A Memoir by Al Poole, Part 2
He watched with fascination as the salesman measured his feet. He did not remember any one taking the time before. His toes were already permanently curled from wearing shoes too small. The youth center counselor who had become attached to the young man knew he was headed to reform school the next day and was determined to make sure the shoes fit. Pops had visited the Youth Center the weekend before and left the money for shoes. Several weeks after Ms. Carrie died, Pops moved in to Ms. Annie Mae’s house and although he never visited during regular visiting hours, he had stopped by several times during the last month on weekends to leave small amounts of money for toiletries. He knew that this was his way of staying connected. He could not ever remember Pops giving him a hug or even holding hands, on the other hand he had never yelled at him, hit him or put him down, and he knew that he could have easily have walked away, but he never did. It was as if Pops probably knew far more about his life than he gave him credit for, and understood the path ahead of him.
These were the first new shoes the kid remembered and he though they were beautiful. They were working shoes for sure, brown with thickly formed soles meant to last a while. Wiggling his toes, he tried not to show how much he liked them but the counselor noticed and smiled. It was the last thing he could do for the kid he most likely would never see again.
The next morning he was placed in the visitor’s lounge where the center’s inmates waited before leaving the youth detention center. The center, like most places in the south, was separated between black and white inmates sleeping wings with a center activities room where inmates ate, mingled and generally passed the day after work assignments. He could hear the activities through the walls as the other inmates had breakfast. As he waited for transport he thought about the last two months at the center. The first thing he realized was that he was hungry and had gotten used to the center’s routine of breakfast in the mornings. He usually gave away his corn flakes which had made him popular at breakfast. The truth was that he hated corn flakes and the benefits of giving them away had helped make life more tolerable. He already knew that he would miss the center’s routine and order.
He had no idea where he was going, only that inmates left for three basic reasons, they were returning home, going to a reform school as was likely the case for him, or being sent to prison. The staff had learned to separate the ones leaving early in the day to avoid the others from witnessing the emotional outbreaks that sometimes occurred.
The months at the center had been relatively peaceful. He had only had to fight once regarding the sexual abuse issues that had followed him from the neighborhood. In fact, he had secretly enjoyed the routine and order. His was a less complicated life and the daily decisions of getting through the day were easier. The center was preparing for lunch when his transportation arrived; a counselor suggested they leave after lunch, but the tall black lady who was his transportation said no, we were late. There were no goodbyes or acknowledgements, the lady told him to get in the car and they were off.
There was a screen that separated the back seat from the driver. It was not necessary as each immediately ignored the other for the rest of the trip.
As they drove away from his hometown for a destination he wasn’t aware of, he ignored the lady driver (who he had already decided was one mean lady!) and reluctantly began to reflect on his life and how he had landed in the back of this car.
It was not the first time he had engaged in this exercise. During the week he had spent in solitary confinement, after the fight at the center, he had replayed his past in small, disjointed episodes, in no particular order, often finishing in a fog of incompleteness.
The first was the recurring vision of being in a crib watching a man and woman hovering over him clearly arguing. He thought that Pops was the man and had no idea who the woman was. The memory, like so many others, quickly faded, and in truth he did not know if it was real or not. He next remembered playing on the floor of the living room in his house with paper trains. It was a happy time, and the house was a warm happy place full of people. The next memory could never be avoided, he was laying on a bathroom floor, the young man on top of him was warm and gentle and whispered in his ear to be quiet and not tell anybody, the memory fades but the event would repeat itself many times and he would never tell anybody.
During the next several years, there would be similar incidents with others, since he had never spoke of it; he came to believe that it was entirely his fault. During all of this Pops, Ms. Annie Mae and Ms. Carrie appeared not to notice. Meanwhile he was approached by people he knew were respected in the community; including a very brave civil rights lawyer who he later saw picketing a downtown segregated department store and understood why he had felt such fear in him. One of the byproducts of his experiences was that he had come to be able to read fear in adults very easily, as he was always approached with caution.
Never the less, it became clear to him something was wrong. He had no friends; he had tried many times during his years in elementary school, only to experience eventual rejection, so he had stop trying.
These feelings were intensified when at nine, he was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix. The local black doctor, who also lived and had his office on Princess Anne Road, had immediately called the police to take him to the hospital. He had felt like a rock star as the police vehicle had showed up and two white officers had let him sit in the front seat on the way to the hospital. It turned out that it was the wrong hospital and he was wheeled into a hallway on a stretcher to wait for Pops to arrive and give permission for the hospital transfer. Pops as usual worked late so it was not till later that evening that he was transferred to the “colored” hospital. It was after the operation, when he was in a ward with older men, that they notice he didn’t have any visitors. He quickly recovered from the operation, but the conversations about no visitors would linger.
Once these reflections had been dealt with (this time), he was able to draw on the many positives of his short life. He lived on Princess Anne Road, a major roadway through one part of the African American sections of Norfolk, Virginia, dotted with shotgun apartments. His world extended to Church Street on the south, the gateway to downtown Norfolk for black folks. The corners were bracketed by a huge drug store with a soda fountain counter where he would occasionally indulge in a treat with money from Pops. Across the street, a tavern with the world’s best chilidogs bracketed the other corner. On the other corner was one of three Jewish grocery stores in the neighborhood. For him, the street was an exciting and mysterious place. There was the pool hall he wasn’t allowed in, an African-American private club, two churches, his elementary school, and a road that led to an undeveloped part of the city that became one of his secret sanctuaries where he would hide out when he left home.
Downtown Church Street also became one of his main escape places; there was eight movie theaters, a Chinese restaurant, the library, a comic book store, numerous bars and several department stores. The street was one of the main entertainment centers for African American sailors who came on weekends to sample the street’s delights.
He loved the movies, and spent hours watching films over and over again. He had once sat through the entire time the theater was open from noon to midnight and had found Pops on the street looking for him. In particular, he loved the live performances of the visiting all African-American reviews from New York that included singing, dancing and comedy. Sometimes some of the performers rented rooms at Ms. Annie Mae’s house and were treated like rock stars during their stay.
As a wave of fresh air embraced his face from the open window he remembered the Sunday Pops took him to work with him, playing in the woods and riding on the bulldozer, as one of his best days. He could still smell the woods and feel the warm sun on his face. He thought of the baby animals Pops would bring home for him to try to nurse back to health, most would die, however he had successfully raised a bamton hen and rooster to a flock of more than twelve chicks. During what he had started calling his last summer, they began to disappear as neighbors stole them during the night and within two weeks they were all gone. This was also the time, he saw that the peach tree he had planted and cared for, dug up and replanted in the next yard, had died.
He suddenly remembered his unhappy trip to New York. Pops had two other important women in his life that He knew about, a daughter (Margaret) who lived in New York with her mother and son, and a sister who had teenaged twins. He was probably jealous of the twins; since even Ms. Carrie complained that Pops seem to spend more time with them than him. Fortunately they were only around for a year and moved on to North Carolina. He was eight or nine when Aunt Margaret invited him to spend the summer in New York (over Ms. Carrie’s strong objections). The trip turned into a disaster. Her son hated and resented him from the start and he in turn locked the son into a daylight basement where he was trapped until his mother came home. He was put on a bus back to Norfolk the next day and he would never see his Aunt Margaret again.
Unable to deal with these memories he returned to thoughts of Pops.
