Mark was a “squared-away” 21-year-old sailor from the Kitty Hawk. Somewhat heavy, he wore a V-neck sweater, button-down shirt, and had his dark brown hair tapered on the sides and neck. He was on liberty, asking directions to the bus stop for the downtown buses. “And, hey,” he asked, sizing up my appearance, “you know where I can meet some nice college girls. I’ve been out to State College to try to meet some, but they won’t talk to you if you’re Navy.” He was the kind of guy who would be in college if it hadn’t been for the draft. “I did pretty well in high school, passed the New York Regents exams, and got accepted at several colleges. But it was 1969 and even with the lottery system, I was unsure. When the Navy recruiter came around to our high school – he was a nukie – he encouraged me to join and get into the nuclear program.” For some reason (it wasn’t made clear), Mark ended up at the Naval base in Memphis and found himself training to be an aviation boatswain’s mate.
“I’m on the Hawk and proud of it, but I’m really upset by the bad image we’ve gotten.” He assumed a knowledge of the October racial fights that vaulted the Kitty Hawk on to the front page of virtually every paper in the country. “I’m not all Nav or a lifer; I’m just doing my four years and getting out. But morale seemed so high on board, things seemed to be going so well … every day the captain came over the One M.C. (loudspeaker system) and told us what we were doing, how many bridges destroyed and stuff.”
Mark seemed anxious to volunteer information on the racial fights. Almost as if he were going to set the record straight by himself. “I didn’t see the actual fight myself. My boss and I were asleep in our working spaces when it happened. We were seven levels above the action. All of a sudden the X.O. (executive officer) came of the One M.C. and said, “All black brothers unite. This is an emergency. All black sailors muster aft and all marines muster on the fo’c’s’le. This is an order.” The X.O. is dark, mulatto, Mark explained. Mark most often used the word “colored,” but now and then he’d correct himself and say “black.” He wasn’t prejudiced, he said. “A few minutes after the X.O. gave his order, the C.O. (commanding officer) came on and countermanded the X.O.’s order The captain said the X.O.’s order was a mistake, everyone should go back to his own business. We didn’t know what to do, so me and my boss locked our compartment doors. Black guys were going around beating up white guys. A friend of mine was asleep in a compartment and they came in and yanked another guy out and beat him up.”
Mark was careful never to use the word “nigger,” but one wondered if he felt it. He went on, talking about the racial situation on board. A human relations group had been on the Kitty Hawk since the beginning of the cruise, and their rap sessions had been televised all over the ship. A black chief petty officer in Mark’s division had scoffed at the militant blacks and their comments in the television sessions. And when the chief’s black sailors began knotting, braiding their hair, he chewed them out royally and ordered the fad stopped. The sailors went to the human relations board and got the order modified. They were allowed to knot their hair, but only in their compartments. At this point, Mark seemed to sympathize with the black sailors, saying he thought the decision wasn’t fair to them.
It wasn’t clear whether the hair-knotting incident happened during the general relaxation of hair rules or not. When the ship got out to Yankee Station (just off the coast of Vietnam), the captain gave an order that everyone could grow his hair as long as he wanted. Only the captain and the department heads could tell anyone to get a haircut. This lasted for about six weeks. Then, as the ship approached Japan, the announcement was made that they would soon be in the public eye, so everyone should get back to Navy hair standards. (Two sailors were fined fifty dollars each for not getting haircuts in Japan.) “Some of these guys, geez, you shouldda seen their hair. Down to here.” Mark pointed below his ear.
But Mark didn’t think that liberality had anything to do with the racial business. “Boy, old Zumwalt [Chief of Naval Operations], I sure hope this doesn’t hurt him. He’s the best thing that ever happened to the Navy, getting rid of the Mickey Mouse regs. Wouldncha know it, a bunch of blacks and whites would wreck everything.”
Mark said he’d had some bitter experiences with black sailors on the ship. When a group of recruits came on board, he lined them up to get some paperwork information. “Hey, mothuh, when we gonna get paid?” they bombarded him. There was a little sting in his voice as he said this, but he was fairly philosophical about it. He said he’d read about the Defense Department’s attempt in the Sixties to recruit out of the ghetto and that the Navy had probably been overzealous in its recruiting. Another thing that bothered him was the black handshake routine. “Here, put out your fist like this,” he showed me. And then he told about what a problem it was when you were going down a passageway and you had to wait for two blacks to go through the handshake. “You’re really in a hurry, you know.”
Mark wasn’t an archetypal sailor. There were interesting nuances to his character: he was going to enroll in some college courses when the Kitty Hawk went to San Francisco (“You know any good schools up there?”), and he was going to visit a girl in Las Vegas (“Nice girl, even if she is pregnant. Too bad she got knocked up by a greaser.”) But it was hard to know how the other whites felt about the fight, or how they fit into the causality of them. Mark seemed to represent the complexity and contradictions in a situation that was hard to reduce to merely black and white.