My father said he got familiar with a few brigs while he was in the Navy. This is his first experience caused, as it often was, by his response to ignorance and racism. He was barely eighteen years old.
I got into a very nice rhythm at (Oakland, California) Naval Supply. It was nice. It was the good part of my time. I had a pleasant time in San Francisco. There was some nice stuff in Berkeley. I had a girlfriend who lived in Berkeley. She was college bound so she took me around San Francisco State. So things that were happening they kept me directed towards college. And Gladys was lovely. She was really lovely.
We were doing fairly well and I had had an incident. There were two guys from California and we were on restriction. We had bunks and this brother was, “Damn Gilliam, isn’t this a terrible winter?”
And I’m laying up and all I can see is rain and these Negroes talking about terrible winter and I decide with my “New York state of mind” that these niggers are on me. “Winter what the hell are you talking about?” So I jump up ready to kick ass, I’m going to take them both on. “Reggie, what’s wrong with you?” It was the first time I got into the laid back California attitude. So these dudes, I’m ready to kick ass and they’re talking me out of it. I can’t hit nobody without them at least being agitated. So I say, “What the hell you talking about winter?” One says, “Reggie, when’s the last time you’ve seen the sun?” “Sun? You don’t see sun in Harlem.” (laughter) They took me under wing.
The Navy had a new pill. There was an emergency and I was on the teletype.We were in the naval supply depot, the naval supply station was in Philadelphia and everything, a roll (sic) of Kotex you had to get someone to approve the shipping and most of the shipping was being served from there. So I was on the teletype constantly sending stuff back and getting messages and they gave us this new drug, the Germans had invented it, called Benzedrine. They kept us up for the longest. We got our stuff finished so then they gave us like a 72 hour leave.
Gil and Morris were both in a situation, “Come on Reggie, let’s go.” We made a big trip to Tijuana. They had gas stamps, everything was rationed. There weren’t that many car people. Gil who was from Berkeley managed to get his relatives to come up with a vehicle. We had enough gas to go to Tijuana and come back. And oh we partied!
The only trouble was we kind of overstayed our leave. We were in a funny position, we lived in the barracks, and we worked at the depot. And so we were in two separate administrative structures. So when I got back they talked and what not. The captain he was kind of cool, we had done all that extra work and so on and so forth and so captain said 30 days on the base, don’t go anywhere. We were happy.
So then I go to the depot. The teletype room is down there and we do shifts on the teletype, two, three hours shifts. Other than that we’re at a desk here and the place is terraced in rows. It would be like long, thin, maybe six inches between terraces and desks would be on each level. This officer came up and he asked me what had happened. I told him we were late and whatnot and he started lecturing me and the more he lectured me the more agitated he would get. He explained that I was the only Black man up there that was allowed to do this work, allowed. Shit, the white boys didn’t have the skills or they would have been “allowed.” And he went through a whole bunch of shit and he said,”We give you niggers…” Nigger? Oh shit I don’t know what to do. I’m sitting there. What do you do? Magic. You invoke magic. Call me nigger three times I’ll hit you. I didn’t hit him until the fifth time.
The most sadly destructive blows I have cast in my life was when I hit this guy. I just hit him. He bounced off me and he went under the desk and he skidded all over the place. Now at about the third nigger everybody heard him, including my girlfriend she was sitting down there. Around me were little middle aged white ladies who loved me. I used to bring them coffee and stuff. My mama raised me right. She had nothing but women I had to serve. No problem. I was busted serious. That’s a hanging offense. I should have been put in the penitentiary. The only problem was that even in the Jim Crow Navy you don’t stand up in front of a hundred and fifty people shouting nigger, nigger, nigger.
And he did nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger…
He went over. And so the little NAACP here and some of the white ladies and everybody else they jumped up. The local administration figured they had to do something else so they reduced the charges to something simpleminded. They made this deal, I was to plead guilty and I was to get ten days bread and water. Bread and water in the Navy you get three times a day. They give you two slices of bread and a cup of water. On the third day you get a meal. It’s not too bad.
I’d go in and come out of there with damn close to 45 days. First they catch me smoking. The guards gave me the cigarette. And so they set me up, I’d get screwed and then they’d give me another ten days. I looked at this shit. Honey my last fifteen days I spent in the corner reading the bible. That was it. I wouldn’t do shit. I damn near didn’t eat my bread and water.
So I get out I’m back in the job and nobody is saying anything. They got rid of that cracker. They just got rid of him. He was just crazy.