Into the Tiger's Jaw: America's First Black Marine Aviator: The Autobiography of Lt. General Frank E. Petersenby Frank E. Petersen, J. Alfred Phelps
The story of Frank E. Petersen, America's first black Marine navigator, who, in 38 years, soared from seaman recruit to the heights of command as a Marine Corps three-star general.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.79(w) x 8.86(h) x 1.31(d)
Read an Excerpt
My hometown is Topeka, Kansas, and it sits along the Kansas River in the fertile Kaw Valley. The city is the state capital, and it resides smack dab in the middle of Shawnee County. My only sister, Anne, was born in 1930, and I came along on 2 March 1932. We were the oldest of four children born to a couple of folks named Edythe and Frank Petersen, Sr.
My father came from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I remember how delightfully his words undulated in that wonderful meter of the islanders. His lips pushed out that Creolese patois spoken throughout the islands.
I recall as a child hearing him tell how he happened to come to the United States. It was something he'd always thought about. Perhaps it might be possible to earn a better living in America. Born in 1905 to Augustus and Ann Petersen in the town of Frederiksted on the western edge of St. Croix, he'd always relished the idea of freedom. It didn't exist on the island, which he considered repressive enough to leave if he could. But there was never enough money to leave. So the periodic visions of America were to percolate. The dream sufficed until his sister, Victoria Alicia, grew up, went to the United States, and suffered the "great disillusionment."
But before that, the family enjoyed life as much as they could, living on St. Croix and working on the Two Friends Plantation, where they were born. They knew all about harvesting the sugarcane fields around the Great House with its old slave quarters. They worked other fields on the far side of the stone fences patterning the hillsides. They learned about Campeche and tamarind trees--how both were used for dyewood and the tamarind was sometimes used in beverages. When the time came, they were both baptized and confirmed in the Moravian Church. Sometimes, in a somber, reflective mood at the end of a hard day's work, they'd sit looking across the road at the cemetery and see the name PETERSEN chiseled on the headstones glinting in the failing light as the sun set hugely and boldly into the blue seas behind them. Perhaps they wondered about the black Petersens and the white Petersens who were all together now under the greensward and how they related one to the other in times past.
They knew that the black ones had some of the same skills as they. Cutting and moving the sugarcane. In the olden days, donkeys carried the stalks to the mill to be unloaded and fed into the iron rollers. Then came the juice--the "cane squeezins"--sluicing down a concrete trough into the hissing still with its curlicued coils while vapors wafted into the vapid air. Finally came that clear stream of warm, reeking rum, dropping down beautifully into waiting calabashes. I think they knew that at one time not very long ago, those dead old Petersens danced the way they themselves danced on those occasions when the grownups sometimes lost it and the fiery rum moved itself about in the cup.
During the week, the children would go to school, then work the fields. On Sundays, they'd go to church. The cycle was a roundabout. Help harvest the cane, then process it.
Our family history has it that about 1922 my father's sister, Aunt Victoria, migrated to the United States and settled in New York City. It was a grand adventure for her, and she eventually married and had a son. But she found the practice of segregation particularly galling. She wrote my father about it. Based on her assessment of life for blacks in America, my father thought less about coming here. The conditions left a bad taste in his mouth. That is, until one day at the age of sixteen he found himself driving a taxi to accommodate the tourist trade in addition to his usual job as a garage mechanic for five dollars a day. That day driving a taxi proved providential. His fare for a tour of the island in the Model T Ford was none other than Frank P. MacLennan, the owner of the Topeka State Journal.
On a tour sponsored by the U.S. Navy for newspaper publishers, MacLennan wanted to get to one of the highest points on St. Croix to survey the beauty of the island set against the Atlantic and the Caribbean stretching away into opposite infinities. It was, in fact, a lucky day for him, for he'd engaged as his driver a man known as a most resourceful and intelligent individual. The day, the story goes, was hot, the humidity high, and the elected hill most steep. The Model T Ford groaned wearily. It heaved, hemmed, hawed, and refused the climb. MacLennan's hopes seemed dashed. But as MacLennan himself was to later note, "The brilliance of their taxi driver, Frank E. Petersen, Sr.," came into play and saved the day.
In those days, if it got hot, the gas in the old Fords would evaporate and the engine wouldn't run too well. But Dad conceived the idea of turning the car around and backing it up the hill, reasoning that gravity would cause the gas to flow into the carburetor. That impressed MacLennan. In fact, he was absolutely overwhelmed that my dad showed such skill and knowledge in dealing with mechanical problems. MacLennan suggested that my father go to the United States, where he'd make more money and "have chances to advance."
