Launch and Recovery

Launch and Recovery

Waiting between trains in the Richmond, Virginia depot, I hurried into the men’s room, causing a middle-aged negro man to do a double take. “Oh, no, sir! Let me show you something.” He escorted me out and pointed to a sign at the room’s entrance: COLORED painted on the wall above MEN.

I said, “Oh, sorry,” stared at it, then him, and couldn’t come up with anything better to say. My apology seemed odd and inadequate, considering the reality of American racism, about which I felt basically helpless. It also seemed ironic because my first reaction was to feel that, being kept out of the bathroom, I myself was being discriminated against. The incident did make me notice that the depot’s drinking fountains bore similar BLACK and WHITE markers.

In this way my 1962 introduction to the South left a negative impression, which I carried like heavy baggage on down the coast to my new duty station. It bothered me enough to question my own racial attitudes. I don’t think I invoked the old white cliché about some of my best friends being black, but as the wheels turned on the train taking me to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, I certainly thought of the few black people I knew back home and the greater number I’d served with in the military.

Maybe that negative impression was also why I confined myself to base the first few weeks there, beginning my transformation into a Launch and Recovery Technician (in SATS, standing for Short Airfield For Tactical Support). During that time I also made new friends, including in my section of the barracks four black marines. Their leader was a charismatic guy named Pennywell, first name unknown. Marines seldom used first names for each other, though nicknames were common.

Corporal Pennywell was a mountain, 6’8″ with long arms and a thick, wide chest. My first day on the job, while cleaning our barracks, cleaning and lubricating strange looking equipment in a hangar(equipment normally deployed on the runway, I was told), or eating lunch and dinner in the mess hall, I noticed men of all races would cluster around Pennywell. He was the talk-master, telling stories, arguing, dispensing advice.

That evening, while I was lying down, my rack started shaking wildly, alarming me because just two years before the same thing had happened to me during a California earthquake.

Someone said, “Hey, I asked you a question.” The earthquake this time was Pennywell in skivvies, shower shoes, and tee shirt, one hand gripping a corner of my bunk’s metal bed frame.

I swung my legs off the mattress, sat up, and showed him my book. “I didn’t hear what you said. I was reading.”

He looked around and said loud enough to reach several racks near mine, “Hey, you all hear that? The new guy’s a reader. Tell you what, I never seen him ’til now, but I bet he’s got a skin book there. You white boys always reading about sex and never doing much about getting any. Except alone after lights-out when you don’t think anybody can hear you.”

“You’re full of shit, Pennywell,” a guy across the aisle said.

“I bet you ten dollars I’m right.”

Somebody said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Put your money where your mouth is. Ten dollars say he got a skin book!”

I laughed and held the book up so he could read the cover. “I’ll save you some money. It’s Catcher In The Rye, a novel. No sex in it so far.”

A large index finger poked the book. “Why you reading something like that?”

“I heard it was good.” I shrugged. “What’d you first ask me anyway?”

He shook his head as if disgusted. “I asked where you came from.”

“A small town in Ohio.”

“No, man, I mean where you been pulling duty. Were you at Iwakuni?”

I shook my head, recognizing the air station in Japan. “I wasn’t in the air wing. I was a ground pounder for three years and just got back from Okinawa. MOS oh-three-eleven.”

“A fucking rifleman! Well how you going to help us? We do complicated stuff, you know. We all went to school to work in SATS.”

I smiled. “You’ll have to show me what to do.”

“Hah! You better think again. What you prob’ly be doing here is a lot of bullshit details, guard duty, mess duty, loan-outs to other units.” He stopped talking long enough to laugh. “Sign on for another tour, though, maybe they’ll send you to school. What you got, a year left?”

I nodded.

“How long you been E-3?”

I shrugged. “Over a year.”

“Okay, then, their plan is clear to anybody been around as long as I have. They gone to make you E-4 soon, then later on offer you some more shit to re-up?”

I shook my head. “I’m out of here in 12 months.”

“So you say, but they offer you another promotion and throw in some money, a bonus, and I seen it before. Make you think twice. That kind of stuff works.”

“Not on me it won’t.”

