12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maybe We Are Maturing

I remember going into the Army in 1963. It was a different time then, in the early 60's, a tumultuous time really. President John F. Kennedy was killed while I was in artillery training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.

In my early basic and advanced individual training I remember some of the young men from the south having a hard time living with, sleeping next to, and interacting with other young men who were not white. You see, unlike those southern men, the Army had been integrated for quite some time.

In that environment, as a white man mixing with other white men, it was not uncommon to hear the N word.

I was assigned to Germany and went there, by boat, in early 1964. After I unpacked my bags and had settled into my permanent assignment for a while I was free, on occasion, to explore what I found to be a beautiful, sometimes exotic, country that lay just beyond the barracks gate.

The office I worked in included a white junior officer, a sports reporter who was a white three-stripe sergeant, a photographer who was a black PFC and me, a white PFC who wrote the main news releases. Later on the sergeant was reassigned and he was replaced by another black PFC who came in as a photographer which allowed the other fellow to move into the sports reporter slot.

I was just fine with the racial makeup of our department. After all, I had grown up in the housing projects on the west side of Fresno, California and was, and still am for that matter, a social progressive/liberal. Since all three of us were low ranking enlisted men we tended to hang out together on occasion and once in a while we went out into Nuremberg as a stag threesome.

In the course of consuming a few beers (well, ok, maybe more than just a few) I learned that the two black soldiers were remarkably more comfortable out and about in Germany than they were even among fellow Americans back on base. German society which goes back thousands of years, they reasoned, had many more years to mature with regard to racial issues than the relatively young American people who collectively, at that point, were a little under two hundred years old.

If they were in a gasthaus talking and sometimes flirting with the bar maids it was no big deal to the local people. "See? People don't stare at us," they told me.

I have been thinking about those two men a lot this past week. Maybe Americans, as a society, are beginning to mature.