You never know what action will set your eyes towards courage, resistance. At some point there is a choice to make and we make it and it defines how straight and tall we will stand. My father sees one episode in the navy as his first adult act of real courage.
When we left off you were being shipped out of the South Pacific.
I was in Shoemaker and I was on a list to be shipped overseas. And the officer discovered I was a yeoman and he sent me off base every time my name came up on the draft so that he’d have the work of a yeoman. And one day I got tired of hanging out too long. I just wanted to be back on the base and I came back to early. The Shore Patrol snatched me, and the officer who was protecting me was off base. By the time all of that got straightened out I was in the brig for dodging the draft basically, and I had volunteered to go. I had this little pitiful romance going on and I was hanging on until the last, you know. And bang! It was a transformation. I was suddenly in the brig.
We went to the brig with our sea-bag with a little hammock under that. Which up until that time had been non-functional, and it was non-functional for every sailor who didn’t go to the brig. It was a kind of brig. When you walked into the room it was a dormitory. Poles, no plane surfaces, just poles. You picked a pole. None of us had ever tied a hammock before. And you picked a pole and tied the hammock to it.
So the hammock was like if you were out in the bush you had a place to sleep?
No, that’s what maritime ships used to be. That was their bunks. They slept in hammocks. They did other stuff during the day with that space. It was a big tradition thing that came down.
So how long were you there?
I really don’t know. I think two or three weeks but I really don’t know. It was so onerous. It was so horrendous.
Were you by yourself?
Oh no. There were about eight of us in there.
Were you just there? You’re not outside?
Oh no, they’d put us outside. We’d clean up ditches. And do people’s laundry. Cleaning machines. We did a lot of work.
So you were just slaves for the Navy?
We were slaves all the way through. I was thinking about it the other day, what led, in my own head, to the very first real act of courage I ever got into…was that trip. They brought me on board, they knew I was in trouble, chains and shit. So we were on something called the Carrier Escort. You’d have to search a naval historian to find out if it was ever used. If so it was a suicide ship. This was a merchant ship in which they cut the superstructure off and put an apron on it.
These were the ones the planes land and take off from?
Not quite. They only take off from this. They land and take off from an aircraft carrier. This was called a carrier escort. And not only did they only take off and they wouldn’t let them land. The only way to take off was they had to be hooked up to a catapult, a gun basically. Black powder behind it. At the proper time you started the motor and at the proper time they said “go.” And they turn on this thing, boom it shoots and you hit the gas. (Laughter throughout) That’s the kind of ship it was.
The ship was run by a white boy and then they’d split it into two. The ship’s company is the crew of the ship that you’re on and the passengers which were us (the sailors). Now what actually happened was, and I don’t know the actual numbers, let’s say you had 200 sailors on board and about a hundred of them were Black and a hundred of them were white.
It didn’t take long for the white boys to figure out how to jump over on the white (crew) side. The ship’s crew was only 25-30 people at best. Their lines were always short. I went over there once. But it was mainly the white boy sailors who went over there and did their white boy thing and we stayed at the back. No problem. We remarked on it because every once in awhile you’d see that your side was running out of pie so you’d scoot over and the SP’s started kind if patrolling the shit and they got rid of us.
Now they would have Sunday services up on deck. They’d take the little folding chairs and folding benches and tables (from below) mostly folding chairs and benches, and put them up there for servicemen. And we had a rough sea that day. And they took them up there but they couldn’t get the damn things up. And that meant that they couldn’t get the seats back into the passengers’ dining room which meant that when we came off the chow line we had to sit on the floor and eat. And I said, “Bullshit. They take these chairs off the colored side and then the white boys…Naw.” And I walked right in there and sat down. At this stage of the game it was a trip. The place was now crowded with all the black boys. The first thing they did was they went to the niggers (to tell them to get out of crew area) and I said, “I ain’t going.” And oh the brothers left…me.
Hey team, back up! (laughter)
Yes indeed. (laughter)
They had a good dinner that day and one of the things that they had which I loved was candied sweet potatoes. And this cook had made these candied sweet potatoes, they were laid. But when the SP came they tasted like dung. The SP said this side is only for ship’s crew, not passengers. And I said, “He’s a passenger and he’s and he’s a passenger and he’s a passenger. And they’ve been eating here a long time. Why don’t you go get them first and by that time I can finish my food.” Now that’s what I said but what I felt was “Oh shit.” It was something else.
I wonder if they put you overboard (laughter)
They went out they didn’t strong arm me they told some officer and he told them to wait until I was finished. After I finished the officer pulled me up and the officer said, “I know how you feel and I guarantee you if you do it again you’ll be in irons.”
But you got over.
I got over. And that was it.
So my father, at nineteen years old, discovered that standing up, even if you find yourself standing alone, can make a difference and garner respect. In matters of principle, he never stood down again.