The United States Army spent thousands of dollars training Tiger's dad, Earl Woods, and other African-American servicemen and women to survive the war in Vietnam. All of those fine young men and women who risked their lives in the service of their Country can be proud that Earl, the veteran who gave us 'The Tiger', was not a casualty of that divisive and destructive expense of American lives overseas and at home (Kent State), and widespread domestic dissension.
Earl served with honor and distinction in Vietnam as a Green Beret, as did thousands of other black kids from across America who temporarily placed the Civil Rights Movement and other social concerns behind them during their military service in a desperate land they hoped to make as wonderfully free and democratic as their own. In reality, we African-Americans have never truly enjoyed the full length and breadth of American freedom others, by virtue of a different skin color... or lack of it... take for granted.
I happened to be in training for Vietnam at the United States Army's massive Southeastern Signal School (USASESS) at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, just outside Augusta in 1969 during the Masters Tournament that year. In 1969 African-Americans were still not permitted to play in the Masters -- it would be six years later in 1975 -- the same year the Vietnam War ended, and the same year The Tiger was born -- that a black man, Lee Elder, would be permitted to be the first. In fact, in 1969 black soldiers were not even permitted to attend the prestigious tournament. When we attempted to enter the National Club we were informed that "because we were in uniform (few of us had civilian clothes) we could not enter"... despite white G.I.'s in uniform who could be seen leisurely walking the grounds inside the Club. Black soldiers in civilian clothes, easily identifiable by their characteristic, 'authorized' haircut, were also not permitted because they couldn't pass a 'personality test' at the gate. (The 'personality' and dress code 'test' was popular at privately owned parks in those days... used commonly at places such as Disneyland in Southern California. Most, if not all, 'tests' have since been discontinued for being what they were, efforts to exclude certain individuals or groups.)
To get to the Nationals by taxicab, (buses were nearly impossible to schedule for GI's on temporary Pass), the cost was an exorbitant $21, a lot of money for a G.I. who earned less than $90 per month. The cab drivers who ferried groups of black GI's to the Club practiced a 'tag team' routine. This is the way it worked: One driver would accept us as passengers to the Club, knowing full well that we would not be permitted to enter. After arriving at the Club he would quickly drive off. Another driver waiting outside the Club took our money taking us back to Ft. Gordon, all the while 'apologizing' for his union brother who callously ripped us off. Of course, when we arrived back at the Fort these same apologetic drivers would carry another load of blacks to the Club... only to be carried back to the Fort by driver who carried us there... himself apologizing' all the way.
During the Tournament several black soldiers angered by the rip-off, and frustrated that neither the Base Commander or Provost Marshall took no action to stop the defrauding and racist practice, decided to take matters into their own hands... they fatally stabbed a driver and took from his pocket the exact amount of money they were charged. The soldiers involved were, of course, apprehended and jailed. The National's committee responded characteristically, "See, we told you so. This terrible incident only proves why we can't let them (African-Americans) in." The Base Commander and Provost Marshall decreed they would not permit similar rip-offs to occur the following year... but exactly one year later, while I was in Vietnam, I learned from newly arriving USASESS graduates/replacements that the same rip-off continued... and resulted in another cab driver's murder. Naturally, black Americans were thankful in 1991 when President-elect Bill Clinton declined to enter a whites-only golf park when he learned that blacks were admitted only as caddies.
The day after Eldrick "Tiger" Woods became the first American of African heritage to win the Masters I had a conversation with a white Vietnam veteran. He wished it emphasized that Tiger, now a national hero, belonged more to white America than to black America because "Tiger was not really an African-American, but more Thai... or something else. Keep in mind," he said, "Tiger's dad isn't even full black."
My friend's obvious desire to minimize the content of Tiger's African-American blood fell on unsupporting ears, particularly when balancing it with American history on the subject. During and following the Civil War the South considered any person possessing an infinitesimal amount of African blood to 'legally' be a "nigger". During the weeks following Pearl Harbor any American possessing even the slightest amount of Japanese blood who lived on the West Coast, in the South West or in South America was considered "a Jap"... and therefore subject to forced, barb-wired internment. Even today, Native American blood content is precisely measured by some school officials when determining academic entry-candidates of 'Indian origin' who qualify for tuition-free college enrollment. My thought: Why not make higher education free for all American citizens?
Measuring the content of one's character instead of one's color still has not fulfilled Martin Luther King's dream of an America where skin color no longer enters not just conversation but thought.
Tiger's father, Earl, like all American's of African descent have truly, I feel, benefitted by our military. Honest and sincere efforts are being made in the military and in major veterans organizations to allow its soldiers and veterans of color to participate and rise equally among whites. Despite some individuals serving in uniform and in our veterans organizations and groups who continue to hold firm that skin color determines the content of a persons character, potential and deed, the fact that blacks were/are trusted in the military with duties and materiel valued at millions of dollars and thousands of lives still needs to be translated to the civilian, corporate, and organization world.
When I challenged my friend who quantified the content of Tiger's African blood as being, to some degree, racist, he defensively reacted by suggesting that all Americans, including me, was... to some degree... racist. I quickly disagreed, providing him two reasons why I was not and could not be racist. One, I explained, "some of my ancestors were white. For me to hold any anger or prejudice toward a person whose skin was white would be to hold myself in less than God's creation of full human content." Second, man-to-man, I informed him that a simple five letter word logically and incontradictably prevents me from finding another person of different color less than fully human. Expecting a censurable definition of that five-letter word, I hastened, "No, we're supposed to be academics. Let's use the word 'women'".
Surviving the Vietnam War, for me, evolved two other acknowledgments/realizations. One, those who survived the war did so for a reason. And two, those who chose or refused to participate in Vietnam should not be condemned. Earl Woods is an example of one whose survival of the war has proven essential... the phenomenal success of his son provides all Americans reason for exhilaration and discussion. William Jefferson Clinton is, for me, an example of one whose carefully thought-out decision not to participate provides Vietnam veterans the opportunity to elect America's first Vietnam veteran president, Albert Gore.
Whether or not all vets agree with Bill Clinton or Al Gore's personal/political philosophy's, when I balance how we Vietnam vets were received after serving our country along with the prospect in the 1970's that one of us would or could rise to the second highest office in America, I rank potential and accomplishment above philosophy... which to date has never in the office of any American President seriously placed our Nation in any real peril of invasion. Despite the near-hysterical 'national security' fears projected by Clinton opponents during the 1992 campaign the United States remains the strongest, most secure nation on Earth... those of us who served in combat simply would not have it any other way regardless who occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To those vets like my friend mentioned above, whose intellect I continue to respect, feel the urge to quantify the content of a man's blood rather than the content of his character, I recommend a wartime film that still today speaks eloquent volumes on historical blood-cell counting racism in America: "Band of Angels"... (Clark Gable, Sidney Portier, Yvonne De Carlo).
The Augusta National Tournament of 1969 that refused to admit black soldiers soon to be departing for Vietnam has come full circle. The son of a black Vietnam vet has fulfilled the spirit of our Constitution's greatest premise... that all men and women are equal.