“Working this hard is a sure death, but it is a slower one than starvation.” “Anyone can learn to swim with incentive. If the ship is going down, and the ice water is swirling around your testicles. That is incentive.” ” I am not saying the boy is stupid but I bet he would have trouble pouring pee out of a boot with instructions on the heel.” “Don’t tie yourself to a fella hell bent on walking off the cliff.”
Our friendship had come naturally. Ma had a non stop mantra that I was born ninety and never aged. As a kid one of my best friends was a grizzled old WWI veteran. And even in my teen years I felt more comfortable with people well past the age of retirement than with with folks my age. Their words of home spun wisdom have served me well over the years.
And so the loss of friends was something that I was all to familiar with. Still, for reasons unknown, this loss hit me hard.
He was about 95 years of age when the time came to bid adios. A hard life, a life well lived, a life of adventure, a life lived with laughter and sorrow was written on his face. His gnarled and scarred hands showed that he never shied away from hard work. He was mi amigo. I enjoyed his stories, and felt privileged that he would share them with me.
After enlistment and completion of training he was assigned to the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii – in November 1941. The day before he was to ship out the orders were changed. He saw duty on the infamous Murmansk run in the North Atlantic. He was in the Mediterranean for Operation Torch. He was also a leading contender for the title of the Navy’s black bantam weight champion.
One time while home on leave, he took his best girl to the movies and dutifully used the rear “Colored” entrance. As he told the story, there was a German POW camp outside of town. For good behavior some of these German soldiers were escorted to the theater, where they used the front door.
When we met he was thirty years my senior, twenty years past retirement age, and was still on the job. And he still paid a visit to the gym on a regular basis.
As we got to know each other, he opened up more and more and shared stories that I was willing to bet, few had heard. His great grandfather was an aborigines from Australia. His great grandmother had been a slave in Virginia. His grandfather had belonged to a sea captain who lived in South Carolina. The fellow was a gambling man and his grandfather was used to pay a gambling debt.
Mi amigo had ample reason to bask in bitterness. He chose to soldier on, to overcome prejudice and adversity through education, tenacity, and the power of forgiveness. He earned respect but never expected it to be given easily. He was inspiration.