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Lessons from the 'A-Train' - Joel Hall

Col. Charles W. Dryden, one of the most celebrated and decorated of the original Tuskegee Airmen, died last Tuesday at the age of 87.

Known as the "A-Train," a man who learned how to fly before he could drive, played a significant role in changing the outcome of World War II, as well as the level of racial tolerance exhibited by this nation's Armed Forces.

I did not know Col. Dryden as well as some. However, I have been blessed by being able to meet him, not once, but on two separate occasions.

The first time I met him was in May of last year, while reporting on his visit to the National Archives in Morrow. Even though I was there in an official capacity, Dryden treated everyone in the audience as his friend.

During his speech, he cracked a joke that "any day above ground is a good day." Even though Dryden had played a key role in helping integrate the military, he didn't take himself too seriously.

Long after the crowd had gone, I stood at the back of the line of people who had come to see him and get an autographed copy of his book, "A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman." When I received my autographed copy, I was as happy as any other fan.

The event was held on a Saturday, and not having much to do that afternoon, I decided to stay and take advantage of the last day of a photography exhibit on display in the next room. The exhibit depicted iconic scenes of workers during the Great Depression.

As most people had left the building, I thought that I was alone. However, I was soon joined in my indulgence by Col. Dryden and his wife, Marymal. We spent about 45 minutes viewing all of the pictures together.

During that time, Dryden and his wife shared words of wisdom with me and told me that they were glad to see a young, African-American male making a difference in the world. Those words meant a lot me, coming from a man whom I can never repay for his sacrifices.

Dryden told me that even in his eighties, the fact that some white soldiers treated German prisoners better than black soldiers in their own outfit, still saddened him. Knowing what he had survived, the fact he believed I was deserving enough of those compliments, was very encouraging.

The last time I saw Col. Dryden was last Christmas. Purely by chance, I was given a last-minute ticket to the Holiday Jazz Vespers Concert, hosted every year by Dwight Andrews, one of my former music professors and the senior pastor of First Congregational Church on Courtland Street in Atlanta.

Throughout my time at Emory University, Andrews invited his students to come to the vespers service, but I had neither the money nor the conveyance to take me there. This time, I was able to get a ticket from one of my friends, who sings in the Atlanta Jazz Chorus.

Given last-minute notice, however, I was shabbily dressed for the star-studded event, which had Charles S. Dutton as its emcee, and featured notable jazz vocalists like Kathleen Bertrand and Rose Bilal.

I was definitely not dressed to impress. In the lobby of the Rialto Center for the Arts, I stuck out among Atlanta's well-dressed, black elite. It was in the lobby that I ran into Col. Dryden and his wife, once again.

Dryden's hearing wasn't as good this time, but I re-introduced myself to the couple. His wife was in a flowing evening gown and he was in a suit. Despite the fact I was out of place, Dryden still had kind words of wisdom to impart to the younger generation.

The "A-train" has left the station, and that train will surely be missed.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.