Although the opportunity sounded good, my dad wasn't immediately convinced. The stories from his sister in New York about segregation in the United States worried him. He simply didn't want to face it. But MacLennan was persistent, assuring him he'd have no problems if he went to Kansas. Two years passed. In 1924 MacLennan sent him a ticket and money for the trip to Topeka. Dad decided to risk it.
He was on his way--I've since found out--to an area of the United States that early on had not seemed to find consensus on the subjects of slavery and blacks. In 1856, sixty-eight years before my dad's planned trip to Kansas, pro-slavery men attacked the town of Lawrence (which favored a free state). It was a stone's throw from Topeka. The newspaper offices and other offices were burned. Several people were killed. Down on Pottawatomie Creek, abolitionist John Brown led a raid against the little settlement, and several pro-slavery men were killed. They fought for months, until federal troops came in to ease the tension.
Although slavery was outlawed in Kansas in 1859, sixty-five years before my dad arrived, pro-slavery people were still about. The air was not entirely free for black people.
Of course, my dad knew nothing about all that and probably couldn't have cared less. After arriving in Topeka at the age of nineteen, he got a job washing cars. He was high on his future, totally believing MacLennan's promise that he would surely advance. When a mechanic left the garage in which he worked, Dad walked right up and applied for the job. He was turned down.
After talking with other black car washers in Topeka, he found that he wouldn't make a lot of money washing cars.
So he went to see MacLennan.
"I've got problems, Mr. MacLennan."
"What's wrong, Petersen?"
"Things just aren't turning out as I expected. You work and you work and there's no advancement. Doin' the same job year after year for the same low pay."
MacLennan gave him a job at the newspaper as a porter. But my dad was no ordinary porter. The whirring, clicking typographic machines were music to his ears. He yearned to operate them, and he rushed to tell MacLennan.
"I know I could run one in just a little while," he began excitedly.
MacLennan regarded him for a long moment. "I'm sorry, Frank," he hedged, "but that's something you just can't hope for around this town."
I used to watch my dad's face as he told that story for the umpteenth time. Dejection hid under his brown skin. His eyes flashed. Because there it was again, big as an old hound dog: the racism, the prejudice, the denial of a chance to advance because of his color.
He had already been jousting with others about his inability to enter certain places in town. Wherever he looked, there were separate waiting rooms and bathrooms and segregated lunch counters. Status quo in the South at the time.
Even the Catholic Church, the church of Dad's choice, required sitting in segregated pews. He protested to the church fathers, decrying the unfairness of it, to no avail. The rule held. Although in those days Topeka was not totally segregated, the movies, restaurants, and churches were divided along racial lines.
Even as a child, I could see that segregation was an assault on Dad's innate independence, his pride, his need to get ahead and be somebody. Although he didn't have a gilt-edged education, he was intelligent and resourceful. He spoke six languages (English, Danish, German, Spanish, French, and the island patois) without a day in a classroom, having acquired them simply by growing up on the island.
There were probably times in my father's life when he thought about giving up or quitting. He didn't. Instead, he rid himself of his resentment and decided to stay in the United States and do what was needed to survive. Thus began the search for a job with a better future. People began to compliment him on the personal confidence he always seemed to exude. He'd flash that famous Petersen smile and seemed to glow with the significance of his Fourth of July birthday. With his flowing West Indian accent, he'd say: "That's what your America requires. You have to prove yourself every day. It's like a challenge--and I like it."
Even though I was young at the time, I remember the attraction of the challenge: to recognize and accept it. It had to be fun. Dad lived it. He became something of a whirling dervish. There was a stint at the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad as an apprentice in their railway shops as he worked his way up to freight car man. Now he could stand tall.
He bought himself some duds and a beautiful two-toned Model T Ford. Got clean. Wore a derby hat and a stickpin in his tie. Sported a high-collared shirt and those straight trousers over high-button shoes with the shiny, knobby toes, the ones the well dressed used to wear in those days. "Sharp as a tack," as black folks used to say.
Still single, Dad heard about all the pretties down at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where the white folks used to talk about whether or not there ought to be slavery in the state. Lawrence wasn't far. Only a mere twenty-eight miles or so.
