Sergeant Sims, a slightly rotund NCO with a kindly black face. We all respected him for reasons that defy words; we just did. We had all done this before, so we knew the drill. Our Army van gently pulled up to the assemblage. The service was for a black veteran.
Our duty done, we piled back in the van for a rare treat; lunch on the Army. When we are in the civilian world doing our duty, we get our meal at a restaurant at government expense before making the long drive back to Ft. Bragg.
We wheeled up to a coffee shop near the center of this small, southern town and filed in proudly in our dress uniforms, seating ourselves in the wood booths. A white man immediately came around the soda counter and waved us off with a skinny arm; shirt sleeves rolled up to his shoulder. (I always wondered why men with skinny arms rolled their sleeves up so). This middle-aged white man ‘shewed' us out and it was clear he meant now! You see this was a segregated restaurant and half of our military detail was black. Chagrined, we left for more friendly surroundings, a tight-lipped Sergeant Sims in our lead.