Directly across from his house was the longshoremen union dispatch hall where men congregated every morning during the week to get work assignments. It was one of these men that first offered him money for sex that brought awareness to him that this was not right. Pops was home from work that day and saw the man hold out money for him. What did he want Pops asked when he came back into the house?
He lied and said he didn’t know, so strong was the “don’t tell” embedded in his mind. He had never lied to Pops before about anything; and it was one of the moments that changed his life. Although he would remain sexually confused for many years he, would never willingly allow abuse again.
To the north on Princess Anne Road there were two other Jewish grocery stores, two taverns (pops had taken him to one to watch a heavy weight championship fight; strangely he could never remember who was fighting, he thought that it was Joe Louis but wasn’t sure). A side road led to a rural area of the city where delivery horses were still stabled. Watching the horses weaving between cars as they deliver their loads of coal, wood and ice was one of his favorite pastimes. Further down the street was one of the two cemeteries on Princess Anne Road that were the only reason white people, other than bill collectors, ever visited the area. Still further down the road was the office of the construction company Pops work for all his life. He was clearly a valued employee, ready to work weekends if asked, late hours most days. They were terrible jobs (the memory of him coming home late at night with his eyes bleeding from working around dangerous chemicals would never leave him). For him, Princess Anne Road stopped at Hanford Street where Ms. Annie Mae lived. It was for him, a house of wonder!
The woman driver interrupted his reflections announcing that they had arrived at the half way point of the trip. Darkness had come without notice as he had been deep in his reflections. He was led into what appeared to be a farm house. His thoughts of eating were quickly dashed as he was led to a wire enclosure and locked in. He was left there without another word. For the first time, the anger he had buried deep in him almost exploded. After several moments, he looked around and was relieved to see a bathroom, used it, and went straight to sleep on the cot in the enclosure.
The next morning the woman he had begun to hate showed up and loaded him into the car. By then he hadn’t eaten since dinner the last night at the center; however he would have rather died than to tell this woman he was hungry. She had once again refused breakfast for him, telling the folks that ran the place that she was late and had to go.
He shut out the thoughts of hunger and once again withdrew into his own reflections. He knew his life was different from other kids – no mother at home, Church on only rare occasions ( usually with Ms. Annie Mae) Pops not involved in school activities, and very little hygiene training (a neighbor had once took him into her house and washed his head, face and upper body like there was no tomorrow).
Fueled by his continued anger at the driver and in an attempt to make him feel better he started thinking of the things about himself that he felt good about.
For one, he was a voracious reader and a favorite of the local Librarian once she realized he read all the books he checked out. He had become a black history buff at an early age, consuming ever thing he could find. He was a consummate reader of the African-American newspapers of the day and legal as well as forbidden books supplied by his elementary teachers who always held him high regard. This was especially true of his 4th grade teacher who he had once greeted seeking a room at Ms. Annie Mae’s house with the school’s wood work instructor. The fact that he never mentioned this event led her to open up her entire library of banned books to him and made him wonder how many other African-American teachers had outlawed books hidden at their home. He was not aware that other kids thought he was “smart” until the end of the school year for the six graders. The next step was junior high, so it was very important to pass the end the of year tests. He was floored by his sudden popularity as athletes and others approached him for help and tutoring for tests. The popularity was short lived however and probably among his last happy moments as he approached the most eventful year of his young life.
By the start of summer after six-grade graduation, he had totally stopped speaking to anyone in the building he lived in. The building was composed of four shotgun apartments – living room, middle room, kitchen and attached toilets outside. It was in a row of four buildings that were essentially the same. The back of the apartments opened into a large single backyard where the fences between buildings had long since rotted. He blamed the neighbors, who had never particularly cared for him, for the loss of his chickens and peach tree. When he told Pops we had to move, he didn’t even ask why. Pops was clearly as glad to move as he was. He arranged a new place that night and they were gone the next day. The only person unhappy was Ms. Carrie who was long past the age when she could deal with change. She faded quickly and as the young man watched her go, he contemplated suicide (a concept he had learned from the movies).
Pops had stopped coming home until very late and so he was sleeping when Pops woke him to tell him that she had passed. He spent several days at the friends of Ms. Carrie’s house until arrangements were made. He was never told if there was a funeral or whatever. Pops simply picked him up and took him home.
He was mostly in a daze when he started Junior High the following week. He had spent all of his elementary years in a rickety old building two blocks from where he lived. The school, one of many the state of Virginia had rushed to completion to support its doctrine of “separate but equal” used to defend segregation in the court, was an airy, modern brick building unlike any he had been in before. As he entered the building he realized that he was totally unprepared. No school supplies, tennis shoes or shorts for gym, unkempt dress and he knew no one. The thought of asking Pops or Ms. Annie Mae for help with these issues had never occurred to him and as he left school that first day he knew he wouldn’t return.
It was easy at first; he simply stayed home until the neighbor that lived below reported him. When the truant officer arrived he simply told him that he had been grieving and would return to school the next week.
Meanwhile Pops moved us to Ms. Annie Mae’s house. This was a very busy time for her, business was good and there really was no place for him there. Faking going to school got harder as he spent his days wandering the streets and not returning till late at night. She thought that he was hanging out with friends not knowing that he had none. He finally simply stopped coming home and after being picked up several times by the Police, the courts decided his fate.
His driver returned him to the present, announcing we are here! He looked up beyond her and saw that they were turning into a wide drive way with a sign saying “Hanover School for Boys” stretched across the entrance. He had arrived at his new home. It was the 22nd of January, 1954, he knew that his life had changed forever. What he did not know was that change would be true for all African Americans less than a year later.
He first thought of the Army bases he had seen in the movies as the car entered a giant football size courtyard and stopped in front of a large building that proclaimed itself to be the “Administration Building”. He would later learn that the building housed the school administration functions, an infirmary, a small hospital, staff housing and an orientation dorm for new inmates like him. As he left the car and looked around he saw that the courtyard was bracketed to the north by a huge building that included the assembly hall and dining area for approximately 350 people, a second basement hall, the head master’s office and (he was told) the whipping room. In the distance to his right on a road leaving the courtyard were five brick buildings, nestled in the trees, which held sixty inmates each. To the south of the courtyard another road led to an academic school with six classrooms, a barber shop, a meeting room, two music rooms, a library and the Principle’s offices.
The inmates he was housed with were mostly all new comers having been there less than several months and were as unsure of their fates as he. The second night just like in the movies, seven inmates escaped late at night. He noted how happy the guards seemed to be, enjoying the excitement in their routine as they went about the hunt. All of the inmates had been returned by morning. It turned out that Hanover was in reality a huge farm with a dairy, large growing fields and meadows and minimal access points. He nevertheless envied the boys who ran as it occurred to him that they had some place to go. During the day, while being evaluated, the new inmates had little to do, as they didn’t have job assignments. Hours were spent in the dorm playing cards and other games. He seldom participated as he trusted no one and was on edge. He constantly carried a deep-seated anger that, despite his self-control efforts, occasionally surfaced without warning.
One day one of the inmates (Jesse), in an attempt to draw the boy out, said he knew something about him. Before he could stop himself, and being overly sensitive to his past, he yelled back, “and I know something about Your Momma!” The silence from everyone was overwhelming, yet he had no idea how to apologize. He knew, and was promised, there would be a fight that night after the lights went out. The fight was swift and one sided, Jesse was older, stronger, bigger, and knew how to fight, mercifully he kept saying, “say you sorry, say you sorry.” When he did, it was over.