I remember seeing a picture of him taken about that time. He was standing in front of his shiny, new Model T Ford with his nickname in metal letters emblazoned on the front of the silver radiator. "P-E-E-T," the saucy letters announced. He was beaming.
Little did he know that he was about to meet a young lady down in Lawrence at the University of Kansas who not only would change his life but would marry him, have his children, and raise hell with him for years about not spelling his nickname correctly on the front of the radiator of his lovely Model T Ford.
My mother, Edythe Southard, came from the small town of Syracuse in the southwest corner of Kansas. Admixtures of blood ran in her veins. She was black, Indian, and Irish and pale of countenance. Her hair was long, her face a cross between almost caucasian and decidedly Indian, while the black peeked around the corners of her eyes. She stood about five foot four and was slim built and energetic, mentally as well as physically. Black folks would have described her as "one of them high yallar gals." In her youth, she was as fine as wine and could cook like an angel. She learned about that along with her two sisters early in life. They were all farm girls, raised on the high plains of Kansas.
The choice of Syracuse as a place to settle was one of studied necessity on the part of her widowed mother, who decided what was best for her girls. The family lived originally in the larger city of Wichita, until the so-called authorities decided that the school system would be segregated. This meant, of course, that Edythe and her siblings would attend an all-black school, a long walk across a railroad track, even though an all-white school was closer.
"No way!" exclaimed Mrs. Southard, the first Negro graduate of Friends University in Wichita, as she moved her brood to Syracuse. The logic was cogent. A segregated school system might have made sense to some purists in Wichita because of the sheer numbers of blacks in the city. It did not make sense in Syracuse, where there were no blacks at all until the Southards appeared, and the only school was the one-room schoolhouse where everybody in town sent their children.
That is how my mother and her sisters received their elementary education and grew up on the Kansas plains. (A little brother died in infancy.) Later, Mother graduated from Syracuse High School. From what I can understand of the time, there were few black friends because few blacks ever came to live in Syracuse. Although once or twice a black faroly showed up, nobody ever knew what brought them there and what made them leave as quietly as they had come. It was a mystery, like the sudden coming of winter and the silent frenzy of spring tiptoeing in on the cadences of melting snow washing down gullies. It simply happened.
Of the three sisters, Mother was the only one who got a higher education. She left Syracuse and went on to the University of Kansas. And she went in style, in a buggy with a driver and all the things that went with that sort of excess of the day. Music glorified my mother's soul. An accomplished pianist, she played well enough to give concerts. Her arrival at the University of Kansas did not go unheralded.
As Mother was about to finish her third year of college, Dad showed up on the university campus. He undoubtedly was driving his glorious Model T Ford. From pictures I've seen of him when he was dressed in his "Sunday-go-to-meetings," he had to have been dashing, dressed to the hilt in his wide-lapeled suit, high-collared shirt, stickpinned tie with the sassy knot, handkerchief in the breast pocket--just so. His mustache was shaved with the greatest economy, leaving two precise, small islands of hair on either side of the natural channel between the nose and the upper lip. He had to have been smiling the Petersen special smile that takes over the face. We all got that from him.
As for Mother, I suppose she figured that fate had just walked up and meet her, for suddenly there was no time to finish a fourth year of college. There was instead the care and assuaging of my dad, Frank E. Petersen, Sr. Years later, we were to see that love had completely taken her over when, among some dusty, fading family records, we ran across her university registrar transcript for spring 1926. Her grades began unaccountably to fall: Harmony--F, Exercise--F, Instrumentation--D, an incomplete in Practice Teaching. Things improved just a little in the fall months: two Bs, one A, one D. She had totally withdrawn from Harmony. Spring 1927 showed new resolve and intent with a full load of fifteen units. However, the transcript was blank.
Scheduled to graduate in February 1929, she chose instead to marry her newfound love in December 1928, over the objections of her sisters and even the objections of her suitor. They all wanted her to graduate first. But it was a characteristic of the women in her family to make up their own mind--regardless. They were married on Christmas Eve in Kansas City, then made their home in Topeka in a little house at 1110 Clay Street.
My dad thought that advancement had surely come his way after his way up to freight car man. It was not to be. The high jinks of the 1920s came to an abrupt end with the great stock market crash of 1929. Dad was laid off from his fancy freight car job. Mother was pregnant with her first child. Things were tight; it was back to washing cars. Anne was born on 29 October 1930.
