How Soft the Hand
type story here How Soft the Hand
“Do I believe that I am a child of a Supreme Being” Tom remarked. “Absolutely”! Although it was hard for some folks to come right out and make such a statement. He had no problem with it. In fact he was proud of saying it everytime he got the chance.
Born in 1936 in the northern state of Minnesota, one would think that anyone with that kind of an attitude, had to be some kind of racist; one of the many members of the hate groups that seem to be cropping up throughout the country.
He had lived as a child in a small town with a population of “Ten Thousand”. The town was so poor that there wasn’t enough money to buy paint to change the sign at the city limits. But it was home and there were no problems with the different cultures that occupied this place on the map.
There were Norwegians, Swedes, Poles, Irish, Germans, a few Indians and one Black family. Everybody got along with each other and there were no problems to speak of. Oh, there was a little whooping and hollering on Saturday nights, or when the Indians got their government checks. But nothing big you understand. It wasn’t until the world war came along that any of them knew much about the troubled times that this country was going through, mainly in the south. “What are those people doing down there”, you could hear them say. “Must be crazy the way they treat those poor folk. Thought they would have learned their lesson, sense they lost the civil war”.
Tom enjoyed his life in that small town. The family moved west when he was about eleven, to another small town in Washington State. The people here were of somewhat the same caliber as back home, with an exception. The racial balance was not the same. The folks would say, “Must be because of the Sailors and the Marines”. Of course being young, “We were not allowed to go down town at night”. The alcohol flowed and the fights were on. One branch of the servicemen couldn’t get along with the other.
At the ripe age of seventeen the navy called help and Tom went in to give them a hand. It was not like he wanted to become a hero or anything. The world was out there and he felt that he would like to see for himself, what there was left of it. Boot camp at San Diego, California was the first taste of racial prejudice. It was here, where those from the south brought in hatred of those of color as well as a mention of Jews and of the Spanish heritage. Tom could not understand why all this hatred for fellow Americans. Were they not joining the same US NAVY together? One young man from Washington State, who was of Irish ancestry, got picked on because he was too skinny. They threw a pillowcase over his head and had two others punch him until they made him cry.
By the end of the seven weeks of training, most of the spunk was whipped out of the tough guys. Once assigned to their first ship, it looked like discipline had the control and things settled down. “Now this is what the Navy is all about”, thought Tom. “Once The toughs got the sh.. kicked out of them”, they seemed to get along. At least while on board the ship. Liberty call was a different thing. Get a few drinks down their throats and it was like the good old days. Fights broke out at the least hint of a racial slur. It got to the point where the Blacks had to stand in groups of ten in order to left alone. On board, no problem.
After a few years riding Destroyers in the Pacific Ocean, Tom got a transfer to the east coast and reported on board another Destroyer of the USS Sumner class. It was here that he found a good friend by the name of Willie King. It was said that he came from Texas. The two of them had a ball together while over in the Mediterranean. They found that their interests were about the same and hung around like the real pals they were. If you saw one, the other was close by. On board ship, they were both trying for Boswains Mate Third Class. The next test came while they were touring the Med. They both passed, but were quoted out, which meant that there was no room on the billet for them. Maybe the next time.
When the ship returned to the States at Norfolk, Virginia. They talked it over and realized that if they went to boat school and learn how to run all small boats, it might help them get rated. So they both put in for it and got it. Monday morning came and they climbed on board the city transit bus and sat together, about half way down the aisle. The bus didn’t move and Tom was about to ask why, when the driver turned around and said, “You have to move up in front of the middle line on the bus”. They both pointed to themselves and he said “The white sailor”. “You mean me”! Tom said with a puzzled look on his face. Race had never been an issue with them. “Yes you”, came back the driver. “The black has to sit back behind the line”. “I don’t think so”, said Tom “We are both in the US NAVY and we will sit where we will. Besides that is against the law”. “Not down here and if you don’t move, the bus won’t either”, he snapped. “It’s better that we do what he says”, said Willie. He had been through this kind of thing many times in his life. Like the driver said; “The bus won’t move”. There was no sense creating a commotion in this strange place. So Tom moved, but just one seat up. That put him right in front of Willie. He would just turn around face him when they talked. They soon bought a car together so they could talk. Stupid, right?
