Negro Mens' Beach

Kathryn Lynch

Copyright 2019 by Kathryn Lynch

Stories About My Dad:

The Haircut
Negro Mens' Beach
Andy Bageson
Photo of a white man getting a shave from a black barber.

This is the second story about my Dad, who taught this author the meaning of racial acceptance by his example during the Second World War years. At that time, Americans with dark skin were called “negroes”, not intended to disrespect anyone.

My parents were born and raised in adjacent small towns in the State of Maine. In the 1930s, Biddeford, Maine was a French town. Most of its residents lived, worked and died never speaking English. Across the river, Saco, Maine was an Irish town where the functional language was English and where the French were not welcome! If an Irishman from Saco married a Frenchman from Biddeford, their children were considered “mixed” and only marginally accepted by both groups. So it was, I began my life as a mixed child. In addition, I was profoundly nearsighted, a condition not discovered and corrected until my first pair or thick glasses at age 11. The world outside of a two foot range was a blur. I simply was unable to see the physical differences in people, a condition which would serve me well in future years.
When my Dad entered military service in 1941 to make his contribution to the war effort, he had no exposure whatsoever to persons of skin tones other than white. He was ordered to report to Fort Devens Army Base in Boston for basic training. He saw negroes, of course, but they were housed and trained on the other side of the base. There was no interaction between negro and white troops. Segregation was strictly enforced, and failure to comply with these rules was a violation of military law, punishable by the dreaded court martial.

As the war began to wind down in 1944, my Dad who had been trained as a military policemen was transferred to Fort Lewis Army Base near Tacoma, Washington. There, his primary duties required him to guard a large contingent of foreign prisoners of war, preparing them for repatriation back to their own countries to honor the terms of surrender. Sensing the end of War the following year, my mother, younger sister and I had made the trip from Maine to western Washington to live in nearby off base housing with my Dad.

Fort Lewis Army Base and McChord Air Force Base were still two large military complexes, adjacent but separated. American Lake, nestled in between, provided a recreational area for army and air force personnel when they were off duty.

So it was, that on a sunny day in May I put on my bathing suit and climbed into the family car, a beaten up 1936 Plymouth, that rumbled down the road on bald tires and worn out shock absorbers, for a day at American Lake. The beach was crowded as Mom laid out the picnic lunch on a blanket spread on the sand. Both of my parents espoused the set-in-stone rule that after a meal one should not go in the water until one hour had passed. Otherwise a person would get cramps. I found the concept foolish, and still do, but there was no way to break the rule.

At last the hour came to a close. Grabbing a beach ball I ran to the incoming waves. I could see no children playing at my point of entry, but movement and noise attracted me down the beach to children playing with their own ball. Alternating games of catch and tag, laughter and squealing filled the air. If there was fun to be enjoyed, I had found it,

I had been absorbed in the game for a while, when a large shadow interrupted the fun. The laughter and noise suddenly fell silent as frightened, wide eyed children fell back. I was grabbed from behind, one hand on my swimsuit and the other on the back of my neck, absolutely terrified until I realized that it was my Dad. I was a tall child, but Dad carried me all the way to the backseat of the car, where I landed unceremoniously in a heap. Mom hurriedly piled in my younger sister and the remnants of the picnic. The car didn't always start but this time it did, and the faces of my parents flooded with relief. We left the beach immediately to go home.

It was obvious that something terrible had happened but I had no idea what that might be. That evening my Dad explained to me that I had wandered onto the Negro Men's Beach, that this area was strictly off limits, and that he hoped that he would not be court martialed as a result. A court martial would remove his hard-earned Sargeant stripes and result in a loss of Military Severance Pay with which my parents had planned to buy a house.

I had no clue what a “negro man” looked like. In my nearsighted world, the children I played with were blurry. It was all I could do to follow the ball. I knew that my actions were not motivated by rebellion and that the rules in place seemed restrictive and unfair. I instinctively knew that my Dad felt the same way, though he left his views unexpressed. He wasn't truly angry but I understood that he feared an incident report which would delay his discharge from military service.

As I ;ay in my darkened bedroom that night, I wondered to myself why my Dad seemed to have no fear when he told others that “You can never turn your back on the prisoners. They will cut your throat”. At the same time, he was afraid that his own superior officers might punish him with prison for fraternizing with other people who were Americans.

I visited American Lake again at the age of 81. All indications that this might have once been the site of segregated beaches had long disappeared. Children of all hues ran back and forth, splashing and chasing each other in the game of the moment.

No Incident Report was filed against my Dad. He was mustered out of the U. S. Army with an honorable discharge. in 1946.

By Executive Order, President Truman integrated all branches of military service in the United States in July of 1948.

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