Around the first of August 1978, at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes Naval Training Center, I got into a bit of trouble. Not quite two weeks in the Navy and the shock of it—bootcamp—had begun to turn into routine. Which meant you finally looked up and around —stopped thinking maybe you made a mistake—to interact more deeply with the others around you; with guys going through the same shit as you. In that environment, you can form fast friendships and create bonds you remember for the rest of your life. It can also create conflicts.
In the military, you meet people from far different geographic-social-economic backgrounds. You find out their hometowns and start to get a sense of personalities and character traits. Some people you like and some you don’t. Sometimes there’s a culture or personality clash that creates friction, and that’s what ignited the situation I found myself in with another ‘raisin’ (what they call Navy recruits who at first wear wrinkled, ill-fitting navy blue workday uniforms). And heated words were exchanged.
I didn’t like being called a stump-humpin’ hick asshole from Arkansas and the guy who had said it didn’t like me calling him a dickhead motherfucker from Detroit. So, we each—the resulting fisticuffs in the laundry room—played a role in my (our) trouble. It brought shit down on us from above. Our punishment was—together—to scrub the deck (the floor of the barracks) with toothbrushes. That’s a helluva lot of concrete.
So, this black kid (we were both 18) from Detroit and I were on our knees scrubbing. Now, bootcamp was not hard for me physically or mentally… but I hated that we weren’t allowed any music early on (not until our 9th week). I missed it. So, I started singing this song—If You Don’t Know Me By Now—by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. The other kid looked up at me. I ignored him and kept singing. After a bit, he joined in, and we worked through, Ball of Confusion (great googamooga… cancha you hear me talkin’ to ya…) and Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone. At the end of them, he looked over and asked.
“You sure you’re a white boy from Arkansas?”
We worked through a lot of Motown scrubbing that deck. After that day we got along. Once in the fleet, that same scenario played out. Again, it was music and something new, clothes… I was style-conscious. My friend Lee from Atlanta told me, “You dress pretty good for a white guy.”
Meeting guys (men) I would never have met or interacted with—and them learning to respect me as I learned to respect them—taught me a lot about the world. Seeing how common things—shared interests and desires—could bridge our differences (and in many ways make us appreciate them). One criterion, one basis for judgment: Only associate with good people that you respect and that do the same in return; let only them into your world. Yes, assholes abound… and sometimes (often) there are more of them than there are of you (a good person). That doesn’t matter. Just keep on being you and keep on appreciating those you know who are deserving.
I have always been what I believe is a thinking, considerate and compassionate person. But, admittedly, not when I’m mad. As a younger man, I would get volcanic, and it was hard to let that anger go. That day in boot camp, down on my knees scrubbing away—you did not dare to half-ass it, you’d get a heavy black boot square up your butt (and yes, I know what that feels like) and have to do it over—I was still pissed. I was stewing and thinking ‘we’re going to settle this later, after lights out, when BT1 Burkhart and MMC Graves ‘aren’t watching us.’
Then I decided to sing because I missed music.
Then he—the kid from Detroit—said what he said and it struck me (what we had in common) as we both sang those songs we knew so well, and I decided to let it go.
And then, because I did let my anger go, I made what could’ve been an enemy, if not a friend then certainly someone who I did not have to fight again.
It’s a lesson that took a few more times through my 20s, 30s, and 40s to really take hold. But it has, better late than never. And it’s a lesson I’ve passed on to my four daughters. It’s a big world out there, lots of people. Learn to live—deal—with them but set some acceptable terms that pass both ways. And when things get heated as they do at times, try to stop, think and listen to—or make—some music. Sometimes that makes all the difference.
“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast. To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” -William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697