Dad began to notice possibilities in the new invention called radio that was sweeping the country. From the first radio broadcasts in the United States in 1920 through the early 1930s, the medium produced important new stars and personalities: Amos 'n Andy, Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen. Dad noted that these new radios would malfunction and need repair. He sensed opportunity. It was constantly on his mind.
He decided to take a correspondence course in radio repair. It cost sixty-five dollars, cash up front, or one hundred dollars on time. He didn't have the money, but Elmer Gutting, the man he worked for, did. Gutting not only lent him the money but encouraged him and promised to help get his business under way.
In less than a year, Dad was making more money repairing radios than he was washing cars. I bounced into the world in March 1932. I'm told that acquaintances used to look at me and say: "My goodness, y'all. Would'ja look at this boy? Looks like old Frank E. just spit 'im out."
I admit to an uncanny resemblance to my father. I was named Frank E., too, but Dad liked to call me Buddy, and it stuck. I found out later that it was the song "My Buddy" that folks were going around singing all misty eyed that prompted the conferring of the name.
Another son, William Poulis Petersen, was born in 1934. A little guy, he was called Billy. Seemed to fit.
Dad continued washing cars until 1935. Although the radio repair business he operated out of our home was prospering, he found an extra job at a department store as a salesman and repairman. When he left his old job, Gutting regarded him so highly that he gave him a bonus of two weeks' wages and told him he could come back to work for him anytime.
The Petersen clan was growing fast. Number three son's name was Hans Rupert McKinley Petersen. Momma tacked all this on him the minute he showed up in 1936. He was going to be the last, and she was trying to use up all the family names.
In 1940, the family moved to a better home at 1726 Topeka, where Dad set up his radio repair shop and announced its existence with an appropriate sign out front. I'll never forget the sign, because it gave us a certain prestige in the community. Not many black men in the South had their own business in those days. The shop extended across the front of the house for its entire width and was one story high. The sign, emblazoned across the shop, read PETERSEN'S RADIO. (Later, with the advent of television, the word "TV" was added.) The shop had a framed metal and glass front entrance and signs about the nature of the business in the window. A huge tree sheltered the right side of the shop and the house. A white picket fence separated the house from the driveway, in which sat Dad's Model T Ford. Grass grew in the small front yard.
By now, radio not only helped put food on the table, it brought the family closer. My father was an avid sports fan and loved boxing. Although I was still young, I can remember when Joe Louis knocked out James J. Braddock. Whenever there was a big fight, Dad used to make it a family event. He'd go to the store before the fight and bring home a whole gallon of ice cream. We'd all sit around the radio as if we were really at the fight sitting in hundred-dollar ringside seats, whooping and hollering, feinting punches, laughing and clapping, eating ice cream. We were not that different from most black families across America who were listening, because Joe Louis was a definite role model. Where else but in the ring could a black man kick a white man's ass with impunity and walk away smiling with a pocket full of money? Louis was kicking ass and taking names, I do remember. It was like getting into the ring yourself. Envisioning ourseves big time champs. Ass kickers supreme. Name takers extraordinare. Boom! Boom! Boom! Oh, yeah, Bubba!
That wasn't all radio brought to the family. We tracked all the other popular entertainment, too: the Orson Welles thing, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, the Jack Benny Show, the guy named Lamont Cranston. When it came to Amos `n Andy, though, Mother the schoolteacher stepped in. She was big on diction and education. We had to listen to Amos `n Andy because they were an example of how we were not to talk.
The coming of age of Dad's repair shop wasn't the only outstanding thing that happened that year. According to a Topeka Daily Capitol newspaper clipping from Sunday, 31 March 1940, kept by my mother about Dad's success, "Frank Petersen, salesman for the General Electric Department of Crosby Brothers store, on March 6 was admitted to membership in the Toppers Club of the appliance and merchandise departments of the General Electric Company, and handed a plaque and lapel pin as tokens. Membership in the club is the highest honor that General Electric confers upon its retail salesmen. Only ten of one hundred salesmen in the Kansas City area qualified for the recognition."
The year 1940 was also when the United States okayed the sale of surplus war material to Great Britain and transferred overage destroyers to them for use in their struggle with Germany. A little more than a year later, Japan attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, sinking nineteen ships and killing 2,300 men. War was declared in 1941; I was all of nine years old. I remember FDR's infamy speech on the radio. I don't recall if everyone in the family gathered around the radio the way we normally did when something important happened, but I remember the sonorous sound of the president's voice. The thought crossed my mind that there was going to be a war, but I didn't understand what that meant, except that the Japanese had done us wrong. I was scared but happy that it hadn't been black people who'd done it. I remember that suddenly "Japanese" was a nasty word. We used to call them "Japs" with great derision. We held our mouth just so and adapted the correct body language when we said it, as if we were looking down at a fat caterpillar suddenly fallen from a tree. When we said it, everybody around silently agreed. The consensus around the black community seemed to be, thank God, they've finally found somebody they consider worse than us to hate.
