Thank you, United States Naval Reserve. You gave me an 11-week adventure, beginning 50 years ago this week, which was truly life-altering.
After three years in a Reserve unit, and some of it aboard the USS Marsh (DE-699), a Buckley-class destroyer escort, among the smaller warships in the U.S. fleet, I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class, off to ritzy Newport, Rhode Island, to attend the Officer Candidate School (OCS) there. I was stepping up toward my dream of becoming a commissioned officer.
I was so naïve. I was dumb, really. Since I was headed to Newport, the land of mansions, and yachts, lawn parties and lemonade, I thought I’d already arrived socially when I got off the bus outside the school. I even took my tennis racket and some jazz records along. Little did I know what was ahead.
I was practically the only Negro for miles around. Out of 2,500 ROCs (Reserve Officer Candidates), there were only nine black faces in the ranks. The only other black folks I saw regularly on the base the whole summer were the kitchen scullery workers.
I got off the bus at the base, dressed Ivy League, as you please, blazer, straw panama.
“Put your orders and your orders only in your right hand, and all your other belongings in your left hand, and double-time, mister!” an upperclassman yelled at me when I stepped down.
I had so many items, I tried to balance the clutter in both hands.
“Put your orders and your orders only in your right hand, and all your other belongings in your left hand, and double-time, mister!” the man repeated, standing close, barking right in my face. I collected myself somehow, and managed to get to the place where I surrendered those civilian belongings for uniforms, not the bell-bottom pants with 13 buttons I’d worn in the fleet. These were straight legged pants, and I got a “hard hat.”
I was assigned to Company K-711. That was “Kilo-7-11,” the 11th company of 60 men each, in the year, 1967. Everywhere we went on the base, we marched in ranks. I was made the student commander of the company. I would march alongside “my” men, barking the “left-right” commands as we stepped along.
Like midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, every single ROC participated in athletics, as part of our military training. Just looking at me — a black guy — my companions presumed I would be an exceptional athlete and lead us to victory in sports competition. Oh, were they wrong. I was a fair to middling athlete, at best.
I did earn for myself a special curiosity among the other ROCs. After a row with a senior ROC about a religious declaration form, I up and decided that my religion would be “Islam.” So, when I received my “dog tags” — those little metal tags military personnel wore to identify one’s remains should a fatality occur — my dog tags said I was a Muslim. I didn’t know much or anything about my new faith, but, there I was, a self-declared Black Muslim at the U.S. Naval Officer Candidate School in the summer of 1967.
It was a tumultuous year. The Vietnam War and opposition to it and to all forms of military service was rising all over the country. The very popular song of the season, which often moved me to tears because I had come east from San Jose State, the southern frontier of the San Francisco Bay Area, was by Scott McKenzie. The lyrics: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. If you’re going to San Francisco, you’re going to meet some gentle people there…”
And then there were urban riots spreading all around. In 1965, I had been at home in Los Angeles when the Watts rebellion took place. I say rebellion, rather than riot, because I understood and felt that uprising was about much more than looting stores.
One “liberty weekend” when I was permitted off the base for leisure, recreation, I found my way to Hurley’s Bar in Newport. It was the “black” bar in town, and I felt more comfortable there than I had with any of the others in my company on tours of the mansions, or yachts, or even at the Newport Blues Festival the day Janis Joplin performed. Everything was fine, until I heard reports of “race riots” in nearby Providence, the urban hub, just 17 miles away.
I ended the summer none the worse for wear, looking forward to returning in 1968, and earning my commission as an ensign in the Navy. Only “providence” intervened again. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, and Newsweek magazine made me an offer I could not refuse.
The prominent magazine filled all of its 12 paid summer internship positions with African-American journalism students from around the country. I was one of them. I accepted the magazine’s offer. I resigned from the Officer’s School.