The fight was the beginning of his very first friendship. Jesse, who really had no stomach for fighting and regretted the incident, pretty much adopted the young man. They hung out together for the next several months during the evaluation period at Hanover. Jesse was the first person he actually talked to. They shared experiences, talked music and sports. Jesse taught him the things that young men needed to learn about survival in incarceration. For his part, and to Jesse’s delight, he opened Jesse’s eyes to the history of African-Americans and his heritage.
The evaluation process by the Hanover staff usually led to inmates being permanently placed at Hanover, sent to other institutions, or on occasion, some lucky ones were sent home. Many however were sent to foster care throughout the state. He learned from inmates who had previously gone through the process that foster homes were usually on farms that needed workers. When he learned that he would be sent to one of then, he was pleased as he did not look forward to the challenges of living at Hanover. anover staffWhen he also learned that he and Jesse would be leaving at the same time, he couldn’t have been happier.
They left Hanover on a beautiful spring day; unlike his previous experience this driver was warm and friendly. He took little notice however, as he was eager to find out where he would be going. The likelihood was that they would be relocated on a farm somewhere near Richmond, Virginia. As the journey proceeded, he wondered why Jesse seemed so subdued and silent. After traveling more than an hour, the car pull into a long drive way off the main road and parked in front of a large farm house. As the lady driver explained to him that this was his stop, he suddenly realized what Jesse had known all along. They were going to separate locations and he would never see Jesse again. They were barely able to achieve eye contact as he said good bye and was led into the farmhouse.
As he entered the large kitchen of the farmhouse, he was greeted by an elderly, mixed race, black woman, who introduced herself as Mrs. Richardson. He would later learn that she was the matriarch of an extended family that lived and worked the farm. The driver swiftly left after completing the necessary paperwork. Mrs. Richardson announced that she had a chore for him to do, but he should have lunch first. He was directed to wash his hands at the pump outside of the kitchen porch and to sit and have lunch which was a bowl of corn chowder; although he hated corn at the time (remembering giving away his corn flakes at the youth center) he ate every bit without saying a word. As soon as he was done, she led him up a road from the farm house to a barn approximately a quarter mile away. As they walked to the barn, she explained that the farm once took in 4 boys at a time, however since all of her children were adults and had jobs in the city; they only took in 2 at a time now. The other inmate was a year younger, in school, and was responsible for the house chores.
This she explained was why they had not been able to clean the cow’s stall all winter. She opened the stall, gave him a shovel and pitch fork and told him his first assignment was to clean the stall and pile the manure outside to be used at fertilizer. She left as he observed the mess. The smell was overwhelming.
Throughout the winter, the cow was fed corn stalks as well as hay. The cow had striped the stalks of leaves and then left them on the stall floor to intermingle with the manure. The end results were a two foot high mass of stalks and manure. Thankfully he had always been a task oriented person and saw the job as just another one of life’s challenges. At first, the challenge seemed too much. The manure, strengthened by the corn stalks, appeared to be an immovable mass and he felt the urge to give up. The odors struck his nose and burned his eyes and he had trouble breathing. This made him remember when Pops had coming home from work with his eyes bleeding from working in or near heavy chemicals. Somehow, as he started to succeed, his strength came flowing back to him. He simply could not allow this to break him. He barely noticed as Mrs. Richardson came to check his progress, knowing that she was surprised and impressed. He worked as in a trance, only stopping to occasionally walk outside and breathe fresh air. It was nearing sun down as he completed the task, and surveyed the mountain of manure he had created.
As he started to walk back to the farmhouse, he took note of his shoes. The shoes he had thought were so wonderful, were now in tatters, the stitching had rotted from the acids in the manure and they were virtually falling off his feet as he headed to the farm house. For the first time since Ms. Carrie died he broke into tears. He could hear voices as headed toward the house and he knew others had arrived. The absolute last thing he wanted to do was to have them see him cry, so he pulled himself together and started to make his way back to the farm house. On the way he passed a young man he recognized from the Hanover evaluation center that had transferred out during his first week. The young man (John) was leading the farm’s cow to the stall he had just finished cleaning.
He met the rest of the family as they all came out to watch him wash up at the water pump. They took note of his ruined shoes, and remarked on how cheap they must have been. Mrs. Richardson noted funds for clothes from the state had not arrived yet and she handed him clean clothes from the supply she had saved from previous kids, to where the next day.
As was his habit he buried the growing pain and despair of his circumstance deep inside and started to study the people he would have to deal with in the coming months. Mrs. Richardson had instructed him on how they would be addressed on the walk to the barn. Her son, (Mr. Ray) a tall light skinned black man, who he would learn was a workaholic with a terrible temper, was the first to greet him. When he announced that he had finished cleaning the barn, Mr. Ray looked at him with a look of contempt and disbelief and immediately headed to the barn to check for himself. Seeing the look on Mr. Ray’s face sparked a sudden wave of confidence he had not experienced since he left the doctor’s office. He knew how well he had cleaned the stall and how surprised Mr. Ray would be. And with that knowledge he knew he would survive.
He next met Dr. Fields, the only dark skinned member of the immediate family and the first black man he had ever met with a. PH.D. Dr. Fields was married to Mrs. Richardson’s daughter who worked as a school superintendent for the state of Virginia. Both Dr. & Mrs. Fields mostly lived off the farm except on weekends, holidays and vacation days. Mr. Ray worked in the city (Richmond, Virginia) during the day but returned to the farm every evening and put in another 4-5 hours in farm work. They had all come home to meet the new boy. He would later learn that Dr. Fields held a position in the state that governed the welfare of foster kids and had deep connections with Hanover. There was a Mr. Richardson, but he was something of a mystery and clearly separated from Mrs. Richardson, whom he would only see once during his entire stay at the farm.
Mr. Ray arrived back after his inspection of the barn stall. His only comment was that he had an old pair of shoes that would fit him. After dinner he was shown to the room that he and John would share and promptly went to sleep.
The next day, his daily chores were laid out. The farm was still a working self-sustaining farm of over 30 acres not including a large forested area that buttressed its borders. In previous years the family had housed as many as four foster kids and the farm had been a commercial success. Now with all the adults working other jobs and Mrs. Richardson too old to supervise older youth, the commercial business was limited to Dr. Fields’ egg business and vegetables and fruit primarily sold to associates of Doctor and Mrs. Fields. Since he had arrived so late in the spring, it was decided that he would not attend school until the following fall.
While he would never admit it, he loved the farm work. The work was always task oriented, uncomplicated and allowed his mind the peace of just completing the work. His everyday tasks included cleaning the cow stall and taking it out to the pasture to graze. There were also two mules, however they were taking care of by Mr. Ray who would not trust their care to a city boy. He couldn’t wait to prove him wrong. His hardest job by far was the daily feeding of the pigs. The pig pens were on the same road that led to the barn, only a half mile further from the house to minimize the smell. Every morning he filled a thirty-gallon drum with pig mash on a wheel barrel and pushed it up hill to the pigpen. He then would return to the storage shed, fill two additional 5 gallon buckets and walk them to the pen. By fall, he had gotten strong enough to put both buckets on the wheel barrel handles and take the whole thing in one trip.
There were over two hundred hens from Dr. Fields’ egg business that were primarily taken care of by John except for cleaning time and he always seemed to be knee deep in manure. Among his favorite duties were when Mr. Ray would hitch the mules up to the wagon and go to the woods to gather fire wood for the winter. He even enjoyed chopping wood as well. He spent most of his working hours either with Mr. Ray or on assignments by him. His best memory was by far, the day he was distributing hay on the wagon as Mr. Ray loaded it so that the huge load would not fall off on the way to the barn. Mr. Ray had a radio on and they listened to the World Series as they worked. He remembered thinking this was as close to heaven as he would ever get.