As things would have it, the years went by and Tom was due to get out of the navy. Willie and he never made their rate because of the quotas put on. They said their goodbye, shook hands and wished each other good luck and Tom left the ship for home. It was three years later that Tom, after not finding the right job in civilian life, joined up again. He reported back to Norfolk to another Destroyer. This time he felt that the race problem was probably over. One weekend he had no where to go, so he wandered down to the Greyhound Bus station to see how far he could go on a seventy two hour pass. The station was packed with people of both races. The first thing he noticed was the restrooms labeled WHITE on one side and BLACK on the other side of the station. Even the water fountains, were labeled the same. “THE WATER FOUNTAINS”! It was all Tom could stand. He saw a large map of Virginia on the wall, so he walked up to it, closed his eyes and put his finger on the map. When he opened his eyes, his finger pointed to the town of Suffolk, Virginia, Population 47,621. He bought the ticket and climbed onboard the bus. He had to get away from Norfolk.
The two and a half days he spent there in Suffolk, and it was one of his most relaxing times that he spent in that state. He couldn’t do a whole lot of things because of the lack of a car. But he saw both movies at the one theater in town. They had a change of movies on Saturday. He ate at the local restaurant and talked with the local people. He found out that the town was the peanut capital of the USA. Oh I forgot to mention that the population of the town was 98% black. On Sunday evening he boarded the bus for the trip back to Norfolk and the ship.
It was many years later back in Washington State, that Tom found the peace that he was looking for in himself. It all happened after he had married and found himself in a church where race didn’t matter. For as he was told “We are all God’s children”. He knew this all along but found that there were others who felt different and tried to make waves wherever they went. One day while he and the wife were looking in the paper; they saw an article that read, “Looking for members of other churches and all others who can sing, to join us in the creation of a 100 member choir to sing in the celebration of “Martin Luther King Day”. It named a very small church of African descent that had a wonderful pastor who had but one thing on his mind. That was to unite the races in one common goal. We were at the first practice with a few of our friends. It went quite well even if the music was little faster then Tom had been used to. Like he said one day, “They can really get on down”.
For the next three years they participated in this choir and had fun doing it. But it wasn’t until this last one that he felt free of any convictions he might have had in his mind. The leader of this choir was full to the top, with the desire to make this one work. She lived in a city, sixty miles away and would travel back and forth just to lead this choir once a week. The last week, she came four nights in a row.
The day of the celebration came and we were all at the rented hall. All the dignitaries from the towns in the county were there as well as a good representation from the military. The choir had four songs to sing and we were ready to do so when called on. We opened with the first song, right after the flags were brought in by the color barriers and set in their stands. One at a time the first five town officials gave their talks. Then we sang. Several groups preformed before the crowd and were very good. There were Japanese dancers, Philippines dancers and someone from Guam representing the Island peoples. We sang another song and as after all songs, we sat back in our seats in the first two rows. More dignitaries and more talks. They were all very good talks and what they said, made a lot of sense.
We were called to sing our last song. By this time, Tom was feeling great about the whole program and about Willie, his friend, and many others that he had met. Of those people that treated him so nice at Suffolk, Virginia; of being one with his neighbors. The song was sung and we were given a standing ovation as we returned to our seats. The pastor of the lead church gave one more talk. When he was through the choir leader stood and lead the whole audience in the song “WE SHALL OVER COME”, while everyone held the hand of their neighbor. Tom was next to the last person in his row. The last person was a little black girl of about ten years old. He took her hand into his right hand as they all sang together. Then the choir leader changed the words to the song with “WE HAVE OVER COME” and everyone agreed with it and the sound grew louder. It was then that the thought came to Tom’s mind; HOW SOFT THE HAND of this precious child, how soft the hand. When the song ended and the program was over, Tom turned toward the little girl and looked down to her as she looked up to him. Her eyes fixed to his and they both felt the magic dancing in their hearts. She made the first move when she leaped into his arms and gave him the biggest hug he had ever had. The tears fell down his cheeks in full. This was the true feeling of love for your follow beings. This is what he had known all his life. From those the days of his childhood, back in that small town in Minnesota. This, he knew, is what the real feeling of being an American was like. His friend Willie was right when he said, “It makes no difference what others may think of you, but what you may think of others. For the hate is only temporary and one day, with the power of the Lord, all will be right”. That day is here and will stay with Tom the rest of his life. He was free at last, my God he was free at last.
Joseph Marvin McManus
27 August 2000