The Summer That I Became A Republican

Republican Party logo

One of my granddaughters had once asked me why I was a Republican. I answered her easily and quickly. This is that story.

* * * *

I was born and raised in Anaheim, California.  When I was very little it was still an agricultural town.  There were less than a dozen kids in my first grade class.  However, after Disneyland the town became a large city in huge Orange County.  There were almost 900 kids in my high school graduating class.

I didn’t know what to do after high school.  So at my mother’s urging, I enrolled at nearby Fullerton Junior College – a fifteen-minute drive to the next town.  I registered as an “undeclared” major and took a broad collection of classes which were guaranteed transferable to any of the nearby four-year colleges regardless of my final major.

But during that first college year I did make one long-term big decision that changed my world view forever.  I enlisted in a United States Marine Corps officer candidate program called the Platoon Leaders Class.  The training would not interfere with college since it all would take place during summer months at Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, VA.

These were pre-Vietnam years and our military was held in high regard by everyone I knew.  My girlfriend had bragged to her friends about my being a Marine, and the varsity wrestling coach told me, “Yep.  That suits you.”  I had also really never been anywhere.  My father referred to my trip to Virginia as going “back-east.”

As my freshman year ended I received my official active duty orders and the first airline tickets I had ever seen.  My mother and father, who also had never been on a plane were especially impressed.

After the third week of training the Marine Corps gave us our first liberty.  We could leave the base immediately after the Friday morning inspection and not return until 1800 hours Sunday evening.  Five of us from my platoon were now special friends and had agreed we’d share some costs and travel together to Washington, DC on the earliest available train.

After a 22-mile bus ride from Camp Upshur we arrived at the historic Quantico train station (built in 1872) in the unincorporated little town of Quantico, Virginia.  We purchased round trip tickets to Union Station in Washington and had been sitting in the station waiting room about ten minutes when the uniformed station master entered the waiting room.

The station master walked over and told the five of us while he nodded at Eddie, the only African-American in our group, “Boys, your friend can’t stay in here.” Before we could say anything, Eddie shrugged, picked up his overnight bag and went outside without saying anything to the rest of us.  Two of us followed him outside, but Leo and I confronted the station employee.  Our conversation was short and went as follows (I paraphrase):

ME: “What’s this all about.”

HIM: (Pointing at a small “White’s Only” sign) “Can’t you see it’s posted?”

LEO: “But he bought a ticket.”

ME: “And he’s a Marine.”

HIM: (Acted irritated) “That doesn’t matter.  It’s posted.  It’s the law.”

LEO: “Who’s stupid law?”

HIM: “The city’s law.  And Prince William county’s law.  And the State of Virginia’s law.

ME: “Can’t you make an exception?”

HIM: (As he walked back into the ticket office) “No, I cannot.” I am ordered to enforce it here.”

Eddie took the bus back to camp Upshur that day and didn’t go to Washington with us.

That wasn’t the last time that I saw “whites only” signs that summer.  However, I didn’t see them in Washington.  President Eisenhower (a Republican) had pledged during his first State of the Union address in 1953 to end public facility and school segregation in the nation’s capital, and did so.  The rest of the country wouldn’t match Ike’s achievement for a few more years, and at the time every level of government in Virginia had a Democrat majority.

When I returned home I was asked a lots of questions by my friends and family about my experiences.  I told everyone two things. The first was about the pride I personally felt by having become a Marine.  The second was about the shame I felt toward my country’s Democrat party and why when I became old enough to vote I would never vote for the Democrat party to control anything in my country.

I have not changed either of these two decisions.

Jim Van Houten