Old Harold’s Ghost

Back in the late nineteen eighties I had to good fortune to make my living as an elevator mechanic. The company I worked for had service contracts with dozens of old textile mills all across the Carolinas and some of those mills were almost a hundred years old. My fellow mechanics and I worked hard to keep the old freight elevators in those mills working as best we could, and oftentimes this meant driving to some remote small town in the middle of the night to troubleshoot and repair a downed elevator.

Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. in its heyday. Photo courtesy of Bill Wornall.

Late one night I was called to an old textile mill known at the time as Rock Hill Printing and Finishing. It was a huge textile mill in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina that at one time had probably colored and printed enough fabric to clothe half of America. But by the late nineteen eighties it was on its last leg. Huge portions of the mill were sitting idle and as I walked along carrying my tool bag through a portion of the mill that was no longer in use I couldn’t help but feel that I had been transported back in time to a bygone era. That part of the mill was dark and musty and I swear I could feel the wandering souls of the former workers moving in the shadows around the abandoned machinery.

The elevator I had been called to work on was an old freight elevator that was over fifty years old. Once I fixed the problem, which turned out to be a broken door interlock on the 3rd floor, I decided to go to the basement so that I could check the elevator’s machine room. I wanted to make sure everything was okay so that I wouldn’t have to come back again later that night.

I didn’t think anything about going down into the basement as far as ghosts were concerned. My old man had always told me not worry about the dead, and that it was the living that I needed to watch out for. I thought about this as I rode the elevator to the basement.

The basement of an old textile mill in the middle of the night it not a place for the fainthearted, but it didn’t really bother me. I had seen countless machine rooms in dark basements and it was just something that came with the job. When I stepped off the elevator into the basement I closed the safety gate and doors so that the elevator would be able to respond if it was called from one of the floors above me.

Once in the machine room I opened the elevator controller, which for this particular elevator was an ancient contraption full of chattering relays and lots of wires. I knew better that to dust off any of the relays, touch any of the old components or otherwise disturb anything in the controller unless I absolutely had to. Old freight elevator controllers are temperamental animals that prefer to be left alone. I wanted to hear the pump run so I took the pencil out of my shirt pocket and used the back of it to push in the 1st floor call relay. The pump roared to life and promptly sent the elevator on its way.

The machine room fell silent as soon as the elevator reached the 1st floor. Out of the corner of my eye through the open door of the machine room I could see the heavy steel doors of the elevator. Unlike passenger elevators doors, freight elevator doors open up and down, not side to side. I could see the call button on the wall to the right of the closed doors.

Just as I was about to look back at the controller the hallway call button lit up. This was followed by a loud click as a relay on the control board energized to open the valves. I listened to the hissing noise as the oil began to drain into the tank as the elevator slowly descended to the basement.

Something had called the elevator to the basement. I looked at the energized basement call relay and knew that I hadn’t touched it with my pencil.

I walked out of the machine room and over to the steel doors. I could see the elevator car through the small window on the upper door. It was empty. I walked back into the machine room and used my pencil to push in the 3rd floor relay. Once again the pump roared to life and the elevator took off to the 3rd floor. Once it was there the machine room again fell silent.

To my surprise, the call button on the wall lit up again and the elevator returned to the basement. I stood there dumbfounded. As I had done before I used my pencil to push in another relay, this time sending the elevator to the 2nd floor. But the elevator didn’t stay at the 2nd floor for even a minute before the basement call relay clicked shut right before my eyes. I looked out of the machine room door to see the hallway call station button glowing brightly in the dim light of the basement.

I spent the next two hours trying to figure out why the elevator kept coming back to the basement. I unfolded the old wiring diagram and checked every circuit possible before finally giving up. The elevator was working fine but for some unknown reason it wanted to stay in the basement. It was late and I was tired and wanted to go home. I had no idea why the elevator was behaving like it was and I made sure I told this to the lady in the tool room on the first floor that had the job of signing my service ticket.

“I could have saved you some time, young feller,” the old woman said as she signed my ticket. “That’s just Old Harold playing around. He does that from time to time.”

“Who?” I said. It was two in the morning and I wasn’t much in the mood for a mill story but I knew I had to hear this one. I knew I had been alone in the basement. No one had been down there with me.

“Who is Harold?” I asked again.

The woman gave me an understanding look. “Bless your heart,” she finally said. Then she decided to tell me the story.

“Old Harold had a heart attack and died down there in the basement way back in the late forties. He was trying to work on that old elevator and didn’t know what he was doing, or so the story goes. So every now and then he likes to call the elevator to the basement. But we don’t pay him any mind. We just let Old Harold have his fun. He’s not hurting anyone.”