I'm not proud that we jumped on the bandwagon so quickly, however, because it wasn't very long before genuine fear grabbed us as Detroit, Michigan, erupted into wild race riots. I remember a "they're coming to get us" kind of fear. I remember a hunkering down feeling and high apprehension when I was not in my own neighborhood.
Life suddenly seemed to be complex, even for a small fry. There was a lot of military activity at nearby Topeka Army Air Field. I was fascinated by the B-17s, B-24s, and B-29 bombers flying in and out. I was fascinated by all kinds of aircraft, as a matter of fact. I wondered how they worked. I dreamed of going into outer space and grappled with the concept of infinity. I built model airplanes. I loved fighter planes most of all and powered them with rubber bands. Although most of the fighters I built were American, I also built Japanese planes. I even built a German Stuka dive-bomber.
Electronics also fascinated me, and my discovery of that discipline was right up my father's alley. He insisted that I try to understand its concepts and began teaching me, starting me with simple tasks and explaining the basics of electricity. He explained how a flashlight worked. We'd experiment together with things like the tried and true "cat's whiskers," in which we'd move a fine piece of wire across a rusty razor blade to pick up radio signals through an attached earphone.
As I grew older, Dad insisted that I think about the concept of earning a living. His point of view was shared by the father of my best friend, Paul Tyler. Paul and I discussed ways to make our own money. One day, it hit us. Paul's dad had a lawnmower. My dad had shears and a rake. We would start a grass cutting business. A small lawn would cost twenty-five cents, a medium lawn fifty cents, a monstrous lawn a whole dollar.
Neither of us was thrilled about our extra job, but we pursued it, until the night we washed off the lawnmower in the park and it "accidentally" ended up in the lake. After a few such episodes, the lawn mowing enterprise seemed to melt into the woodwork.
Paul and I were full of other mischief, too. Because we had to be at church every Sunday, sometimes all day and maybe even at night, we began looking for diversions. I remember asking questions of a little old lady who taught our Sunday school class. We'd done our own comparative analysis of what the Bible said about the age of the Earth and what new science said about that. The figures didn't agree. The Sunday school teacher was annoyed. Her response was, "Children should be seen and not heard." She actually quit. Another Sunday school teacher labeled us "precocious little beasts." We should've been ashamed of ourselves, but we enjoyed it.
Every Sunday morning, Paul and I sang in the youth choir at the AME Baptist Church. After puberty came along, we spent a great deal of time admiring the female figure. At choir practice and every Sunday morning, our lecherous gazes fell on the beauteous Juliet Parks, our choir director. Paul used to remark about how pretty she was. We fell head over heels in love. In 1993, I heard somebody say they'd seen Miss Parks as she was returning from a Caribbean cruise. More than seventy years old, she was reportedly still a fox, and I can truly believe that.
As time passed, my father did things that made me admire him all the more. On a repair call to Topeka Army Air Field, he so impressed the Army brass with his electronics skill and knowledge that the federal government sent him to a civilian training school in Omaha and later to Philadelphia to teach radio in the Signal Corps. During the war, he served as an instructor. When the base was taken over by the Air Force, he became supervisor for the maintenance of Air Force electronics equipment. He came home agog, telling us about a new invention called television, a tube that causes pictures to be transmitted through the air.
For a moment, I thought that my father had lost it. "What's he talking about?" I rasped within earshot. "What the hell is he talking about?"
Then he began to explain it in great detail. I sat back as the admiration for my father grew by leaps and bounds. The excitement was catching.
His can-do attitude wasn't lost on me. Later in life, I would remember him as a focused and aggressive man who took racial discrimination in stride and handled it by being independent and confident that he could somehow beat it. He was from the islands, and people from the islands are proud and tough about themselves and life.
"A different kind of nigger," I've heard some folks say. I think they're right. My sister, Anne, says about Dad:
Daddy was the one who put bread on the table and made sure we were taken care of. I saw him as a man ahead of his time for a lot of things he did. Just the sense of how he got to the States in the first place, that he had his own radio and television business way back then. He didn't work for others. He liked being independent, his own boss.
