Rotating off a year’s isolated duty, I expected my assignment request would be honored; I asked for shore duty at a district or group office, anywhere on the west coast. I felt a little disappointed when I received orders to the Reserve Training Center, Yorktown, VA. In the first place, Carol and I hoped to see more of the country. Yorktown was thirty miles away from Norfolk, VA. Secondly, I didn’t know what a Reserve Training Center was, nor what type of duty that would mean for me.
So, I didn’t get what I asked for. But, what I got—proved to be a wonderful career-defining assignment that both Carol and I have cherished as our favorite duty station in a twenty-eight year career.
We were familiar with the area only as day tripping tourist when we were stationed in Norfolk. This time we were digging into what was probably going to be a four year assignment. Heading south on US17 we crossed the peninsulas made by the great rivers that raced from the mountains of Virginia toward the Chesapeake Bay: the Potomac, the Rappahannock, and the York. We drove through villages with homey names like White Marsh, and Ordinary.
The landscape morphed into a rural postcard. Flat sandy soil dotted with scrubby clumps of grass stretched from the narrow highway. White farm houses sat sheltered in an oasis of trees protecting families from the hot sun of clear-cut farm land. You could almost see them sitting on the wrap-around porches waiting to offer lemonade or a pint of stout to friends arriving by carriage up the long circular drive. Roadside signs every twenty miles reminded us we were traveling the George Washington Memorial Highway. We knew we were in the south again, but one that somehow seemed more honest and pure than Norfolk.
When we came to a sign that pointed the way to Gum Fork, we knew that the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge that spanned the York River at the pinch point between Gloucester and Yorktown was right ahead.
We wanted to buy a house. A four year assignment made that reasonable. We had managed to save some money in the last year. I had spent hardly any of my salary on Loran duty in Okinawa, and Carol, who stayed with her parents in Roosevelt, Long Island, worked as a teller at the Meadowbrook National Bank. In addition, within a year, we could expect a big raise as I went over four years service as a lieutenant. Our income would be double what he made since we last managed a household in Norfolk, VA. It was time to buy.
We had contacted a realtor earlier, and he was ready to show us options. Newport News was about 10 miles south of the base. We quickly settled on a three bedroom rancher on a cul-de-sac in a new development at 721 Roslyn Road. Offer made and accepted—our first home cost $15,500. The following day, we were ready to move in, except we had no furniture.
Our realtor recommended a large furniture store on the north end of town. Carol and I had a great shopping day and the salesman an even greater one. We bought furniture for every room in the house in one day from one store. Dinning room table, chairs, china closet, buffet, two complete bedroom sets, desk and bookcase for a den, and a roomful of living room furniture highlighted by a curved sectional, coffee tables, and end tables. We furnished the whole house. We had a ball doing it.
We sat watching the salesman filling out the sales slip with a big smile he couldn’t hide.
I said, “You know, we bought a lot of stuff here today. Are you going to throw in at least a couple of lamps?”
“Rich!” Carol visibly gasped as her eyes darted soundless messages at me.
“What?” My response was a slow, whisper-like sing-song above hunched shoulders.
“I’ll have to check with the manager.” the salesman broke in, as he disappeared with a quizzical look.
“God, Rich! My mother would die if she knew what you just did.” Her face was still red. Her mother was a furniture adjuster in Abraham & Straus, a well known department store on Long Island.
“What do you mean? Everyone does that. It’s standard practice in Bradford.” I continued, “After all, nobody’s going anywhere, the buyer or the seller. Bradford sales clerks know they sell to generations, and they know how to keep customers.” A new suit would always get you a free tie. An expensive one would net you a shirt and a tie.”
The salesman returned. “The manager will be glad to add two living room end-table lamps to your order, sir. No cost, of course, and thank you.” He looked as surprised as Carol.
Who raised these people?
The furniture was delivered in a day. We took another two to get it arranged then our attention turned to the back yard. We needed a fence. The back yards were all open to each other, including those on the next street. Carol was already hinting for a dog. We decided on a three rail board fence, nothing fancy, 1 x 6’s between 4 x 4’s. I thought it would be a do-it-yourself project until I attempted to dig the first post hole.
The “sandy soil,” was but inches deep. Beyond that was clay—hard packed, battleship grey, shovel sticking, back breaking clay. I didn’t have the time, nor the energy to do it. We asked the realtor for suggestions for a fence contractor.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “you can get that done a lot cheaper just hiring a couple day laborers to dig those post holes then nail the rails up yourself, or you can let them do it. Can you be around to supervise?”
“Yea, I guess, but how do I get them?”
“Well just drive down to the lower end of Jefferson Ave, toward the water. You’ll see a bunch of niggers standing around on a street corner, just jiving with each other while “they look’n fo’ work.” His tone was mocking. “But, those who are really serious will have a handkerchief tied to the parking meter and will be standing near by it.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. Just pick out a couple of big bucks and ask them if they’ll give you a couple of days digging fence-post holes. They’ll give you an honest day’s work, but you gotta be there to tell ‘em what to do and keep an eye on ‘em.”
That was 1961. It was obvious there was not much progress in racial attitudes from the three-bathroom (Men, Women, and Colored) filling station we encountered three years ago in Norfolk. They were nice guys, worked hard, and I had my fence in two days, including a redwood stain. As someone once said, “The past is never dead—it ain’t even past.”