When he started school in the fall, he immediately noticed that his class was far ahead of the elementary school he had attended. The district did not have a Junior High school and kids were prepared to go directly into high school. It was ok for him however as all the time he had spent in libraries, reading and movies paid off and in no time he excelled in his studies.
It was after, Christmas that he started to notice the change in his roommate John. They had never been close during that year. John was out-going, more worldly, and simply better liked than he was. He also had close family ties and missed home terribly. It became clear as he saw John hide money, bus schedules and other things, that he was planning on running. Realizing that he needed his cooperation to succeed, he reluctantly confided in him. He had attained the bus schedule Mr. Ray used to go to work and planned to leave on a school day morning. Since they went to school together and the city bus didn’t come for over two hours, he needed the boy to cover for him. That was absolutely no problem. He not only envied John’s family ties, he supported them and the memory of his shoes’ fate created a never dying resentment that made helping him easy.
On the day John ran, he returned from school and immediately went out to work in the fields as was his habit. After, the acres of corn were harvested, the stalks were cut down for cow fodder, this was a job that lasted most of the winter, and you only had to pick out a square, tie the center stalks together and cut the surrounding stalks making a tepee that would not rot during the winter. It was not only one of his favorite jobs; it was much appreciated as it was one less thing Mr. Ray had to do when he got home from work. He worked until sun down, to avoid entering the house. When he finally quit, it was almost 8:30 in the evening and he was sure John had enough time. Mrs. Richardson immediately asked where John was, “don’t know” was his response. “Didn’t see him get on the school bus.” John‘s departure rocked the family as he was well liked and thought of as happy.
The winter past without incident, he learned the ins and outs of slaughtering and smoking pigs as well as other winter time duties at the farm. Most of the work was now being done by him and Mr. Ray. John’s leaving and the boy’s staying had created a kind of trust that led to a degree of independence since all the work was beaning done. The truth of the matter was that he was as happy as he had ever remembered. And yet there was something deep inside of him that he could not control and would occasionally erupt without warning. There was the day he exploded into tears at school for no apparent reason. There was the day when Mr. Ray left him to watch the mules and he let them wander off (city boys can’t do anything). It took Mr. Ray hours to get them back. Luckily no one guested how much pleasure he derived from seeing Mr. Ray lose it and go into one of his long profane rants.
It was during the second spring on the farm that the family collectively decided that he had to be saved. The only one not giving him a hard time about it was Mr. Ray who always had too much work to do to go to church. The boy was not a stranger to religion; you could not grow up in his neighborhood without being exposed to the church. He remembered the local minister (a woman) who was also like the community social worker. He had always thought she did not like him, but he didn’t know why. He vaguely remembered being dressed for Easter service when he was young. Pops didn’t go to church and Ms. Annie Mae went for “social reasons.” His only other major exposure was the parade put on by “Sweet Daddy Grace” during his annual visit to his Norfolk church, appropriately located on Church Street. He attended services there once and was amazed to see the minister treated like an Egyptian Pharaoh, sitting in an easy chair and attended to by young ladies with long fans and others during the service. It mystified him to see poor people parade down the aisle and donate their money to him.
The church Mrs. Harrison attended had a weeklong revival each spring, with different ministers delivering the sermons for a week. Each night a different minister worked hard to get him to come forward. He was seated in the first row of seats each night so that each minister could take a crack at him. Even though he loved the sermons, he gave them the same treatment as he had given the white psychiatrist, retreating deep to his inner-self as it became important to him to resist their urging to be saved.
During the second day of the revival he had taken the cow to pasture in a meadow located past the pig farm. Upon returning he ran into the cow wandering loose. If asked, he would have said the cow had a big smile as well as the usual look of contempt she reserved for him. As he retraced her steps, the reason for the smiles (if indeed they were) became clear. The cow had entered one of the corn fields on the left of the road and had chopped off and eaten the heads of over a hundred corn plants, taking one bite out of each. The truth of the matter is that he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; he knew Mr. Ray would explode when he saw it. It didn’t help matters that later Mrs. Richardson scolded him for not putting the cow where she could get enough to eat.
As the minister pleaded with him to “come to Jesus” that night, he could only think of Mr. Ray’s response when he saw the cornfield. And indeed the response was better then he possibly could have dreamed of. He woke early, dressed and waited on the back porch for Mr. Ray to discover the damaged cornfield. He heard the blood curling screams of Mr. Ray before he saw him running down the hill threatening to kill him; using all of the wonderful profanity he possessed. He was rolling on the ground apoplectic with fear and amusement at the same time before getting up and running for his life. Mr. Ray spent minutes chasing him around the farm, when he was caught; the whipping was surprisingly gentle. Perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t stop laughing even as he was being punished. For the rest of the week Mrs. Richardson worked overtime to have the guest ministers save his soul to no avail. It however, was his last act of rebellion; the corn incident seemed to satisfy his inner-self. He would graduate with honors and letters from his teachers at school and that made Mrs. Harrison happy. He had actually turned into a Mr. Ray, assuming responsibly for many of the farm’s chores.
He entered High school that fall happy and eager. He knew many of the other students, was accepted and asked to join clubs and planned on joining the track team. Four weeks into high school, he was called into the principal’s office. He was shown into a private office where he met a lady that said she was his social worker. She apologized for meeting him at school but she didn’t think she should wait with the news. She informed him that he would be happy to know that he had fulfilled his debt to the state and he would be returning home as soon as that weekend.
It had never occurred to him that this day would come. Pops and Ms. Annie Mae had visited him once during the stay at the farm but the discussion of coming home had never come up. When he arrived at the farm that night it was clear that Mrs. Richardson and the rest of the family had been caught by surprise as well. Dr. Fields was furious as he had been apparently left out of the decision to release him. It was a numbing nightmare for him; he knew he was supposed to be happy to go home, yet even the kid that had recently joined the household to take John’s placed noted it was ok not to want to go home.
Two days later the social worker arrived to take him home. It was then that he noted (and perhaps everyone else as well) how different leaving was from the day he had first arrived. Mr. Ray, he of few words gave him a hug before he left for work, slipping a twenty-dollar bill into his pocket. Both Dr. and Mrs. Fields left for work late to see him off. Mrs. Fields, who had seldom ever said a word to him, gave him a set of history books he had admired. He knew that somehow he had become a member of their family and would be missed. Mrs. Richardson kept trying to get him to eat more breakfast as they waited for transport. Being task oriented, he broke the awkwardness of the moment by working the butter churn till the social worker arrived. As they left, he took one last look at the farm he would never see again with a sense of loss he didn’t fully understand.
The trip home was swift, totally unlike his previous trip. They arrived at Ms. Annie Mae’s house late that evening to a Pops and Ms. Annie Mae who were as surprised as he was to see them. It became clear that he was not expected and there was simply no room for him. Business was booming and Ms. Anne Mae was renting out every space in the house. During the first two weeks, he slept in the living room, the back porch and any space that became available. Meanwhile he didn’t help the situation by not attending school and wandering the streets till late at night. Ms. Annie Mae thought that he had a gang of friends he hanged out with; the truth was he felt totally alone and lost. All of the strength and confidence he had gained at the farm swiftly left him. It reached the point that he could not come home without a fight occurring, so once again he began to live on the street. He was apparently on some kind of probation, and when he was picked up by the Police a week later, it was one night at the Youth Center and he was on his way back to Hanover the very next day. Unlike his previous trip, there were at least six others being transported to Hanover as well and the bus made the trip in one day. In three short months he had went from planning to join his high school track team to planning on how to survive at Hanover. Two days later, as he left the administration building, he ran into Dr. Fields who was attending a meeting. Dr. Fields said that he knew he would be returning and he would make arrangements to have him transferred back to the farm.