Mother was as much of a positive influence as Dad but in a different way. Anne remembers her most for her contributions in child rearing, whereas Dad was the perfectionist and disciplinarian. When Dad's discipline got too harsh, we were glad that Mom was around because she would intervene to protect her flock. When we copped a plea to get what we considered justice from Dad, Mom became our court of appeal. We'd go to her first so she could moderate. Most of the time, Dad would cool down. Mom was a peacemaker, quiet in manner but strong and innovative.
Mom had taken home economics in college and was a good cook. Dad would be thrilled when she prepared his favorite--fried fish--which reminded him of the islands. We'd all smack our lips when she'd cook fried chicken and bake lemon meringue pie for dessert. Mom could do chicken so well that we could hurt our stomachs because we'd eat with such abandon.
When times were hard financially for the family, Mom prepared meals for sale. On Sunday, after we'd all come home hungry after a marathon church service, she'd make us wait while she prepared and served people who came to the house to eat the meals they'd purchased. We were upset because we had to wait until those people got through eating "our" food.
I remember when I was about ten years old or so, Mom had us deliver a meal to a lady across town. Fried chicken, it was. As we walked with the chicken dinner, the smell overwhelmed us. My brother Billy and I looked at each other as we walked. Pangs of hunger grabbed us. Not a word was spoken as our eyes met and the wordless decision was reached to do the dastardly deed of purloining a piece of chicken. God, it was so good. With a smile on our faces and probably a bit of fried chicken residue still on our lips, Billy and I delivered the dinner to the hapless lady. We hadn't fooled her one bit. Before we were halfway home, the woman was on the phone to Mom complaining that some chicken was missing from her dinner.
Well, Mom didn't say anything, but she immediately dispatched us with replacement chicken parts back to the outraged lady. I'm sure that Mom knew what we'd done. But that was Mom: quiet, strong, understanding.
By the time we were twelve or thirteen, finances got better and Mom no longer had to sell cooked meals. So on Sunday, our typical routine would be going to church, then to the segregated movie theater down on 4th Street, then back home for the big meal and getting ready for school the next day.
I saw an achiever in Momma. She was more than vocal about pursuing education and intellectual interests. She went back to the University of Kansas and graduated. It was an extraordinary achievement in the 1920s for a black woman in the Midwest to earn a college degree. She'd done it and testified to the efficacy of education as she taught in the public school system and counseled her children at home.
She was responsible for more than our formal education. She helped us learn what the world was all about. A quiet intellectual, she put things around the house that made us think, like the poem that begins, "If you can keep your head when all others about you are losing theirs," which I constantly read and reread. It moved me so much that I memorized the entire thing. She exposed us to music and played "our" piano, an instrument rarely found in a black household in the 1930s and 1940s.
Mom was the reason that I became fascinated with reading, because she encouraged us to know books. My sister, Anne, and I used to enter the reading contests at our local library, which was about four blocks from the house. We'd win the contests from time to time. We loved to go to the library because it was one place in Topeka that wasn't segregated. (The buses weren't either, but schools, restaurants, and movies were.) Aside from the wealth of knowledge that the library contained in books, it was a sanctuary from the incipient craziness that was Topeka if you were black.
Both our parents demonstrated the importance of being your own person and coming out on top. We could get there, they seemed to be saying, only by recognizing what the priorities were. As for school, the priority was coming home and getting our homework done and maintaining a respectful attitude toward our teachers.
From all this, there developed among the Petersen clan a kind of family pride involving a sense of dress, etiquette, manners, and speech. A kind of personal worth that said, "You're as good as, if not better than ..." These are the ethics we carried with us into preschool at Buchanan Elementary and, later, Monroe Elementary. The edict was to always do well, bask in the recognition of the achievement of good grades (a C wasn't good enough), and understand that the only thing worth working toward was excellence.
The teacher I remember most was Eva Montgomery: black, buxom, strong willed, stern but also fair (but who dealt punishment with a ruler), and who connected well with parents.
I found out about the latter the hard way. If we transgressed in school, our parents knew before we got home. It was therefore necessary that we come up with a good excuse before we walked in the door, because there was no escape.
