In the Navy
The next morning Curtis woke up eager to get his Navy business done, at the base while Martha slept off her journey. He needed to clear things up about a transfer. There had been prospects in Connecticut, New Jersey and somewhere called Nantucket.
He looked around the apartment. Thankfully Martha had been too tired to have a good look, at the degraded state of the flat. It was a shithole. The previous tenant had left junk and drug paraphernalia all over.
Martha could wake up to regret her decision, since there was only so much he could clear away. He was banking on her vibrant spirit to carry them forward and he’d come home with bagels and coffee, to make up for leaving so early.
Walking he thought of how lucky he was, to U.S. Naval Headquarters at West 125th Street. The Navy had been good to him. What other employer could get you a distinguished resume as cook, orderly and manager of ship services, all in a few short years?
When they were married he planned to continue, Navy duty based out of New York but something was nagging at him. He was disturbed how Martha was such an attention magnet. How could he leave his new bride, to fend for herself?
Harlem’s racial ghetto of black and Hispanic, was different than where they met in multicultural Montreal. You could see the danger and desperation in how people scoped each other out, as if they were assessing who would be the most lucrative person to mug.
Curtis had joined the service nearly four years ago in Charleston, the city famous for Civil War memorials, lighthouses and forts. He had never been outside of Georgia before that. He had been intrigued by the U.S. Navy poster slogan, “Join the Navy, See the World,” posted around town.
See the world and get a free education.
His heart skipped at the thought, of bypassing a predestined Johnston career that evolved, from former slave to former servant, to independent farmer.
The second son didn’t reap the same rewards, as the first-born, “There’s only enough to go around to get Will up and running at the store! You know I need you in the field,” his father had said.
In the end Cora may have intervened because Ben changed his mind, “You boys have been hard working hands. I’ll manage with you’se gone. Your Ma would rather get you into something, you will be successful at, ‘Sides having a service man in the Johnston family, my god wouldn’t that be something,’” he said. Ben had always said the service offered a disciplined structure, that a black man could perform in his sleep so why not do, whilst watching crackers in service.
Curtis signed up.
Leaving his family and friends had been tough but he’d heard the Navy kept their colored boys together, so he’d get himself a network. His experience growing up had been whites were mostly assholes until he got to the Navy, where he learned entitled white boys made Georgia rednecks, seem tame by comparison.
He bunked with Norman, a slow learning, heavy-set white man with a big heart who’d lived with his mother before enlisting. Norman surprised Curtis in his childlike simplicity, perhaps due to some accident or condition. He wondered how Norman made it this far in life.
Norman had fearsome spells where he completely froze, unable to make up his bunk some mornings for Sarge inspection, “Come on snap out of it Norm!” Curtis would plead. He’d try to mitigate trouble on behalf of the squad, who end up taking the punishment. Curtis wound up cleaning toilets or doing their laundry, if Norman messed up.
Norman had terrible nightmares often waking up screaming, for his mother or long deceased father. Curtis would console him with pats on the knee, or by reading to him until he fall back asleep, “You good now Norm? You’re momma is sitting back home, proud as a peach for your service to America. You are U.S. Navy,” Curtis said. Norman was from Savannah, so reference to the Georgia Peach State cheered him up.
Of course he knew Norman would betray him one day. That was how things worked with white folks. As soon as it made sense, white man logic had Norman pulling out an accusatory finger.
Norman accused Curtis of keeping him up with nightly harassment, for months making it impossible for him to continue in the service. He was charged for the incident but the betrayal was significant, since Curtis had been the only one to stick up for Norman.
“Curtis, what would Jesus do?” he heard his mother’s words.
“I know Momma. Turn the other cheek,” Curtis would answer. That answer just didn’t fly anymore.
Curtis questioned Jesus. What about this lifetime? Couldn’t this life be fair instead of having to wait for the next one?
After much consideration of Norman’s moral fortitude and possible mental illness, Curtis took the blame in stride stating, “It’s quite possible my nightly sleep patterns, have interrupted my bunkmate over the months and for that I apologize.”
When Norman declined alternative accommodation, he was honorably discharged.
Curtis learned most whites liked and accepted him just fine. At the same time he grew weary, continuing levels of sugar coated subservience and began to feel deep resentment, where he’d previously been easygoing. Flare ups resulted in a couple of serious altercations.
