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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Incident Report was filed against my Dad. He was mustered out of the
U. S. Army with an honorable discharge. in 1946.
Executive Order, President Truman integrated all branches of military
service in the United States in July of 1948.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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