It was nice to be accepted so easily into the group’s banter, which I quickly learned went on constantly, everywhere, while we supposedly worked, as long as the staff sergeants and higher ranks weren’t around. There was a core group of us involved, not everyone in the squadron certainly, but everyone on the 12-man crew I was assigned to and others of equal rank on the other crews. On one level I remained an outsider. All of them were at home with the technical stuff, but though they explained things to me, I was really out of my depth, particularly with the jet airplanes our unit dealt with.

One oddity along with the bullshitting, as we called it: while we were on duty, there were always free times, slowdowns, breaks, and during these lulls no matter how short, everybody gambled. Several guys carried decks of playing cards, so hands of poker were dealt. Or Black Jack or Show-down when time was limited. Or tossing coins at a target, a wall for example, closest coin winning. Actually, we’d bet on almost anything. Would that fly land on the windshield? Would the squirrel run up that tree? Would that sleeping dog wake up and run off? Would Johnson yawn again in the next two minutes? Anything. Pennywell was the engine driving our interest in betting. It seemed compulsive with him, maybe because he was the usual winner in poker or dice. He always carried a big roll of bills in a trouser pocket.

Off duty, evenings and weekends, I passed the time playing softball, watching television in the lounge or a movie at the base cinema, or quite often going to the Enlisted (EM) Club. I wasn’t 21 yet, the state’s legal drinking age, but the Enlisted Club served me. One evening over a beer I mentioned the colored sign on the restroom in Richmond and explained how the incident made me think racial relations were probably awful off base among civilians in the South. Johnson, from Chicago, and Kravich, from Boston, laughed. Johnson said, “Didn’t you notice that everybody in here is white?” I looked around. It was true although that fact had never registered with me before.

I said, “Negroes must come in here sometimes.”

Johnson said, “I never saw one.”

I said, “Well that’s just wrong if it’s true. This is federal property. There’s a lot of negroes on the base. How many in our squadron alone? I’d guess 30 or more.”

Kravich said, “Yeah, but the South’s still fighting the Civil War. No different in the Corps, either.”

Back in the barracks, I asked Pennywell about it.

He was spit-shining his boots, sitting on a locker box. “Wouldn’t be smart for brothers to go in the Enlisted Club. No way. Why create problems?”

I said, “But it’s your right to go in there.”

Pennywell looked at me and smiled.

I said, “There’s no regulation stopping you, is there? I mean there’s nothing on paper. All marines are allowed to use the place.”

“Yeah, and the Constitution say that all men are created equal. That what you believe?” Pennywell spat on the toe of his boot and polished away the saliva with a handkerchief wrapped over the ends of his index and middle fingers. They moved smoothly and very fast.

This guy was around 300 pounds, a runner-up in the heavyweight division of an inter-military boxing tournament, I’d been told, and he seemed fearless, but here he was acting as if discrimination didn’t matter.

He lifted his boot, blew on the toe box, looked at me, and said softly, “The rednecks wouldn’t be happy we go in there.”

I wondered about his decision to tolerate such bigotry. Shouldn’t he and the other black marines do something about it? Like at least complain? Then again, complaining would probably be interpreted as a criticism of the higher authorities, who were, at the same time, the ones permitting the discrimination. How could any enlisted marine complain to them? Pennywell obviously knew the situation better than I did. I was slower on such nuances back in those days.

Johnson and Kravich had heard Pennywell talking with me so off and on we discussed it ourselves. It still made me angry, and one day I said, “Something should be done about it.”

“By who? Us?” Johnson said.

I shrugged. “Why not us.”

He said, “And do what?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Something.”

Kravich said, “Not much we can do.”

They were right. I didn’t want to go to authorities, complain about it, and end up in a big mess myself.

Even so, that the rednecks, these prejudiced people, victimized and limited the choices of our black friends was obvious, and their obnoxious influence became more apparent to me as the days passed. Kravich, Johnson, and I often heard them using the term nigger like a weapon. We played on one of the squadron’s fast pitch softball teams, as did several blacks, and we now remarked that no rednecks were on our team. Then we noticed their separation from the rest of us everywhere. Rednecks didn’t mix with us on the basketball courts, in the chow hall, at movies, the snack bar, or the Enlisted Club, on busses or trucks. Anywhere choice permitted a separation, they sat together. Aloof. In the barracks most of the rednecks lived together on the 1st floor, we were on the 2nd, and just a couple were scattered on the 3rd. One end of each floor, though, did have a mixture of lower ranking NCOs bunking together, like floor supervisors, corporal E-4s (like Pennywell) and one sergeant E-5 in charge. On our floor the E-5 was a redneck from Texas.