On the day after a payday Curtis and a few fellows were having pints in the canteen. He was in a shitty mood fed up with the needling, not in right frame of mind to tolerate the ignorant captain.
“Would you look at that, your palms are pink like mine while the rest of you is so dark!” he said incredulous. The captain kept turning Curtis’ hand upwards, then downwards then up… while others watched. Curtis wasn’t shocked by the comment but his reaction made the captain angry.
“You best be watching your P’s and Q’s! [pints and quarts]. I ain’t never seen a colored arse bandit!” the captain sneered at Curtis.
“That’s due to you ship honkeys, working us until my color clean worn off,” Curtis had said.
A bar brawl ensued and Curtis was charged.
In the end Curtis was lucky the incident, was chalked up to drunkenness all sides and the charge got dropped.
Soon after that, circa 1958 Curtis was lucky to be chosen along with five other mates, to transfer up to Montreal. They would share best-practice with the Canadian naval division and be housed in shared accommodation, at the city’s old port area.
“Sir, my home base is currently Charleston. I need to put in a transfer request to district 3, as soon as I can. You see my wife is from up here,” Curtis said, to the red-haired coordination officer.
The only way he was going to keep his employ with the U.S. Navy having a white wife, was to have put down roots in liberal minded New York.
“Listen Ensign, it’s not as simple as that. You wanna think about the consequences of your actions here. There’s the request, approvals and then the availability of course. Do you understand?” he asked.
“Yes Sir,” Curtis said. He was panicked again almost like a hamster in his head took breaks of calm but then jumped back on it’s crazy wheel. What would Martha do in Harlem if he was out to sea, except be harassed…
For him the leers were different. Martha was ogled as prey for money and otherwise. When they walked to Harlem from 116th subway his muscles had tensed up, knowing he’d be required to defend if she were attacked. Upping the risk of him being misunderstood or framed, then jailed as a troublemaking Neanderthal.
He had pulled her tight and hated whispering, “don’t look them in the eyes.” The attention might be tough to live through.
“Who’s the man now? Married? Good for you Son,” the officer said grinning.
Curtis was surprised. These superior officer types usually wanted to dissect decisions of subordinates as if they were children.
This man was different, “Is she a pretty young thing with some curve appeal?” he waved his hand in an hourglass shape.
Curtis didn’t let the locker room talk irk him. All he needed were some nice clean transfer papers.
“Alright Johnston, you’re in luck! Here are the openings in district 3. Oh well wait, not those,” he scanned his eyes down the sheet of paper. “The North is open-minded but your best bet is this galley cook assignment,” he said, pointing to the line item on the sheet, “Don’t worry Son, even a dumbass can learn to cook this caliber of mess hall slop,” he said. The officer thought himself a comedian.
“I’ll take it. Thank you.” Cooking was way better than latrine officer or ship custodian.
“Good on you. Can I tell you somethin’? It won’t be no better up north,” he said, staring peculiarly. The thing about advice from white folk was you never knew which part was sincere and which part wasn’t. It was hard to keep up the Yes Massa act.
“I appreciate that Sir. As soon as you sign me outta here, you won’t need to concern yourself about me,” Curtis said, wincing at the insolence he heard in his own tone. Intentional disrespect had nearly cost him his career, many times before. He couldn’t afford to mess it up this time.
Curtis retained eye-contact with the coordinator but held his tongue. Just keep it together a few more seconds, without clocking this mutherfucker 5-4-3-2-…
“Here you go Ensign you’re all set. Good luck to you,” he sounded civil as he handed over the documents.
The truth was, Curtis couldn’t tell if these young fucks were prejudiced, or wielding superiority due to higher rank. Forgive them Curtis for they know not what they do.
It was the first official process related to having a fiancé, depend on him. No longer was he the suave ladies’ man making regular stops in ports of Wilmington, Hilton Head or as far south as Jacksonville. At ports of call sailors were bigger than Elvis Presley. Even the dark handsome ones like himself, Come over her you Foxy Thing, Easy Mama, Hey Brown Sugar.
Curtis probably used that foolish shit on Martha, when they first met. All he knew was the lingo didn’t make sense anymore.
He loved Martha’s spirit and sense of humor; her tight little waist, the way her breasts sat high and statuesque and her curvy bottom. Maybe he loved her shape because she was a white version, of a girl he had a crush on in Georgia. It never mattered what color she was.
He hadn’t been purposely seeking out a white woman, although he did enjoy running his fingers through her silky raven hair.