Monday, June 19, 2006

September 11, 1954

Dear Folks

This is the first opportunity I have had in a week to write, so I shall start a letter, not knowing if I will get to finish or not. Before I forget it—if I don’t get put back, I will graduate in December—about the seventh or eighth or somewhere around there.

There is so very much to tell that I don’t know where to begin—I think I’ll start with yesterday & work my way back to anything I missed about New Orleans plus my journalistic outlooks on "the old South."

To begin, I’d better explain that though today is Saturday, we had to go to class to make up for last Monday; we don’t have P.T. today, though—thank God!

Yesterday, at 11:30 (we start at 7:00), we were marched back from Building 633, the academic building, & were told on arriving back at Bat II that we had to go at once to Building 625, the Dispensary, for shots. So back we went, past 633 for about a block, & stood in line for our shots. Now, as you know, I am not overly joyed at the thought of needles, in any way, shape, or form. As long as I don’t look at them, I’m all right. So there I stood, staring at the ceiling or out the window, trying not to appear obvious, while those directly ahead of me were injected. Then it was my turn. A Wave gave me a shot in my left arm, which didn’t hurt too badly; & then a sailor plunged another one into my right arm. I was afraid he was going straight through.

Well, we then came back to Bat II & changed into our P.T. gear. As we were late for P.T., we had to double-time all the way to Bldg. 45 (a reconverted hanger) with rifles, a distance of about five blocks. Of course, one of our exercises was to run twice around the two hangers.

Comes the afternoon, & I got to march in my first parade. Every Friday a class graduates, & all the cadets (825) hold competitive drill. It is a long & tedious affair, through the entire length of which you must stand at Parade Rest. So there we stood, one hundred men of our section (Dog), in the blazing sun (which, fortunately, would be cast over by a cloud every so often). I said one hundred men at Parade Rest (which isn’t as stiff as Attention, but just as grueling)—I should have said ninety-nine; Pete Roberts (who used to room with me in Indoctrination) was casually surveying the countryside while everyone else stood rigidly with eyes front. After about twenty minutes, everyone was sweating like mad, & the guy next to me began weaving back & forth. A Sergeant came up & told him to stand up straight, which he did. In about two minutes, he was weaving again. The sergeant saw he was sick & told him to squat down; our section leader, in the row ahead & five men to the right, fell forward like a tree, flat on his face. They hauled both of them away, & we went on standing at Parade Rest. Several men were sick last night & today, but no more collapsed during the parade. As I always say, life may not be much fun around here, but it certainly is never dull.

I dread P.T.. It is my personal hell on earth. The thing I really loathe are push-ups. I simply cannot do them (the average during a P.T. period is forty). We have been marching back & forth to P.T. with rifles lately, which is a minor torture in itself. To keep going, I write Mental letters—it may sound odd, but it helps.

Monday we get to run the obstacle course again—then we begin swimming class. I have tacked a huge mental note in the back of my mind—it is one of those framed, embroidered expressions like Grandma has on her walls ("Be it ever so humble---", etc.) Mine says "ALL THIS, TOO, SHALL PASS."

Every morning at 6:35 we muster out in back of the Bat. to march to classes. We carry all of our books in our book-bags, which resemble large briefcases. In the main hall entranceway of Bldg. 633, they have a huge (about 20 feet) plastic aircraft carrier model, which is an exact replica of the Essex. You can see every room, compartment, & passageway in it. It stands in a giant glass case, & when I leave Pensacola, I intend to take it with me—I’ll put it in the basement of my new house.

If you would care to see something hilariously funny, you should stand in 633 while classes are changing. Everyone marches from one class to another, in columns of two. You march at a half-step; eyes straight ahead, book-bags in your right hand. The effect is that of little tin wind-up soldiers, & Chinese coolies with rickshaws. And the halls are filled with them--some going one way & some going another. And all you hear is "shuffle-shuffle-shuffle-shuffle." Then, supposing you were marching down the right side of the hall, & your classroom was on the left. The column halts when the first two men come abreast of the door; you wait until the way is clear, & then you "left-step", which is just what it says—the whole column marches sideways until they get to the other side of the corridor. I never get tired of watching. Oh, by the way, there is a picture of the U.S.S. Rockford hanging on one of the corridor walls.

I never sleep with a pillow anymore. Every day we have a room inspection, & the beds must be made just so. Therefore, everyone sleeps on top of the sheets to keep them from getting too messed up. I put my pillow carefully on the dresser every night so as not to get it wrinkled.
Well, enough personal life—now to get back to my tour.

I’ve met a very interesting character down south. His name is Jim Crow. He is a barefooted little girl, an old man in coveralls, a well-dressed man in a business suit. I had a nodding acquaintance with him the first day I arrived in Pensacola & rode a city bus. A sign says "WHITE seat from front to rear of coach—colored eat from rear to front of coach—Florida Law." He is so quiet at times, you are scarcely aware he exists. At other times, he is a vicious, despicable animal.

As I said, at times you aren’t even aware he is around, until suddenly it dawns on you that he is conspicuous in his absence. It came to me in a drugstore, when two well-dressed women came to the fountain. Though there were plenty of empty seats, they stood at the end of the counter and asked for two milkshakes, which the counterman made & gave to them in covered paper cartons. They disappeared then—I don’t know where they went, but they were gone.

It was then I began noticing—the bus, trains, & plane depots with their "Colored Waiting Room", the restaurants, the theaters ("Colored Entrance" via an outside fire escape to the balcony), the "For Colored Only" taverns (in the slum parts of town, of course). It is most apparent, however, on the transportation systems.

Coming back to downtown New Orleans from the amusement park, Pontchatrain Beach, I was almost the only person on the bus as it started back from the end of its run. I sat, as I usually do, about even with the back door. The silver hand-rails along the back of each seat, I noticed, had two holes drilled in the top. I gave it no notice until six Negro teen-aged boys got on the bus. They came to the rear & picked up a wooden sign from the back seat & placed it on the hand rail of the seat across from me. It said "For Colored Only."

On the bus from Mobile to Pensacola, I sat alone in a seat for two while five Negroes stood in the aisles. A mother & three small children got on the bus; the kids were cute as only colored children can be. One was a little girl about three, in bare feet, carrying a huge handbag. She came grinning down the aisle with her two brothers, who were carrying large bags of groceries. After a few minutes, the little girl, who hadn’t yet learned that Negroes must stand if whites sit, started to crawl up onto the seat next to me. The mother scolded her & started to pull her off the seat, but I said if she wanted to sit there, she was perfectly welcome to. The mother was evidently surprised, & said "thank you," & the little girl sat clutching the handbag & grinned at me as the bus roared on….

Back in Pensacola, a Negro Marine was the only colored person on the bus back to the base. He sat in one of the side seats like we have at home. Five or six white kids, about ten to fifteen, got on & stood clustered up around the back door. There were a lot of empty seats—the side seat opposite the Marine, & the entire back seat. The bus driver stopped the bus & said "Would you colored folks mind sitting in the back so these people can sit down."

I pity the Negro sailors, marines & Navcads stationed here. They can live with use, eat with us, & sleep with us, but they cannot ride a public bus with us.

Your Loving Boy-Child


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