These facts irritated us, and maybe because of that, out of nowhere it seemed, Johnson said one day, “Fuck the rednecks. I got us some dates for tomorrow night if you’re up for it.”

He’d somehow convinced three negro Women Marines to accompany the three of us to the Enlisted Club. At exactly 8:00 o’clock, the appointed hour, the ladies were waiting for us just outside the entrance to the Women Marine barracks . We introduced ourselves, but no last names came from them. They were Hazel, Lavonda, and Lillian, so we said Bob, Andy, and Bill, the first time I’d heard Johnson’s and Kravich’s 1st names. Walking the four blocks to the Enlisted Club, the six of us made small talk and acted casual, as if we were just three regular couples in civilian clothing out for a stroll. The women seemed very relaxed, but I was tense, wondering how the other marines would react to us, anticipating animosity but uncertain how bad it might be. I was anxious the way you get when adrenaline hits your muscles and you struggle to maintain outward control. The subjects of what we were doing and what might happen never came up, but I thought we were all aware of the possibilities.

The Em Club was crowded and noisy when the six of us entered, but as we crossed the floor toward an unoccupied table, all movement and sound stopped and all eyes turned our way. While the ladies and Kravich sat and Johnson and I borrowed empty chairs from nearby tables so the six of us could sit together, the give-and-take of conversations resumed. The worst of the crowd’s reaction seemed to be over. I relaxed a little. We ordered, received our drinks, and tried to talk, but the noise made that difficult. Jukebox music was blaring louder than the voices.

We swallowed a little beer, then mostly through hand signals decided to go onto the dance floor, which caused my anxiety to heighten, aware that we’d be forcing the other people present to witness us in closer physical contact with the women. Additionally, dancing, especially in front of strangers, was not my forte. Johnson and Kravich seemed as awkward as I felt. We were so embarrassed, we were laughing and apologizing to the ladies at the same time. The ladies saw the problem and took charge, leading us through a few steps. Lavonda, my “date,” was very encouraging. Between songs she said, “Bill, you got the wherewithal, but relax. You do that, you’d be good. Believe me. Try it again.”

We slow danced the next song, during which I felt nearly comfortable, but then a song even faster than the first one came on. My “date” tried to teach me a movement for it, but I was very clumsy trying to do it. Johnson and Kravich were no better dancing with their “dates” than I was. We were laughable, really.

When this song ended, I was so self-conscious I looked around for the crowd’s reaction and discovered that the floor was empty except for our three couples. In the dining hall, the tables were all empty, and the last people in the building besides ourselves and the workers were heading out the door.

What I felt at that moment was dread. After coming into the place, I’d miscalculated our acceptance, thinking the people were at worst ignoring our presence. Because this was a Thursday night, the place was not as crowded as could be, but even so it always had a lot of drinkers until closing, which was a couple of hours away yet. That everyone had left the place to us seemed like a warning more than a mere rejection.

We didn’t order another drink or any food. We tried sitting there, sipping the remainder of our drinks, but being so isolated, having the entire building to ourselves intimidated us. We didn’t talk. We checked the big wall clock. Something bad seemed about to happen so we left. We didn’t even finish our drinks.

All the way to the Women Marines barracks, the darkness felt threatening, but every deep shadow we entered, we exited safely. There wasn’t much talking either. We were alert, listening for trouble. The women felt it too, but at their barracks entrance, they were nice, even gracious. We thanked them, and I almost apologized, aware for the first time that we’d been using them, yet the six of us had not even discussed the derring-do of our association.

Walking back to our barracks, I thought it over. If our being at the Em Club with black women so offended the other marines, why hadn’t they voiced their objections? Why hadn’t they assaulted us? Maybe because the three of us were good size and in good shape, Johnson 6’4″, a basketball player, Kravich 6′ but built like a rugby player, with very broad shoulders, and me at 6′ in infantry shape. Maybe our size had deterred any physical objection.

Inside the barracks, we three sat near my rack for a few minutes, doing more thinking than talking, not feeling very proud of ourselves, when Pennywell came strolling down the aisle wrapped in towels, using one to dry his hair. “Hey, what you bad boys been doing?”

