The room across the hall from the master-at-arms’ office exploded into what was clearly a fist fight. Just as suddenly, silence, except for some guttural cursing. A second-class petty officer walked out, brushing himself off. He was a tall, meaty man with a lustrous black mustache and “Martinez” stenciled over the pocket of his denim work shirt. He saw me and a smile lit up his face. “You must be the new guy, Smith.”
I nodded. It was dawn, and I had just stepped off the bus from Yakota Air Base to report to my first assignment. After fifty plus hours with little sleep while in transit from San Diego, I felt beat ragged. Following him into his office, I tilted my head towards the recent melee and raised my eyebrows.
“Oh, that,” Martinez said. ”Just waking up that asshole Janaszek, who can’t seem to hear an alarm. He comes up swinging at the poor slob on duty who has to rouse him for his flight back to Cubi.”
He noticed my confusion. “To our detachment in Cubi Point, Philippines. Where he’s stationed.”
Martinez continued: “First time I did it, he hit me without warning, and I hit him back, automatic-like. I thought I’d get court-martialed, but nothing happened. Now I kind of like to wake him up because I get to punch a jerk who outranks me with no repercussion. Janaszek doesn’t remember anything before coffee, and anyway, everyone knows he’s a son-of-a-bitch.”
Martinez sat down as I sagged under the weight of my sea bag. Sitting open on his desk was a thick book with dozens of torn paper bookmarks hanging down. It was propped up on a copy of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.
“Weighty tomes,” I said.
“So close to getting my bachelor’s degree,” Martinez replied. “College man?”
“A year at North Texas State,” I replied. “Planning to finish on GI Bill.”
“All right! We’ll talk. Let’s get you a place to stay, Smitty; then you can check in with Personnel.”
“Any chance of getting some sleep?” I asked.
“Tonight. You might as well adjust to time on the other side of the world,” Martinez said while looking at a chart on the wall. “Here it is. You’re in with Ray Hill.”
He rose and motioned for me to follow. We walked down the main hall between cubicles with dark drapes for doors. With a flourish, he opened a curtain. “Hill. Here’s Smitty, your new roomie. You good with that?”
An unembodied voice replied, “It’s cool.”
Martinez turned back to me. “We hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Call me Marty,” he said, sauntering away.
I stepped into the cubicle and with a sigh of relief let my burden drop. My roommate was standing in front of a hefty green Naugahyde chair. He wore the traditional Navy white hat perched atop the beginnings of an afro. His starched and pressed dungaree work shirt sported third class petty officer insignia on its left sleeve. He also had on black, Navy issue socks, but no pants. Despite the general gloom of the barracks, he had on heavily tinted glasses with thick black frames. He was holding an open paperback in his left hand.
I introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Scooter Smith. New guy. Uh, nice legs.”
Hill said nothing.
“New guy?” I continued.” This rack OK?” I pointed at a bare lower bunk.
Hill spoke: “Smitty, come the revolution, you’re gonna have to go up against the wall.”
I looked at him askance before inspecting an empty locker. “Well, you wake up cheery,” I said.
Hill continued: “You should be aware that because of Vietnam, America is training thousands of black men in all aspects of war. We are learning to speak the white devil’s language of violence.”
“Everything is hopelessly wrinkled,” I said after dumping the contents of my seabag onto my new bed.
Hill sat down, held up the paperback, and began reading:
“The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a ‘militant’ because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely the unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.”
Hill’s voice had gotten louder, and his hands shook a little toward the end.
“That sounds about right,” I said. “So, where you from?”
Ray glared at me, then softened, shaking his head. “Houston. You?”
“Dallas,” I replied.
“Texas, too? Where’s your redneck accent?” Hill asked. He picked up a pair of dungarees that lay folded on his bed.
“No idea, but I can put it on when I have to deal with bubbas.”
“Don’t we all,” said Hill with a snort. He stood and pulled on his pants.
Meanwhile, I shifted my possessions from the bed to the locker. “Is there a laundromat?” I asked.
“Across the street and down a bit,” Hill said, waving his hand in the general direction. He sat back down.
Hill laced up his flight boots as I arranged my stuff.
“I’d like to think that things are changing,” I said.
Hill jumped to his feet. “Martin’s down, Malcolm’s down! JFK and Bobby are down! Angela and Eldridge are on the run! Even the damn writer of this book is on the run! You think things are changing, Smitty? I’ll tell you what’s changing: Black America has finally realized that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun!”
“Wow, Mao,” I said.
“I’m trying to be serious here,” Hill said.
Scowling, Hill said: “That’s just disrespect, man. Making a joke out of this is just another example of whitey blowing off the black man’s concerns, ’cause you so important and we don’t matter!”
He clenched his right fist.