I remember "transgressing" a Miss Catherine King, who was directly in charge of my grade school classroom. I can't remember what it was I'd done, but I do remember that Miss King was of the same mold (cold, stern) as Miss Montgomery. In fact, all the black teachers in the then all-black school system were of that mold. I was only six or seven when I transgressed Miss King. Even at that age, I was feisty. When she chastised me for whatever I'd done wrong, she grabbed me and her fingernails dug into my arm. I kept my fingernails in the same spot to make the indentations even deeper. When Momma mentioned my "transgression," I dramatically unveiled the preserved indentations.
"See?" I said with great bravado. "Look what she did to me."
Momma, a teacher herself, undoubtedly recognized the scam, but it softened her up. I knew I was going to get it, but I had to try to lighten the punishment.
I know that Momma loved me because she showed it when my buddy Paul Tyler and I got bigger and became involved in the all-black Boy Scout troop. On encampment by Lake Shawnee in southeast Topeka, we were shooting for our merit badges in hiking. It was supposed to be only a twelve-mile hike, but we decided to walk around the lake. Unfortunately for us, with all the coves and inlets, it was more like a twenty-five-mile hike. So we were late getting back. Both our mothers were out in the car looking for their lost sons. Guess that's love, too.
I remember the Normandy invasion in 1944. I felt greatly forlorn and vulnerable because Dad was away. Nights and weekends, I'd listen to the airplanes coming and going from Forbes Air Force Base. I'd gotten so I could identify them by the sound of their engines. Although I built models, I wished I could build something I could actually fly.
Before I knew it, the Great War began to show signs of winding down. Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill were at Yalta. The U.S. Marines were on Iwo Jima. Two months later, in Warm Springs, Georgia, President Roosevelt died, and we all gathered around the radio again. This time there was no hollering and clapping, no feinting. Instead, it was one single, long funeral that made a big impression on me as the newspeople told how the casket rode on the black steam train, glistening in the heavy light up from Warm Springs. I remember that my parents didn't smile much. They would miss the president's wife, Eleanor, because they thought, as did all of us, that she had a feeling for what we all thought black rights ought to be.
Then Hitler bit the dust. V-E Day. People didn't raise too much hell in Topeka because of that. I remember thinking that the war was about to be over and I was tired of the various restrictions. Yet I appreciated my new latitude; Dad was away and I had a special permit to drive the car, although I was only fourteen. I couldn't drive at night, but I could drive all I wanted during the day. I had a green gas rationing sticker, so we had enough gas. I got to take Mom shopping. She would go to about eighteen different stores with her coupons so she could get the best deal. I had to go with her and wait for her, which drove me crazy. To this day, going shopping with anyone drives me stark, raving crazy.
A few months later, when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, "Japanese" stopped being a nasty word, and using the slang "Jap" became a shameful thing. Eighty thousand people simply disappeared. The power of such a weapon was incomprehensible. On V-J Day, Topeka people weren't nonchalant. Our house sat right on the highway between the town and the air base, and we could hear the celebrations.
With the coming of junior high school, an almost complete disenchantment with the school system, and Topeka itself, seemed to take hold of me. Paul Tyler and I were singled out because of our high intelligence test results, and we were put in the category called "gifted children." We were immediately pulled from the city school to attend the special course for gifted children. That made me angry, because to get to the "gifted student school," I had to walk five miles across Topeka, whereas the school I ordinarily attended was right across the street. On top of that, it took us a long time to find out our IQ test scores (they were between 135 and 140).
The course of instruction at the new school was interracial. There were some students we liked and some we didn't like. Some we've maintained contact with over the years. After a couple of sessions in this "rarefied" atmosphere, Paul and I rebelled and went back to our old school.
My sojourn at Topeka High School completed my disenchantment with the city. I didn't care if I went to college or not. I simply wanted to leave Topeka. All I could see was unhappiness down the road. If the high school reflected the real lifestyle in Topeka, I wanted no part of it. I hated the quasi-integration, which highlighted, even celebrated, the segregated way of living. Although youngsters of all races sat together in the same classrooms, underneath the "integration," social exception ran deep. There were two school proms: one black, one white. There were separate homecoming kings and queens. There were two basketball teams: one black (the Ramblers), one white. Football was integrated, probably to gain the brawn and speed realized by letting everybody play. The beautiful indoor swimming pool was closed, to prevent the possibility of white and black students swimming together.
Yet things were going on in the world that flew in the face of all this separateness. In 1947, when I was fifteen, black men did things of note--like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.
Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were my role models, because I was focused on issues of race. I viewed their success as a sign that things were going to change, that discrimination would soon be illegal. I wasn't a baseball fan then nor am I today, but I always listened to those kinds of events on the radio because I deemed them important.
