NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.
You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY… MARCH 21
“Hootenanny” – An immensely popular folk music TV show that aired for two seasons in 1963 and 1964. It became controversial when it blacklisted Pete Seeger and the Weavers for their left-wing politics. Other performers, most notably Joan Baez, then boycotted appearing on the show. I only saw “Hootenanny” one time, but it was a memorable experience because it was the night I got arrested for inciting a race riot.
1964 – A warm San Diego Saturday night. I had liberty, so for a few precious hours I got to pretend I wasn’t in the Navy. My friend Darrold had duty so I had to go solo. I first went downtown to a locker club and changed from my uniform into civvies. I had a buddy, Koski, on a different ship and I knew he, along with some of his shipmates, had rented an apartment on the beach. In Navy lingo “on the beach” didn’t literally mean on the beach but anywhere off the ship. Turned out Koski had duty also but there were four other sailors at the apartment. One of them knew me as Koski’s friend so I was invited in and they offered me a beer. Unbeknownst to me at the time, accepting that beer was my first mistake of the evening.
“Hootenanny” was on the TV and it was the first time I heard Johnny Cash sing “Ring of Fire.” More beer was consumed and it, and the music, had a mellow effect on me. Not so the others, and their talk became increasingly aggressive. I came to the conclusion these weren’t exactly my type of guys. But what could I do? They were giving me beer.
A decision was made to go to a nearby USO dance. Our group was a small ripple in the large stream of sailors and Marines flowing through the streets of San Diego. Even though we were wearing civvies we all had the mark, and there was little doubt we were military. And because of that we weren’t exactly welcome. There was that sign, probably apocryphal, stating, “Sailors and dogs keep off the grass.” The sentiment bordered on reality.
As we walked the aggression was manifested in an unfortunate way. We encountered another group of sailors, of Filipino descent. There were a lot of Filipinos in the U.S. Navy at the time, mostly Stewards. For reasons not understood by myself, my drinking buddies took umbrage at their existence. They hurled racial taunts at them and thought the term “salt water wetback” was quite funny. The fact I didn’t disappear at that point was an indictment against me. No confrontation ensued and we proceeded to the dance where we were denied entry due to alcohol. As my “friends” argued, I did what I should have done earlier and simply walked away.
A block away I saw the same group of Filipino sailors. In a night filled with mistakes I made another. I approached them thinking an apology was in order. I intended to explain how all white guys weren’t like that. I’m small in stature and these guys were all about my size. Still stung from the earlier encounter they suddenly became brave. Remembering me as part of the racist group one of them clocked me before I could say anything. I reacted instinctively and hit him back. Two of his friends attacked and knocked me to the ground. Some other white sailors saw a white guy getting beat on and came to my rescue. Other Filipinos joined their countrymen and a street brawl ensued. I remained on the ground. One of my few non-mistakes that night. Sirens wailed almost immediately and the police and Shore Patrol swooped in. All the participants fled, everybody that is except me. Maybe because I felt I was innocent, that it was all a misunderstanding, or maybe because I was stupid, I stayed to explain. Those in charge of peace and order were not interested in explanations and I was arrested. I was booked into a Navy holding tank to await transfer back to my ship to face due process and punishment. The jail was nearly empty because it was early in the evening. There was only one other guy in a large cell, a Marine in uniform. Handsome with a chiseled physique he could have been the model for a recruiting poster. Except that he was crying. Crouched down with his back against the wall, his face buried in his hands, his body shook as he cried. Kind of ruined the image of a tough Marine.
There were no benches attached to the bulkhead so I sat on the deck. I said nothing for a few minutes but it was impossible to ignore the crying Marine. It was just the two of us in the semi-shadowy cell.
“Hey man,” I finally said, “it’s not that bad.”
He glanced briefly at me and I could see him making an effort to compose himself. Then he shook his head like he was rejecting my assessment.
“I’m so fucked.”
“Well, yeah, we both are.” Not exactly words of reassurance but I had to say something.
He looked up, not at me but straight ahead. “I can’t take these bars, man, they’re closing in on me.”
The passageway outside the cell was brightly lit providing us with our only light. Through the bars all we could see was a gray, cement bulkhead.
He was shaking his head desperately and I thought he was going to lose it again so I quickly said, “We probably won’t be here long. Just don’t think about it.”
“Just don’t think about it,” he repeated in a semi-mocking tone. But he did take a deep breath. Then he looked at me. “You’re not in the Crotch, are you?”