“You waltz in here acting like you own me, just like your great-granddaddy owned my ancestors. I’m…. It’s just this murdering and terrorizing of my people, it’s….” He stopped, sighing in exasperation. His fist relaxed and fell to his side.
I held out my hands “I’m sorry, Ray. Sorry. Been awake for a couple of days.”
Hill collapsed into the chair.
“Look, smart-ass remarks are just me. And I didn’t move in here because I think I own you. It’s Marty’s fault. He assigned me here.”
I grinned, but Hill merely stood up and without looking at me reached into his locker and pulled out a gym bag.
“I’m just saying that there’s a lot of noise about civil rights,” he said softly, “but it ain’t manifesting on the street.”
He moved his shaving kit and changes of clothes into the bag. I sat at the steel writing desk and turned the chair to face Hill.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
He smirked. “Know many black authors, Smitty?”
“Uh, I’m aware of Ellison, but haven’t read him. But I’ve read the ‘Ballots or Bullets’ speech by the X guy, and part of Reverend King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
Hill gasped. “You, a southern white boy, read a speech by Malcolm X?”
I shrugged. “I read a lot.”
Hill zipped up the duffel and sat it on the bed. “It’s Robert F. Williams’ book, Negros with Guns.”
“Yikes,” I said.
“Yeah. The white reaction. Williams talks about that in the book. But all he’s saying is that it’s the right of all Americans, when the police won’t, to act in self-defense against lawless violence.”
I nodded. “It is our right, but Reverend King had some things to say about that.”
“King is dead,” Hill interjected.
“Maybe he died to save our souls.”
“Maybe he just got gunned down by a dumb-ass cracker!”
“Maybe both?” I suggested.
Hill paced the cubicle. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered.
“Oh, and I started Cleaver’s book, Soul On Ice.” I made a “so-so” gesture with my right hand.
Hill stopped pacing. “What?”
The doors at the end of the hall banged as they opened and closed. Footsteps echoed. “Hill!” someone called. “Truck’s out front. Let’s move!”
Ray filled me in: “Doing ops out of Cubi Point. Be back in a couple of weeks.”
I nodded. ”I’ll keep a watch over the place.”
“Here,” Hill said as he handed Negros with Guns to me. “Read it. Tell me what you think.”
A smile broke across Hill’s face. “You know, I like you, Smitty. But come the revolution, you’ll still have to go up against the wall.”
He turned and walked through the curtain.
With a chuckle, I called out to him: “Nice to meet you, too!”
Hill’s short laugh merged into the sharp sound of footsteps on waxed and polished asphalt tile. Doors banged open and shut.
Two days later I wandered into the master-at-arms’ office to chat before heading to the hangar. Martinez was slumped in his chair, staring at nothing.
“Marty? You OK?”
He looked much older as he looked up.
“I just heard.” He paused. “Just heard. Our flight went down. South China Sea. Approaching the Constellation.”
He paused again. Then, almost inaudible, “No survivors.”
“Hill?” I asked.
Martinez nodded. I felt a cavernous ache inside.
He continued: ”And Dilger, Livingston, Tye.” There was a catch in his voice. “And Moser!” A deep sigh rumbled from his chest.
Stunned, I sat down and quietly mourned with Marty. All that day, grief-saturated silence filled the squadron’s hangars.
I lived with a phantom roommate for the next few days. Despite his lack of corporeality, I greeted and said goodbye to Ray as I came and went.
More than that, I read his book.
For the first time, this white, middle-class teenager grasped the soul-crushing degradation that was part and parcel of black life in America; how asking people systematically abused by the commercial and legal establishment to please be patient just further institutionalized that abuse.
Influenced by the ideals of the peace movement, I felt a sense of hopelessness when Williams demonstrated again and again that the threat of retaliatory violence was all too often necessary to prevent violence against peaceful citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.
Most crushing was the unassailable truth that the so-called Christian nation of my birth failed its promise in the century since emancipation.
Four days after receiving the news, the Officer of the Day came to my cubicle with bolt cutters. Martinez followed, carrying strapping tape and a couple of corrugated boxes. I flinched when they cut Ray’s lock.
The O.D., Lieutenant Junior Grade Piersanti, carefully removed Ray’s personal effects from his locker one by one, announcing aloud what each was. Marty repeated what Piersanti said and recorded the data on a form attached to a clipboard. They filled up one box and began filling another.
I sat on my rack and watched my ghost get exorcised.
After Piersanti passed the last item to Martinez, I stood and handed him Negros With Guns. The lieutenant looked at the title and grimaced.
“This is his,” I said. “His family needs to have it.” I choked a little. “They need to know that, come the revolution, their son was ready to fight for their rights.”
Piersanti handed the book to Marty, who noted its title on the form and placed it into the box. As he yanked the tape from its dispenser, it emitted a mournful shriek.