Since he was a returning inmate and the evaluation unit was full, he was sent to one of the five main confinement buildings on the campus. Inmates were generally divided by the seriousness of their crime, age, size and vulnerability. However, there were exceptions in every building, since inmates were generally given a choice where they would be housed. The buildings were all named. Colfax usually housed the oldest and the toughest inmates. They were young men, for the most part ages seventeen and eighteen. The were controlled by the knowledge that transfers to state prison could be the discipline imposed for offences committed at Hanover. Many of Colfax’s inmates worked on the farm and in the dairy and so were usually apart from everyone except for general assembly and meals. The greatest amount of “don’t have anything to loose inmates” lived in Colfax; so most escapes occurred there and group attacks on weaker inmates was not uncommon.
The inmates in the building called Martha Washington were almost the same accept slightly younger; it was also the unit for inmates with mental issues that were not needed to be housed at the hospital. Prison could be the next stop for many of these inmates as well, though for the most part many looked forward to returning home when their time was up. This was not true of every one however; and in some ways the unknowns made the inmates less predictable, less controllable and more dangerous.
He was sent to Martha Washington to wait final disposition. Had this been his first trip to Hanover, he probably wouldn’t have survived. He knew from his previous visit to Hanover that sexual exploitation was the greatest danger he faced. He and his friend Jesse had observed that sexual predators used intimidating tactics more often than physical violence to break the will of potential victims. He knew the price of surrender more than most people given his history, and there was no way he would give in to threats. Never the less, for almost a month he nightly faced a group of men intent upon breaking him. Additionally, while he was not used to noticing positive attributes about himself, others were noticing the results of all the work on the farm had done for his body. He was extremely strong, knew it, and looked it, and although he still did not know how to fight well, others had second thoughts before taking him on. When it became clear he wouldn’t break, he started to pick up allies. All the housing buildings were separated into two thirty-bed dormitories, a separate housing unit for staff, and bathrooms and showers. Each morning, the inmates lined up and marched to the main hall to eat. The inmate in charge of the lineup was considered the head inmate of the unit. He stayed at Martha Washington for two months before he was returned to the administrative unit for assignment.
The headman at Hanover, as far as the inmates were concerned, was Mr. Fields (a relative of Dr. Fields). He was a giant of a man, over six and half feet tall, and well over two hundred pounds. He was essentially the warden of Hanover, and it was in his basement office of the community building where punishment was handed out with the vast number of leather whipping straps that lined his office wall. Mr. Fields made the final decisions on where inmates were housed during their stay at Hanover.
When the boy arrived at the office, Mr. Fields offered him a choice. He could go back to the farm as Dr. Fields had requested, or he could go to the building of his choice at Hanover. If he had been told he would be going back to the farm when he arrived he would have not complained as he had never expected to be given a choice. He absolutely knew that going back to the farm was best for him and that he would probably be accepted as part of the Richardson family. As he thought about his choice, he was surprised to think of Pops and Ms. Annie Mae. It seemed to him that he would be rejecting his own family if he went back and despite the recent troubles between them, he realized that he really cared about them. He also thought about the awkwardness of returning to high school being behind all the others kids he had started with. However, his decision was mostly based on Mr. Fields sly appeal to his ego by saying truthfully that leaving Hanover would be safer for him. And so to his total surprise he decided to stay at Hanover and live in Banister House (Mr. Fields’ building) that housed inmates between Martha Washington and the two other buildings devoted to younger and more at risk inmates. Ultimately he realized that was exactly the decision Mr. Fields wanted him to make. He would see Dr. Fields once more and noted the sadness his decision had caused.
New inmates were assigned to their building during the evening meal. Their names were called out and inmates were seated in the area of their building assignments. This was a period of considerable cat calling where other inmates made derisive comments about their choice of building. He was treated with, “to scared to come to Colfax,” as he joined the inmates at Banister House. Although he knew that the decision to stay at Hanover was a bad one, he had been careful about the building he chose. He knew he could hold his own at Banister and he would have been labeled a coward if he had chosen the two other buildings that for the most part housed young, smaller or more vulnerable inmates.
Banister held approximately sixty inmates in two dorms. He was originally assigned to the back ward. Since Mr. Fields had many other duties, inmates at Banister typically had more authority and set the tone for building management. Having spent time at Martha Washington and being a second timer, created a kind of cache for him and he was surprised to note that he was treated deferentially from the start. For example, he only had to say, “I’m not interested in that shit,” to effectively end the sexual intimidation in the ward. Some inmates still fell preys to predators, but the organized threating behavior ended at Banister for the rest of his time at Hanover.
His first year at Hanover went by swiftly. He was assigned to school in the morning and janitorial duties at school in the afternoons. The school was a modern building on the campus with seven classrooms, a library, two music rooms, a community room, the Principal’s offices and a barbershop.
The school principal, Mr. Jackson, was also responsible for Hanover’s public image. This led to him becoming one of Mr. Jackson’s favorites as he and another inmate from Martha Washington were the primary inmates used to greet guests, attend events and represent Hanover on occasions and, most important from his point of view, acting as MC at the bi-monthly talent show. News at Hanover was carefully controlled, but inmates had to be taken to the city for visits to the doctor’s office and he used these occasions to devour the local newspapers. Music however, was another matter. There were two music teachers at Hanover. The school had a standing choir that performed at local church venues. The constant influx of new inmates insured that current music was always being introduced. The talent shows included competition between inmate buildings for best performances and were highly entertaining to all.
In addition to his other duties, he was assigned to clean Mr. Jackson’s apartment in the administrative building. Although his job assignments were considered “privilege duties,” they were the source of considerable discomfort. Mr. Jackson was nearly as large as Mr. Fields. He was an extremely flashy individual and liked to drive around the campus in a Plymouth convertible he called lemon drops. The word on the campus was that Mr. Jackson “got off” on seeing inmates beaten and almost never missed the corporal punishment sessions in Mr. Fields office.
After several months, Mr. Fields moved him to the front ward where the more aggressive inmates were. He actually planned on a low key existence understanding that he did not want to become a target. If asked, he probably would have said that he lacked the character to lead. However the circumstances of his life made incidents of unfairness important to him. So on one morning getting ready for breakfast; he noted the head inmate beating one of the more timid inmates. He was totally unaware of his response. Before he knew it, he had grabbed the head inmate, threw him against the wall and surprised both he and the inmate with his strong response. When he went to line up for breakfast a little while later, the former head inmate had taken his place in line and the group was waiting for him to lead them. He realized immediately the mistake he had made and the target he had become. There was no way he could back out of his new leadership role and to his regret he would allow his ego to make the same mistake several times over.
The first year passed fairly quickly and without incident. He had quickly adjusted to the routine of surviving at Hanover and for the most part staying out of harms way. He was well aware that he had become even more of a target than when he had arrived – he had alienated some of the Bannister house inmates with some of his decisions, he had an easy job, and a rumored history of being abused sexually. It would also be fair to say that he had become just a little arrogant about his ability to strive and survive at Hanover.
