They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary;
They will walk and not grow faint.
(Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, I am repeating this very special post about my father’s experience as one of the Tuskegee Airmen.)
He never wanted to make history, he just wanted to fly. My father, Frederick L. Parker, Jr., was born June 25, 1920, the third of six children. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, but spent summer vacations with his family on the farm his parents owned in Cassopolis, Michigan. During his youth he loved nothing more than spending lazy summer afternoons, lying on his back, gazing toward the sky in the meadow near the farmhouse. Hands cupped over his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun, he watched birds flying overhead, soaring, dipping and diving for hours at a time. “What freedom!” he thought. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be as free as those birds. My father’s dream was to someday become an aviator.
When he graduated from junior college he was not yet 21, so he had to get his father’s permission to enlist in the Illinois National Guard and attend Officer’s Candidate School. He was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps. In 1943 he attended pilot training at Tuskegee Airfield in Alabama as part of an “experiment” to train African American fighter pilots. Graduates of his class of 1944 were an integral part of the infamous 332nd fighter group called the Red Tail Angels.
At that time the United States armed forces were racially segregated. The military propaganda was that African American pilots were unfit for anything but the lowest ranks of military service. A report issued by the war college in 1925 stated that Black pilots were not smart enough or disciplined enough to fly combat aircraft. The pilot training program, known as the Tuskegee Experiment, was in actuality designed to prove that the military propaganda of the day was factual.
In spite of the obstacles they faced, these men refused to accept the limitations others tried to place on them. To them, every obstacle they faced was just another door to be opened. The Red Tails flew hundreds of successful missions as bomber escorts over North Africa and Europe, eventually gaining the respect and admiration of the military brass…the same people who questioned their ability and doubted their courage.
Rather than chasing after and downing enemy aircraft for their own personal glory, these pilots had a reputation for staying with the bombers they were assigned to safeguard. As they flew through enemy territory they risked their own lives to protect the lives of others. It is a matter of record: the Red Tail Angels never lost a single bomber assigned to them. Once they appeared as escorts, the bomber pilots and crews knew without a doubt that they would be protected from enemy fire.
The Tuskegee Airmen fought a war on two fronts. They helped to destroy Adolph Hitler’s regime, defeating Nazi tyranny. At the same time they helped end racial segregation in the armed services. These men wanted both the freedom to fly, and the freedom to fight for their country. In the process, they helped to end oppression abroad as well as at home. They weren’t trying to make history; they were trying to make a difference. By remaining true to their hearts and to their calling, they changed the world.
As far as I know my father never once stepped onto a yoga mat. Yet it is through his example that I learned what living yoga off the yoga mat really means. It’s about attitudes and actions that keep you focused, calm, and non-reactive in the face of life’s challenges. It’s about doing what’s right, not what’s easy. He did this throughout his military career by valiantly fighting, at his own peril, for freedoms that were not always granted to him, because it was the right thing to do. He demonstrated courage by standing up for and insisting on equal treatment for all, even in the face of overwhelming opposition. He proved that obstacles are overcome by committing to relentlessly following your purpose, no matter who or what opposes you. He demonstrated that living life heroically means living life authentically and facing your fears head on, everyday, with an open heart.
Here’s how you can become a hero in your own life and change the world.
• To live life fully we are called to live a life of service to others. Ask yourself each day upon awakening, what difference you want to make in someone else’s life. It doesn’t have to be a monumental difference. It could be something as simple as offering a listening ear to a friend in need, making a phone call to someone you’ve been thinking about, or running an errand for a neighbor.
• Rather than focusing on what you may be getting out of a relationship, or a situation, shift your focus to what you have to give and offer that. Do this without the expectation of a return.
• Do not let limitations or barriers keep you from pursuing your dreams. No achievement comes without obstacles. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and continue moving toward your goal. Remember no effort you make goes unrewarded. Keep looking for a job if you’re unemployed. Keep applying to schools until you’re admitted. Finish what you start. Don’t give up.
• When you know someone has been wronged, or treated unfairly, instead of looking the other way, for fear of others’ disapproval, stand up for what you know is right.
Most of us will never be called upon to put our lives on the line for a person, a cause, or a purpose, but we are called on to live our lives authentically. Only you and you alone can know what that means, but whatever it means, find the courage to be true to it and you will be living life heroically.