Pennywell was smiling. A few other marines were at their racks and lockers, loafing. A radio was playing top 40 tunes. While Pennywell leaned against my top rack, Johnson told him about our dates.

Pennywell’s smile disappeared at the first mention of the black Women Marines. By the end of the story, Pennywell was shaking his head and seemed at a loss for words.

Johnson said, “What?”

“I knew you all were dumb, but that was so stupid I can’t believe it. You could’ve got those girls hurt, and I mean hurt bad. I don’t give a shit about you three, you deserve to get hurt, but I will say this. You’re lucky to be here alive.”

Kravich grinned. “Maybe the rednecks aren’t as bad as you think.”

Pennywell just stared at us. “Like I said, you are dumb!”

Johnson said, “Nobody even said a word to us.”

“Maybe you got away with it, maybe you didn’t.” He looked around at the racks farther back in the barracks where his rack was, then turned back to glare at Johnson. “Who were the sisters? Bet they was new people don’t know much about this place. What was their names?”

Johnson said Lillian Miller was the one he’d paired up with. Said he’d met her at the infirmary the other day and set up the dates with her. She’d found the other two women. He didn’t know the last name of Lavonda or Hazel. He did know they were all three PFCs.

Pennywell said, “I knew they had to be new.”

Kravich said, “Hazel didn’t mention her last name.”

I said, “Neither did Lavonda.”

“You could’ve asked them,” Pennywell said, shaking his head again. “Don’t talk to me no more. None of you. I don’t ever want to talk to you three again.”

Johnson laughed. “Man, you’re jealous because the ladies went out with us. You probably couldn’t get a date with them yourself.”

“Damn!” Pennywell shouted. He breathed deeply, and I could see the large biceps expand just under the towel over his shoulders. “That wasn’t no date. Just a game to you three. You all are as prejudiced as the people you making fun of. Don’t even know those women’s full name. Tell you another thing. I bet you this ain’t over with yet either.”

After Pennywell disappeared down the aisle going to his rack, I said, “I think he’s right. We’re lucky nobody got hurt.”

But someone did get hurt, a white private who heard what we did and imitated us a few day’s later. I don’t know how he heard our story. We didn’t talk about it with anyone else. But of course there’d been a crowd in the Em Club when we’d been there so there were plenty of witnesses. Probably from them the story had made its way around the base. Whatever way he learned of what we’d done, this guy took a Negro WM to the Enlisted Club one evening the next week. They had drinks, some food, danced, stayed two hours, and then he was beaten up on his way back to his barracks. Beaten severely. The WM escaped unscathed. Medics ambulanced our emulator to the hospital. He was so badly damaged, he could return to limited duty only after a month’s therapy. There was a brief investigation by CID (Civilian Investigation Division), but no arrests. The victims couldn’t or wouldn’t identify their attackers. Johnson, Kravich and I were never questioned, but what could we have said? We didn’t even know the guy.

Pennywell broke his silence with us the day after that assault. As he passed my bunk, he said, “You all can blame yourself for what happened to that other dumb kid.”

I told Johnson and Kravich over a beer at the Em Club that evening. They didn’t know the victim either and didn’t accept Pennywell’s notion of our guilt in his beating, or at least they made it clear that they were trying not to. I was sure that what we’d done was related.

“Those damn rednecks,” the three of us said or thought. That was the best we could do, blame the people who’d done the actual beating and avoid blaming ourselves.

Two days after the other guy’s beating, some of the rednecks in our building caught my attention running down the aisle past my bunk to the end of our room. Then the black guys on our floor and one from downstairs ran past. I yelled at Johnson and Kravich, ran to the far end of the building myself, and the three of us arrived almost in time to witness the whole commotion. It was caused by the sergeant E-5 from Texas. He was cursing Pennywell, and after several blasts of calling him nigger and worse, I understood the reason. He was accusing my friend of transgressing an invisible boundary, of laying personal items on the sergeant’s bunk.

Despite the insulting language, when Pennywell understood what the harangue was about, he calmly removed his towel and do-rag off the man’s mattress. “Okay?”

Surprisingly, the sergeant walked right up and rammed Pennywell’s chest with his own, then craned his neck to look up at the towering boxer. The other rednecks closed in shoulder to shoulder facing Pennywell. The sergeant screamed, “Keep your shit to yourself!”