One day he stepped out into the warm winter day slightly irritated. He had just finished competing in the annual Hanover debate team competition and had to cover for the other members of his team who had not prepared at all. His team had been declared the winner but he knew it was only because he had channeled some of the histrionics he had learned from the ministers during revival week and that the other team, led by his rival from Martha Washington, had been better prepared. It was early, classes were still in session and the hallway was lined with Colfax inmates waiting for their monthly haircut. He moved freely about the school yard; after a year he knew Hanover’s most kept secret: the school was severely under staffed, and a number of inmates were unsupervised at all times. He understood now why the strongest and smartest inmates avoided leadership roles and the burden of being responsible for stuff.
He normally would have taken the care to note if the bathroom was empty when he entered, however, he was still focused on almost losing the debate. He was staring in the mirror when out of the corner of his eye he saw the stall door open and felt a blow that left him helpless. Afterward he couldn’t even determine where he was hit; only that his whole body had turned into jelly and his legs could not support him. His assailant threw him over the sink, ripped down his pants and brutally assaulted him. It was over quickly and he could only watch as he swiftly left.
For a moment he stood looking at a dazed image of himself in the bathroom mirror. He had always guarded against group assaults and could not believe that he had been overcome by a single individual. Since survival was now clearly at stake, he rapidly pulled himself together. He knew he would experience the pain, humiliation and anger, however it would have to come later. He realized that he was incredibly lucky, there had been no witnesses, and indeed the bathroom was still eerily empty. He knew his assailant was from Colfax and while it was likely he would brag to his closes friends, he was unlikely to admit to it publicly. He was physically ok, he knew he would have to deal with the rumors and was confident that he could. Minutes later, he stepped back out into the sun in full denial mode as if nothing had happened.
The next three weeks were among the toughest of his life. Dealing internally with the rape had turned out to be harder than he had imagined and at the same time waiting for possible exposure had left him on edge and barely in self-control. Three weeks later, while cleaning Mr. Jackson’s apartment, one of the hospital inmates knocked on the door. He recognized him instantly as a friend of his assailant from Colfax and before he could finish his sentence, all the frustration and pain of the past weeks came roaring out. He had never hit a person as hard before and as he watched him stumble down the steps to the apartment, he feared that he had injured the inmate permanently. It was then that he saw that the other hospital inmates were hiding behind the side of the building, clearly ready to join in his outing. He actually smiled at them, told them he hoped they could explain their friend’s broken nose. As he reentered the apartment, he again realized how lucky he had been. He suspected correctly that there would not be other challenges regardless of inmates’ opinions.
He was pleased with the way he had externally dealt with the rape, however internally he was a mess. He blamed himself for not being careful and letting it happen. It didn’t help that he frequently saw his assailant, although they were both bounded in silence. While he had never been heavy handed with his leadership duties at Banister, he now began to ignore them altogether and began to withdraw into himself as he had in his younger days. The most noticeable change occurred at school in the classroom. Hanover classrooms were divided into roughly seven grades. The same teacher taught all subjects from 7:30-12:30. This was one of the few times that students from different buildings were able to socialize and communicate. He had never liked the teacher (Mr. Johnson), as he knew the teacher didn’t care about the inmates and wasn’t very smart. After he corrected him on an African-American history date, Mr. Johnson didn’t much like him either. He started to shut down and withdraw from classroom activities. There were also Colfax inmates in the classroom and he suspected that they might have known about the rape.
One of the few activities he still continued to do was tutor the kids that were having difficulty keeping up; sometimes getting permission to work with them in the library in the afternoon. And so, one day when Mr. Johnson was berating one of the kids he tutored, he interrupted him to point out the kid had been sick. An unearthly silence fell over the classroom. Mr. Johnson rushed out of the classroom to find Mr. Jackson virtually screaming in subornation. Mr. Jackson rushed into the room almost beaming. “Challenging and threatening” my teachers won’t be allowed he shouted and rushed him out of the classroom, into lemon drops, and sped him to Mr. Fields’ office. There he joined four other inmates scheduled for corporal punishment for some rule violation or misdeed.
When Mr. Fields arrived, Mr. Jackson insisted that he be the first to be punished; even selecting the leather strap from the wall he planned on using. The five of them ranging from age 12-16 were ordered to strip. The other four were directed to hold him by the arms and legs with his body swinging over an open area. He braced for the first blow, promising himself not to cry out. Yet the first blow drew such a screaming violent response that one of the inmates holding him lost control and dropped him. He thought the beating would last forever and when it ended he could hardly walk. When he was instructed to hold the legs of one of the other inmates, he refused. He could hardly believe his own voice; however he had not realized until then how offended he was by the unfairness of it all and how much he had hated seeing how much Mr. Jackson enjoyed it. Mr. Jackson was delighted. Back up he went for another ten stokes and again he refused to help beat the others. Despite Mr. Jackson wishes to give him more, Mr. Fields said he had enough. As he watched the others get punished, he noted that although Mr. Fields had participated in the punishment of the other inmates, he had not hit him once. When the beatings were over, Mr. Jackson insisted that he be held in the isolation cell at the end of Mr. Fields office. It was a dank dark place usually reserved for inmates waiting to be transferred to state prison. At dinner that night there was an almost visible buzz to the conversation. Since the incident had occurred at school and the inmates punished were from all of the different units, everyone knew what had happen and were supportive. In ordinary times he would have been pleased at the support, coasted on it and perhaps even leveraged it. This time however, he was consumed with rage. The beating, the laughter by Mr. Jackson, the unfairness of it all had impacted him in a way he barely understood.
The next morning after breakfast, the five units lined up to be dispatched to their duties and assignments. The first and largest group to leave was the school attendees. Next were the farm laborers, the cannery workers and other facilities assignments workers. Finally the group scheduled to go into town for treatments, court hearings or reassignments were dispatched. He had not planned it, didn’t know it would happen, but there he was, alone on the parade grounds refusing to move. He watched people come and go all morning; no one said anything to him or approached him in anyway or even seemed surprised. Finally, that afternoon Mr. Fields pick him up, took him to his office and made up work for him to do. He had always felt a kinship with Mr. Fields (he reminded him of the social worker at the youth center) that he had for no other Hanover staffer and was probably the only person in the world he would have obeyed. For three days he refused to return to school, spending the time working on projects in Mr. Fields’ office. After the third day Mr. Fields told him to return to school and he did.
During his week of rebellion, Mr. Fields had allowed him stay in the cell adjacent to his office. When he returned to Banister House a leadership change had taken placed. This was great news as far as he was concerned and the next day he acknowledged the new leadership by joining the regular line-up.
The final five months at Hanover passed agonizingly slow. He joined the barber college so he would not have to work for Mr. Jackson (he was the world’s worst barber, so everyone avoided getting their hair cut by him). He was deemed to explosive for anyone to deal with and was avoided by most inmates. He took part in no school activities except for continuing to tutor. He spoke to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Johnson only when he had too. He had no idea what the future held, he only knew he couldn’t wait to leave Hanover and never return.