My brothers, Billy and Hans, and I had grown close over the years partly because we were close in age. Hans was the youngest (we nicknamed him Hansy), and Billy and I had to protect him because, if nothing else, he was Momma's favorite. But Hans and I gravitated toward each other. I was the oldest, he the youngest. But we all knew how to take care of one another. It was a family. If we got into trouble, we got into trouble together.
Some black students seemed to thrive on the separate racial agenda at school. My sister, Anne, thought it was a great experience. The Ramblers were the only black basketball team. In Topeka, blacks didn't play white teams, so the fun for her, at least as a young person, was the bus trips with the Ramblers to Lawrence and Emporia and seeing other black teams play.
That didn't move me much. I ran track instead. I was big in the 880. Dabbled in the 440 and the high jump. But the 880 was my best event. Ran it pretty close to the state record.
During this period, I managed to fall into what I thought was love with a sweet little girl who was so fine and who would surely be the one who'd be bringing me my slippers when I got to be an old guy. I really thought she'd wait until I got my life in order. She became a definite plus in my life. Judy was her name. Sweet Judy, my first love.
Beyond that, the family involvement in St. John's AME Church may have acted as a palliative from time to time. Church every Sunday. Sunday school first, and then the main service. Singing in the young folks' choir. Youth activities late afternoon and early evening and then we'd try to sneak away. Making friends. Seeing Judy around. Cementing relationships. For the black kids, the church was our main source of social activity. Young blacks would come from all over town. It was our real hangout.
Even so, my disenchantment with Topeka was complete. I wanted to escape. Spread my wings. Go beyond the confines of Topeka's narrow world and see the big world. There were two oceans I had never seen. I knew I couldn't see the world without joining the military. So, at seventeen, the U.S. Navy beckoned. Friends who had come home from the Navy told me some good stories about the service. I felt myself to be a kind of fish in water. I wanted to see the ocean. What better place to be than in the U.S. Navy in order to do that?
Just the idea of it brought me into direct confrontation with my parents. In those days, it took the signature of both parents to enlist in the military as a seventeen year old. Dad was willing to sign at first, but Mother adamantly refused.
"No, I'm not going to sign," she said. Now Dad agreed. I was furious. The ultimate word was that I was going to get a college education and not go running off to join the military.
It was a traumatic time in the Petersen household. My brothers and sister were awed by my recalcitrance.
"Gee, whiz," they marveled. "Here's the brightest kid of the whole bunch, and he doesn't want to go to college. Wow!"
I'd even tried to talk my buddy Paul Tyler into joining up with me.
"Are you crazy, man?" he asked.
My father and I not only looked alike, we possessed the same volatile temperament, which was in evidence when he decided to back up Momma on the issue of joining the military. I was looking for independence and wanted to branch out. From 1946 to 1948, for example, I'd dug ditches on a construction crew. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. But there was Dad, staring me down, grinding out the "old school" rhetoric: "In my house, you do what I say or you don't stay here."
So at seventeen, after my senior year in high school, I enrolled in nearby Washburn University. The atmosphere was better than in high school. The student body was totally mixed. So was football.
Art Fletcher, soon to be a pro ball player and eventually head of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), was there. Sam Jackson, one day to be a high-powered Washington D.C., attorney, was there. A highly qualified group, as I recall.
Even so, after a year at Washburn, I still strained against the imaginary shackles binding me to home. One day, my father and I stood in the house, glowering at each other. I will never forget the scenario.
"I believe," he said with great levity, "this house is gettin' a little too small." Then he walked away.
I didn't get the message at first. Then, suddenly, came the light. He was telling me to get out and see what the world was all about. I was eighteen, and I didn't need anybody's signature to leave or to join the military.
I raced down to see the Navy recruiters.
In one corner of my mind, misgivings erupted for a moment. The news from the Far East left a bit to be desired. North Korea had invaded South Korea. President Truman had sent in ground troops and authorized air strikes against the North in an attempt to secure peace in South Korea. I couldn't help but wonder if I was doing the right thing. But I'd made up my mind.
Momma might smile when I get ready to go and wish me well, I thought, but I didn't think it was going to be the happiest day of her life. Dad and my siblings would survive it. As for Judy, the love of my life, I thought about it and concluded, well, it's love, isn't it? That's the greatest thing of all. At least that's what I'd learned in Sunday school. So I knew she'd be here when I got back.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >