A Gentle Man of Honor
Essay - Unpublished
From the beginning of time, it took six days to create mankind, or perhaps millions upon millions of years for man to ooze from the chemical and biological slime, depending on whose books one is reading. During that time of creation, after about two and one-half days or so, God's mighty fist thundered upon the dinosaurs and other species to create future oil reserves for later use by mankind, or perhaps it was a meteor about sixty million years ago. During the last 10,000's of years leading up to today's 21st century, or perhaps it was 6,000 years according to some books, man evolved to believe that it was necessary to hate others of the same or similar species for the simple reason that they looked different and, thereby, threatening, or perhaps because they had desired possessions that could be used for one's own benefit. Hate was born from fear and greed and the concept of “them” and “us” was created and remains a constant reminder of our primal instincts to display our superiority over others, whoever “we” are, or perhaps to simply protect what is “ours.”
As strange as this may sound, given the years of being raised in Germany, racial bias was not on my radar or in my awareness. Six years old at the time the monstrous war ended, there had been no exposure to such predispositions during my early childhood. Perhaps echoing the silence that reigned on such subjects throughout Germany, no discussions or words were ever overheard in those days that may have indicated such a bias on an individual basis within the family.
In later years, even as we spent much time in my mother's ancestral home in the American Zone, no black versus white mentality intruded. Many American soldiers were black but I thought of this as just another example how Americans accepted any kind of variations of humanity, a much encouraging image to someone who felt a bit off-color in a totally different way. These black soldiers seen everywhere were Americans, after all, and for much of the time, any black person I saw I took to be such. Naïve on more than one level, of course, but with no one around to correct this ignorance for quite some time, it was perhaps easy to understand.
Equally, while in the US Navy, there were many black Americans similarly occupied with serving my newly chosen country, with friends to be made and ideas exchanged in an effort to learn this new marvelous way of life. Nothing in all that time brought racial tensions or discrimination to my attention, keeping my ignorance intact, so to speak. It was not until nearly the end of my 3rd year of enlistment that I would come face-to-face with racial discrimination and recognize the farce and evil it represented. It was news to me but I would never forget the man who, once and for all, eliminated my ignorance on that subject but in a simple manner. To this day, I perceive him as a larger-than-life leader of men.
On a warm and sunny summer afternoon in 1962, we were docked at the military shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia, engaged in one of the most favorite activities a sailor can experience during his service: hanging over the side of the destroyer, scraping and painting the sides of the ship in an seemingly endless battle against the rust saltwater will inflict on a steel hull. It is boring, strenuous work which can only be lightened with many stories and bad jokes told while one considers the length of the the ship and the many square miles one perceives yet to be covered. Every once in a while, our crew boss would check our progress and comment on the lack of enthusiasm we displayed–in so many words.
There never was much point in complaining to him about the hot, sweaty work, asking for relief in the form of any activity which did not involve hanging over the side. The man had a way about him that seemed at times scary but totally self-assured. Besides, he was over six foot tall, somewhere around 220 lbs. and if there was any fat on his muscled body, it was well hidden. The man's strength was legendary, no fair match to any of these men doing the work who seemed puny in comparison. More than that, this crew boss was well respected by all of us and the entire ship's crew all the way up into officers' country, particularly by our captain. Fortunately, he was also blessed with a wry sense of humor and he did not mind being the target of many an insulting joke directed at him. Like a poodle shaking off water, his seemingly rough demeanor was at all times tempered with an even-handed determination to get the job done by all of us–and taking mercy on our various misdirected follies. Did I mention that he was black?
On this particular day, I scrambled up the side of the ship and over the railing to take a break, much-deserved in my estimation. The sun was beating down relentlessly and the steel ship was a marvelous storage facility for extra heat to be retained and reflected. Pure torture, as it was, no one could possibly deny that a break-however lengthy I could make it-was necessary. Not that the crew-chief agreed. On seeing me leaving my work station, he grumbled something to the effect that my last break had been just twenty minutes ago, which of course could not be true –it had been more like twenty-five, to stay in perspective.
A very unkind order, delivered with his very scary Mona Lisa smile (when he smiled like that, it was scary), to encourage me to get back of over the side, was now met with my own grumbling, however ill-advised.
“Listen, if you keep us baking in the sun much longer, we'll all end up looking like you, is that what you want?” An obvious reference to his skin color, this remark can only be described as 'open mouth, insert foot.'
As swift as an eagle ready to strike, he came upon me, his smile now as broad as in a tooth-paste commercial and it seemed that no one could have that many teeth. Without a word, his hands grabbed me by the arms and suddenly I was airborne. Lifting me over the railing with the sea level about twenty feet below, he queried whether or not I would like a refreshing dip to cool off my burning skin. I could not believe it, did that man have the muscles of an elephant? And why did he keep smiling? Could he not know that the look on his face would be the scariest event in someone else's life, however short it may be measured? To tell the truth, I was laughing so hard-which by itself endangered the grip he had on me-but I also knew with absolute certainty that he would not drop me into the cool waters. After all, he was a thoroughly trusted and reliable colleague and, indeed, he did not. He simply put me back on deck with his point made, very well I should say. Back to work without a mumble and to top it off, I felt privileged in more ways than one. I was still breathing.
On one fine day, we took liberty together, meaning we planned to invade the private sector of the USA to find some entertainment or simply a change in our daily work routine. There was not any chance of finding an alcoholic tavern in Norfolk, Virginia since Virginia had become a 'dry' state in 1916, which lasted until late 1933. The subsequent liquor control legislation lasted until about 1970 and seemed to only allow some sort of 'liquor-houses' where one could buy a bottle, have a drink or two but the bottle had to be retained on the premises that assured a frequent return by its customers. A pretty miserable affair, especially since these 'houses' tended to pretty much resemble dumps of one sort or another. We tried that only once, “going without” was a much more preferable option.
As we meandered through town doing one thing or another, it was time to have something to eat and coffee did not sound bad either. Coming upon a regular low-rent coffee shop, we steered towards the establishment until I suddenly noticed that I was the only one proceeding forward. Stopping and looking back at my friend, it was a strange sight to see him just stand there about 10 feet back, shaking his head slowly with a decided frown on his face.
“What's up?” I asked.
He simply pointed at the coffee shop. There was a large sign in one of its front windows that stated “Whites Only.” This was in the summer of 1962 and we were, indeed, wearing dress whites. I was confused but not for long. He explained that the sign referred to his skin color and not our uniform and I still can recall, clear as a bell on a still day, the total outrage I felt at this moronic, ignorant, imbecilic and insulting behavior. Being a man of positive action, so I thought, this called for a frontal assault, to be sure, in the manner of just ignoring the sign and daring the morons of whatever color to defy us. I had no doubt that my imposing friend and I would win the day.
Gentle as always, he just kept shaking his head. “Believe me, it's not worth it,” he said.
“But they don't even know you,” I insisted.
In the end, we found another restaurant without a sign. I know this was 1962 and now it is 2007 but with myself being so stupid and naive on the subject then, there is one lesson to be learned from my own ignorance: if someone at any time makes a negative distinction based on the color of one's skin, the obvious question should be asked:
“Who taught you to hate?”