The Greyhound bus left Richmond Virginia on a warm spring day with ten released inmates from Hanover. The bus’s final destination was Norfolk, Virginia but it would make several stops along the way with inmates leaving at each stop. In many ways it was a somber trip with little chatter between the inmates. Almost all would never see each other again and many had little idea of what the future held. As the bus left the station, he took a deep breathe, relaxing for the first time in more than a year and a half. He didn’t know what the situation would be with Pops and Ms. Annie Mae, but he knew he would try his best to fit in. He had some things going for him this time: he was sixteen and didn’t have to worry about going to school. He knew that a rise in the number of motels for African-Americans had slowed Ms. Annie Mae’s business. Perhaps he could get a job and help Ms. Annie Mae and Pops with expenses. As the bus headed “home” the only thing he knew for certain was that he had to make it work. As he slowly walked from the bus station to Ms. Annie Mae’s house, he noted that the neighborhood he grew up in hadn’t changed much, however he didn’t recognized anyone. The community had always been in flux and, for the most part, the people had moved on.
This was not true for Ms. Annie Mae, as she lived in a section of town made up of single-family houses that almost never changed owners. He had taken the long way home postponing, the reunion as long as he could. As he turned into the block where they lived, he was stunned and surprised to hear a teenage yell out “Boo’s home” (a nick name he hadn’t heard for years)!
His home coming was unlike any he could have imaged. Pops and Ms. Annie Mae were waiting on the front porch for him. They were clearly glad to see him. He would learn later that Mr. Fields had informed them of his choice to stay at Hanover and they had seen it as a choice to come home. They had visited him once at the farm and assumed that would be his choice. Ms. Annie Mae was particularly touched by his decision. He now had the best bed room in the house and they started to have great conversations as he did chores that Pops could no longer easily do. She was particularly happy to have him discuss the articles he read in the African-American newspapers published at that time.
Over the next several months, they would discover that they actually liked each other. It was clear that both Pops and Ms. Annie Mae thought the incarceration at Hanover had been unfair given that truancy had been his only crime – and of course they knew by now that many of young men from the neighborhood had not turned out so well. It was during this time, he got to see how much Ms. Annie Mae loved Pops and took care of him. Pops no longer stayed out late at night and cut back on his drinking tremendously. Although he was getting up in age, Pops continued to work, and for the first time, he realized that Pops couldn’t read or write and understood why he had been asked to do certain things for him.
What perhaps was most surprising was the easy way in which they got along, and the pride Ms. Annie Mae took in him for surviving Hanover, whose reputation was a notorious. If he had known how to express it, he would have said that he was going through a healing process. His energy and zest for life returned and he got his first job. This was also the time he started to think of himself as a Black individual. He had pick upped the description from some militant anti-discrimination articles he had read. He liked the sound of it, it seemed less apologetic and appealed to his sense of awareness of the condition of black people in America.
His first job was at a downtown pizzeria frequented by white sailors who were stationed at the local Navy base. He was a combination, janitor, dish washer, bus boy and occasionally pizza deliverer. The hours were from 11: AM to 11: PM and he loved every minute of it. What he loved most was the Juke box that was constantly blaring hits from Black recording artists like the Coasters, Fat Domino, Laverne Baker and Frankie Lyman and the teenagers. The owner of the Pizzeria was over joyed with his work ethic and all was well until he explained that he could not work on an upcoming Sunday – Ms. Annie Mae had a church outing at the beach and wanted him attend. Although Ms. Annie Mae was no pillar of society, she was respected as a strong successful woman who had shown little fear of white people. This was not exactly true. Outside of her house or rather outside of the Black section of town, she was as uncomfortable as many black people were in dealing with white people. Since returning home he quickly inhered the chores of going downtown to interact with them or pay bills as he had done earlier for Pops. This was not true of Ms. Annie Mae at home. The church beach outing was her opportunity to show off her “step son” a term he and she had adopted when he filed for a Social Security card. So he knew there would be trouble that Sunday morning when the owner of the pizzeria knocked on the door, entered the house, and announced that he would have to work that day because no one else was available. The fireworks were predictable. Ms. Annie Mae went off. “He’s not your servant” was one of the nicest things she yelled as she berated him for entering her home without an invitation among other things. The owner of the pizzeria quickly retreated mentioning that he would need to find a new place to work on the way out.
Amazingly, it was his first trip to an ocean beach and it was one of the best days of his life. Ms. Annie Mae treated him like the proud “step son” he had become to her, and he enjoyed the acceptance her friends offered. He didn’t know how to swim; never the less he couldn’t resist plunging in to the warm Atlantic Ocean. Afterwards, he visited the various tents and exhibits on the beach.
He completely forgot about his job until the next day. Ms. Annie Mae made it clear that she wanted him to go pick up his paycheck. Going to face the pizzeria owner was the last thing he wanted to do. But he thought it would be worse to lose the trust and affection Ms. Annie Mae had shown him. He took one of Pops cigarettes (Pops smoked the unfiltered short Lucky Strikes) and headed for the pizzeria. By the time he arrived, the cigarette had made him so sick and dizzy that the pizzeria owner was the least of his problems. He marched right through the front of the establishment (not the employee entrance in back), confronted the owner, and asked for his pay. The owner had anticipated his arrival and had his pay envelope all prepared; probably grateful that he didn’t have to see Ms. Annie Mae again. He rushed home to proudly show Ms. Annie Mae his pay check and offered it to her. He thought she would take part of it as rent for his stay but she would have none of it. “Go get you some new shoes,” was the best possible thing she could have said. As an indication of her trust, she showed him where she hid her money under the floorboards in the kitchen and invited him to use the same space if he needed to. She would have been surprised to know that he had known where her money was from almost his first trip to her house.
As he watched the Marine Corps doctor examine the line of almost 20 young men being given physicals, he sensed that something was wrong and was glad that he had not told Pops or Ms. Annie Mae that he was applying. He had walk into the recruiting office on a whim. As usual, when he was given the standard entrance exam he had done much better than the recruiter had inspected. He was hear now having passed the first hurtle to being a Marine. The doctor had routinely approved all of the candidates prior to reaching him. The doctor approached him, looked him in the eye, kneeled and placed two fingers under the arch of his foot, and announced that he had flat feet and had not passed the physical.
The boy’s response was controlled and polite. He said thank you and headed to the bathroom to get dressed without looking back once. The truth was that he never expected to be accepted. Part of him always knew that they would find a way to deny him. He was never the less, surprised at his calmness and proud of the way he had not let them see how badly he had been hurt. As he left the Armed Forces recruiting station he noted a sign that said, “the Navy Needs You!” One hour later the navy recruiter looked over his entrance exam results and arranged for a physical that same day. By the end of the day he was headed home with applications papers for the U.S. Navy.
Ms. Annie Mae was elated. A navy career for a black man in Norfolk, Virginia carried considerable status. There were still several obstacles to overcome. His record at the Youth Center and Hanover were reviewed and since there was the issue of no birth certificate, he had to produce three affidavits attesting to his age. This was absolutely no problem for Ms. Annie Mae; she called in favors and had the three letters in a week. And so, it was on a warm summer day in September 1957 he and a white kid stood in front of the recruiter and were sworn into the U. S. Navy. They were scheduled to take a bus with other recruits to Richmond the next day and take a train to Great Lakes, Ill.
Ms. Annie Mae practically emptied out the entire refrigerator packing his going away food basket, filling it with more food than he would ever be able to eat. Pops was busy telling everyone he knew that his son was joining the Navy. He knew it was a measurement of their affection and pride and he marveled at how in just six months so much had changed between them and how different his life was.
