Metro

KEVIN CULLEN

Vietnam, in Black and White

Roger Harris in 1998, when he was principal of the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Roger Harris in 1998, when he was principal of the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.

As one of the veterans featured in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic documentary, “The Vietnam War,” Roger Harris is about to become famous.

He shrugs at this. He’s just a guy from Roxbury who spent a lot of time outrunning bigotry and death.

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As a light-skinned African-American, he grew up getting whacked on all sides. Black kids called him half-breed and jumped him. White kids called him the n-word and jumped him. He learned to fight and excelled in football.

With the draft on, he wasn’t going to leave it to chance.

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“I wanted to go with the tough guys,” he said. “I joined the Marine Corps.”

He wasn’t afraid of going to war.

Roger Harris

Filmmakers Ken Burns (left) and Lynn Novick (right), Jack Joyce (second from left), and Roger Harris.

“I drank the Kool-Aid: ‘If you don’t stop communism over there, the next thing you know it’s in California.’ I was willing to die. I thought it was a win-win. If I died, my mother would get the $10,000 insurance policy and buy a new house. If I lived, I’d have the respect, get a good job.”

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He volunteered for combat, a gung-ho member of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division. But something changed by the time he got to Nam. His high school sweetheart gave birth to his daughter, and his old football buddy Freddie Summers became quarterback at Wake Forest.

Freddie wrote him a letter and sitting there in the jungle, Roger Harris wasn’t so sanguine about dying in battle.

“I wanted to go home and see my baby girl and play college football,” he said.

That seemed a long shot, as his unit was getting slaughtered. In firefights, several guys right next to him got torn to shreds by shrapnel that somehow missed him.

He called his mother, telling her, “You’ll never see me again. I’m going to die.”

“God has a plan for you,” his mother replied, and he didn’t believe her because all moms say that.

He had the words “Boston” and “Roxbury” on his helmet and one day another Marine started talking to him in an unmistakable accent. His name was Jack Joyce and he was from South Boston. The white Marine from Southie and the black Marine from Roxbury became fast friends.

“With all the racial turmoil back home, the enemy made no distinction between me and Jack. They wanted to kill us both,” Harris said.

Joyce made it through his tour and got home, and Harris was counting the days until he could follow.

The chopper that would take him out of Dong Ha came under intense fire. He threw body bags carrying the remains of fellow Marines onto the chopper and jumped in. He thought Death was following him. He was convinced of it after the base in previously calm Da Nang was shelled as he arrived there. The Tet Offensive chased him all the way out of Vietnam.

After a long trip home, he was standing at the curb at Logan Airport in his uniform, medals and ribbons on his chest, waiting for a taxi back home to Roxbury. Six taxis drove right past him. A state trooper realized what was going on and jumped in front of the next taxi, ordering the driver to take Harris.

Harris was gutted. His sacrifice, those medals, those ribbons, had changed nothing.

He went to college, played some football, and became a teacher. The desegregation of Boston’s public schools was greeted with violence and Harris was right in the mix. He had just started teaching at Hyde Park High School, where students were being bused in, when a riot broke out on the front steps.

As he, other teachers, and police officers tried to break up the fights, Harris bumped into a cop. It was Jack Joyce. They hadn’t seen each other since Vietnam.

As the punches flew around them, Roger Harris and Jack Joyce did what brothers do when they haven’t seen each other for a while. They embraced.

Roger Harris went on to become a great, innovative educator, eventually realizing his mother was right. God had a plan.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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