I shook my head. “No, Navy.”
“Yeah, took you for a squid. You have no idea how bad it’s gonna be for me.”
“Look, they’re taking me back in civvies. How do you think that’s gonna fly?”
He conceded my plight with a nod. I than gave a small, dark laugh. One of my strange talents in life is seeing humor in hopelessness. “We’re here, nothing we can do. No sense making it worse.”
Now he gave a small half-smile. I wasn’t sure what was behind it. Maybe he caught the irony of a small, scrawny sailor bucking up a big, supposedly tough Marine. Maybe it was something else. “Make the best of it, huh?”
I laughed. “Yeah, I know, it sounds dumb. But this is just now.”
“This is just now.” Again he repeated my words, but this time without mockery. This is just now. That simple statement changed everything and started us talking. Not about ourselves, we didn’t even exchange names. Neither did we trade information about the transgressions that landed us here. What we did do was go off on an existential foray. We extended our world beyond the bars. Our bodies were locked in place, our minds weren’t. We struggled to form and express thoughts never previously articulated. We discussed fate and free choice and how they singularly or in collusion brought us here together. I don’t suppose our philosophical conclusions were all that deep. I also suspect there were a lot of “you knows” stated as a some form of meaning. What was important, though, was the escape the expansion of thought brought us. The physical barriers allowed us to go to intellectual places neither had been before. And eased our burden.
We reached no conclusions, we were still searching, for what, (the meaning of life?) when it all abruptly came to an end. I don’t know if a long period of time had passed quickly or we hadn’t been there long. Time had ceased to matter. We were ushered from the cell, signed some paperwork probably attesting to our guilt and then loaded into a paddy wagon. There were no windows and the two of us sat on side benches facing each other in total darkness.
“Now the shit starts,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied. Reality was setting in.
There was almost an embarrassed silence in the dark, like maybe we realized how silly we had been. But then he said, “Thanks, man.”
He sounded confident, I felt less so. There was no going back to where we had been so I moved forward. “You at Pendleton?”
“I’m at the Navy base, they’ll probably take me there first.”
I was wrong. As the drive lengthened I concluded we were heading up the coast to the Marine base at Camp Pendleton. Not good for me. Jarheads and swabbies do not traditionally have great love for one another. I stated my worry out loud and now he reassured me. He did not sound all that reassuring. The vehicle slowed, stopped at what I assumed was the main gate, and then proceeded forward slowly before stopping a final time.
“Good talking to you,” he said.
“Yeah, same here, man.”
The back door was flung open and a voice growled, “Get out!”
Crouched over the Marine moved toward the door. Two sets of arms grabbed and threw him to the ground and began administering a beating.
“You too,” was yelled at me. I tried to explain I didn’t belong here but I too was yanked out of the van. Also thrown to the ground I curled into a fetal position as they began to kick me. I heard my new friend begin to shout, “He’s a squid, he’s a squid!”
The kicking stopped. I remained in a protective curl as some papers were shuffled. Then a voice said, “Shit, he is.” After a short silence another voice said, “Does that mean we can really fuck him up?”
“Nah, we better not.”
With that they threw me back into the van and slammed the door. And that’s the last I ever saw of my cellmate. We had taken care of one another when it was most needed. I regret not learning his name although it might have spared me some future despair. He was a Marine and the meat grinder known as Vietnam was just starting to churn into action. It seems likely that would have been his destination. I can only hope his name did not end up on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.
My crime for the evening was the proverbial being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although I had tried to rectify it and maybe karma shone on me because of that. When I was finally brought aboard ship the Officer of the Deck was not on the quarterdeck, just an enlisted man. I signed in, the Shore Patrol left, and he shrugged indifferently and suggested I go below and change into my uniform. What happened beyond that I’ll never know. Surprisingly I never suffered any disciplinary action. Some unknown force intervened. Or maybe the enlisted man threw my paperwork over the side. I waited anxiously but was never summoned. Nothing was ever said to me and other than some minor cuts and bruises, it was like the incident never happened. I did not face Captain’s Mast nor was anything ever put on my record. It became nothing more than a surreal memory. But I can never listen to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” without thinking about that night.
ABOUT GARY JENNEKE
At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.
You can reach him at email@example.com.
We’d like to thank the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:
* Lead-In Image – Inked Pixels / Shutterstock.com
* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com