As he entered the Greyhound bus to Richmond, he realized for the first time how different life was going to be. The bus was loaded with white kids and he was the only black person on it. Although he was used to dealing with individual white people, he had never imagined he would be on a bus with thirty of them. He realized almost instantly that he was in unfamiliar territory. He would once again have to be on guard and under altogether different circumstances. He felt their eyes on him – not unkindly, but curious. His first lesson came as the bus hit the road. He opened Ms. Annie Mae’s food basket, took out a chicken leg and asked the kid sitting next to him if he would like something to eat. He said yes, but rather than reach in the basket, he took it, helped himself and passed the basket across the aisle to the other passengers. He never saw the basket again as he followed it through the bus being emptied out by the passengers. Far from being angry, he was amused. First he thought of Ms. Annie Mae’s reactions to them wolfing down her food like there was no tomorrow, then he remembered that one of the things she always said about white folks was that they “were poor and didn’t even know it, because they were fed so much shit”. He knew at that moment that he would have to guard against, and remember, the sense of entitlement they had regarding black folks (no one had even said thank you for the food or even thought to complement the cook).
He would later think of the lesson he had learned on that bus many times over. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that race would become a defining issue during his Navy career. At boot camp he was assigned to a company of sixty recruits. He joined fifty-seven young white recruits from Georgia, one white recruit from Minnesota (the only one in boot camp to use the N-word) and a black kid from Harlem. The black kid from Harlem would have none of it and quit the very next day. The kids from Georgia were poorly educated, ate food at meals like it was their first time seeing food, and were escaping their environment just like he was. He quickly realized he had an advantage. Having spent time at Hanover, he knew group dynamics much better than they, and he soon discovered, to his amusement, that they were not all that different from the young men at the detention center.
One of the reasons he had joined the Navy was that he had read of a decree by President Truman that blacks and Filipinos could be assigned to duties other than cooks and stewards. With the exception of being unable to swim, he excelled at all areas of boot camp training. At the same time, he was careful to remain deferential to the others in his company. The Navy (like the world it seemed) had falling in love with multiple choice tests. It soon became clear that he was consistently passing many of these tests (radio, sonar, communications, etc.) with a higher score than many others in the company. As a result, accommodations of a sort occurred. When outside of the barracks, he was ignored or clearly treated as an inferior, inside the barracks at night it was just like Hanover. He became a tutor while others did his chores no matter what they were. In fact, the only break from tutoring he had was when he had to attend swimming classes where he was sure he would eventually drown. He was finally able to navigate fifty yards on his back and escape further swimming instructions. As boot camp was drawing to a close, many in the unit had gotten their choices in part due to the tutoring and they came by to let him know it. When he arrived for his placement interview, the personnel man asked him if he would like to be a steward or cook. He was very quiet for a second and then heard himself say, “fuck you, I don’t want to be either.” He was told to, “get out of my office,” and he returned to the barracks without an assignment. He was surprise to find that many in the company were genuinely upset and concerned.
Boot camp was over. Everyone had left for a home visit before taking up their new assignments. He had bought his ticket home but had been unable to purchase a ticket to his new station because he didn’t know where he was going. It was near dark when a sailor showed up with his orders. He felt instant victory as he noted he had been assigned to a personnel office at a Naval Air Station located in Pensacola, Florida. Ms. Annie Mae treated him like a returning war hero for the two weeks at home. It was good to see how much they were enjoying his success. The neighborhood kids were less impressed as he still couldn’t teach them how to swim. The time passed all too swiftly and he didn’t share his foreboding about his new assignment.
His plane landed in Pensacola at the worst possible time. When the van dropped him off from the airport it was 3:A.M. He headed to an open coffee shop and before he could open the door the waitress was explaining that he couldn’t come in. He said he was looking for directions to the bus stop for the Navy base and she pointed to a stop a block away. He had never expected service from the coffee shop. He had lived in the south all of his life, but in many ways he had been spared the daily indignities by living in a city with a large black community with its own stores, restaurants, movies and other businesses.
His main concern was getting to his new duty station on time. When the bus arrived around six am, he eagerly jumped aboard behind the driver asking if he could take him to his location on the bus. He saw that the driver was nervous, briefly wondered why and then he felt the hair on his neck tingle, he turned and saw a group of white workers looking at him with hate in their eyes. He had once again forgotten where he was, sitting at the front of the bus was an affront to these people, no matter the reason. He was sure that had he not been in uniform they would have instantly and cheerfully threw him off the bus at a minimum. The driver pulled up to his building and they both were relieved to see him get off. He was sure that the driver had gone out of his way to drop him off first.
He walked up to the chief Petty Officer on duty seated at the front desk and presented his orders. Before opening the orders, the duty officer asked him where he was supposed to be. Here he said. The duty officer opened the orders, looked at them, looked at him and looked at the orders again. Wait here he said and got up and went into an enclosed office with several officers in it. The window covered the top half of the office and he could see the duty officer show the others his orders. He watched unconcerned. He had already learned how sacrosanct orders were and knew he was in the right place. The duty officer returned, assigned him to a barracks and a unit within the division. He asked how much he knew about computers and he shook his head. As it turned out, he had been assigned to a unit devoted to entering all personnel issues into a newly developed computer system. His refusal had landed him a prime duty assignment, in a Florida beach town. He was barely able to hide the smirk that kept appearing on his face.
He spent the next two years working in the unit. Since working with computers was a new professional grade for the Navy, there was lots of room at the top of the petty officer ranks. Thus he rose to second class petty officer in the minimum amount of time, got a high school GED and for all appearances appeared to be happy and successful. Internally it was another matter. He didn’t go into town once he learned blacks had to enter the only theater through an alley and sit in the balcony. He would occasionally have an embarrassing moment when other sailors from the north would ask him to go to town with them. Usually a southerner would overhear and quietly inform the sailor why he had said no. The only time he saw any black people were at the chow hall when he went to eat. They would look at him with a sense of wonder as he was usually the only black navy person with a job outside of the kitchen they had seen. The library became his refuge. He learned to bowl, play tennis and ran track. It was during this period that he started to make up imaginary characters and heroes to get through the lonely days. Somedays it would be kings, somedays ball players, explorers, scientists and others. Some days the isolation and loneliness would become too much and he would lash out at some of the lower petty officers who had been in the navy for years and resented his swift rise in rank. It would be then that he would remember Hanover and the consequences of ego. Realizing he was losing control, he would take these occasions to go home and spend a week or so listing to Ms. Annie Mae and Pops.
After two years he was transferred to Bainbridge, Maryland and he discovered Baltimore. Thereafter, he spent every weekend he could afford in the city. After Pensacola, the city was alive, exciting and had a large, thriving black communities like Norfolk. Over time the change in Navy policy was became more evident and he began to see other black sailors holding down positions in many different Navy career positions. By now however, he had fallen back into his pattern of self-isolation and although he wanted to, he seldom approach them. He would go home to see Ms. Annie Mae and Pops twice during this period. Although they stayed in touch and would speak a number of times in the future he would never see them again after he left the Navy. As his last days in the Navy approached, he decided not to reenlist. He would go where the movies had been calling him all his life. He was bound for L.A.
Waiting for the Greyhound to take him to California, and full of the exuberance of having survived it all, and the day before his 21st birthday, he made perhaps the last mistake of his youth: “Oh lord,” he said, “Whatever happens don’t let life be ordinary…”
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Alfred Poole is figuring out retirement after a lifetime in social service, including most recently 10 years running the Homelessness Intervention & Block-Grant Administration for the city of Seattle.
Featured image via http://www.city-data.com