The nerve of these guys shocked me. This man was even at six feet four inches dwarfed by Pennywell. Pennywell could’ve put him down with one quick jab.

One of the other rednecks yelled, “You’re pushing it, boy!”

The sergeant said, “I got to live in the same room with you, nigger, but I won’t put up with you people’s sloppy ways. You hear?”

Pennywell crossed his arms on his chest and gazed placidly from one redneck to another. The other five Negroes present closed in more tightly beside Pennywell. The antagonists were about evenly numbered, except that all of the other marines who were there with us, the audience, were white. With Johnson, Kravich and me in front between the opposing groups, the semi-circle of the audience hemmed in the rednecks and blacks against the back wall.

I’d been involved in two racial fights while in the infantry, and they’d been bloody. They’d ended with injuries, captain’s mast, and punishments. A fight now could be bad, but one seemed about to erupt.

The white sergeant cursed Pennywell, then Pennywell’s friends, Pennywell’s parents, then the black race in general. Face to face, body to body with Pennywell, the man threw epithets and vile, degrading insults at Pennywell and the others, conveying not just boldness but also a hatred almost beyond control. Also, I thought, the white sergeant seemed to assume that all of us whites were backing him. I remembered the crowd leaving us alone in the Em Club but still believed most of us weren’t siding with the rednecks. I wasn’t. My body grew so tense, my muscles ached. My fight or flight reaction kicked in.

Pennywell remained calm. Amid the insults and curses, he spread his long wings in front of his Negro friends. “Don’t do or say nothing. They just want a chance to start something. Hang loose.”

My friend Johnson said to the E-5, “Cool it, Sarge. Nobody wants a fight.”

That broke the sergeant’s concentration. He stared menacingly once more at the Negroes, then turned and stepped toward Johnson. “You better watch your step too, nigger lover.” His eyes shot out a stream of heat as he aimed them from Johnson, to me, then Kravich.

He led the rednecks away. They stomped down the aisle and off our floor. The black marines were furious, cursing and making threats. As the crowd dispersed, Pennywell looked at the three of us and shook his head, then turned to the other black guys and started calming them down. He didn’t have to say a word of explanation to us. We knew what he was thinking.

And Pennywell was right—I was sure our date with the three black WMs had stimulated the rednecks’ confrontation with him. The white sergeant had gone out of his way to specifically call us three “nigger lovers,” hadn’t he? But I was also fairly sure that “our rednecks” had not been the ones who’d beaten so mercilessly the young white marine. The sergeant and his friends had been away from Cherry Point at the time of the beating, on duty at one of Cherry Point’s auxiliary airfields, Bogue Field. The sergeant from Texas was back in our building now because his crew’s rotation out there had ended the day before, when he’d probably heard about what we’d done.

The day after this confrontation in the barracks, Bogue Field is where we went. Two cattle cars conveyed our crew, a catapult crew, and units of firefighters and seabees there, our duffle bags full of our clothing at our feet. Wind through the open doorways and windows of the converted cargo trailer whipped me seated on a bench, sometimes standing, one hand holding a head-high rail for balance. Like a tourist, I watched the countryside expand and tried to forget the racial problems we’d stirred up. We drove more deeply into a state where thick woods interrupted open pastures, cotton fields, tobacco fields, and some fields whose crops I couldn’t name. The sun glared so much it made me occasionally look away and wipe my eyes. We passed few cars, fewer pedestrians. The area away from Cherry Point and the abutting town of Havelock seemed very sparsely populated.

I knew nothing about our destination except that we’d be living in tents, catching and watching jet aircraft being launched, and I’d be learning how to operate our recovery machines and direct aircraft as they taxied. My mind would be on business, not race relations.

Our new residence from the road looked almost undeveloped: a thick pine forest with a large open space at the gate, a sandy road cutting back into the trees past a small white guard shack, a white wooden arm blocking the entrance, and a rectangular sign with name and Marine Corps emblem partially obscured by holes left by bullets, buckshot, and birdshot. As we drove in past the sign, “riddled” was the word that came to mind. The people who’d be living around us had to love their guns, but maybe not the presence of Marine Corps visitors. I was back among the civilians again as I’d been at the Richmond train depot, and I sensed that racial matters here could be worse than they were back on the main base.


About the Author

Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.