I looked at the old woman and tried to figure out if she was serious. It seemed to me that she believed what she was telling me.

The next day I mentioned the elevator to my coworkers. All of them knew about Old Harold and how he loved to call the elevator to the basement anytime someone was down there working. Every last one of them had seen the basement hall button light up, pushed by Harold’s unseen finger.

Three months later I was called back to that mill to work on the same elevator. Just as he had done before, Old Harold’s ghost returned and called the elevator to the basement over and over while I was down there working. When I was finished, I collected up my tools and returned them to my tool bag. As I walked towards the closed elevator doors I smiled when the call button lit up just as I was about to reach for it. Then I smiled to myself.

“Thanks, Harold,” I said into the empty basement.

The Haunted Fields of Andersonville

When it comes to haunted places in the Deep South, two cities often come to mind. They are Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. If you’ve ever been to either of these two cities you’ll understand why. They just look haunted, to be honest. And considering their history, how could they not be? Given the bloodshed of the Civil War as well as the horrible Slave Trade, it is easy to understand why these two cities carry a reputation for harboring the souls of the dead.

But there is another haunted place in the Deep South, one that is brimming with wandering souls and restless “haints”.  It is known as Andersonville.

If ghosts are your thing look no further than the 26 acres nestled deep in the heart of the Georgia countryside near Sumter County. There you will find the former location of the Civil War prison camp known as Andersonville. The actual prison camp is gone now, but most of the ghosts of its Union prisoners remain, and they can often be seen wandering in the area.

An actual Andersonville survivor

Living conditions were so bad at Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumter, that over 13,000 Union prisoners of war died there from 1861 to 1864. There were no buildings at Andersonville, only crude tents that provided little protection from the weather. A swamp ran through the middle of the prison and this contributed greatly to the squalid living conditions in the camp. Scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery were rampant among the prisoners. There were no latrines or clean drinking water, and little food was supplied to the camp.

And if the horrible living conditions weren’t enough, prisoners also had to fear “the dead line”. Any prisoner that crossed the dead line, an imaginary line that marked a boundary between the tents and the stockade wall, was shot immediately by the sentries in the guard towers.

The execution of Henry Wirz

Conditions were so inhumane that the Confederate officer that commanded Andersonville, a Swiss-born man named Henry Wirz, was hanged for war crimes after the war ended. In what some would say was a fitting end, the hanging did not break Wirz’ neck and thus spectators were treated to the image of his body dancing on the end of the rope until he finally suffocated. The ghost of Captain Henry Wirz can often be seen walking along the roads that lead to Andersonville.

Andersonville graves. Photo courtesy of Jud McCranie

People who visit the location of the Andersonville Prison, now preserved as a national historic site, routinely report seeing Union soldiers walking in the woods and fields around the site. When the sun goes down or the weather darkens, cries of agony can often be heard wafting across the grassy fields and through the rows of tombstones that mark the final resting places of the thousands of former prisoners buried on the site.

It is a well-known fact that both sides treated their prisoners horribly during the Civil War. We as a nation can only hope that such grim times never visit us again. The wandering souls of Andersonville should serve as a reminder of how dark the human spirit can become when calmer heads do not prevail.

The Lucky Gold Coin of Lt. George Dixon

Legend has it that Lieutenant George Dixon of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment was quite a lucky man. Shot at the battle of Shiloh, the ball from a Union soldier’s musket hit that him in the thigh should have taken his life, or at the very least his entire leg. Serious arm and leg wounds during the Civil War were often treated by amputating the affected limb, the practice of which required nothing more than an ether-soaked rag over the nose and a surgeon’s saw.

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Hunley

But Lt. Dixon’s wound would require none of this because when the musket ball struck him in the leg it was deflected by a $20 Double Eagle gold piece that he kept in his pocket as a lucky charm. The story has been passed down through the years that the gold piece was given to him by his true love as a token of her affection.

Whether or not this is true is beside the point. The coin was where it needed to be when fate struck regardless of who gave it to him. Instead of dying on the battlefield at Shiloh, the lucky lieutenant walked away with both legs and nothing more than a permanent limp. A greater fate awaited him.

Because of his keepsake coin, Lt. Dixon was allowed to live on and find his true place in history. It would not be at Shiloh. Lt. Dixon would find his real place in history, the one that fate had planned for him, on the night of February 17, 1864 in the dark waters just outside of the harbor of Charleston, SC.

The CSS Hunley on the pier.

On that night Lt. Dixon commanded the CSS Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship in battle. Dixon and the other seven men of his crew slipped beneath the surface of the water in the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped Hunley and proceeded to navigate towards the looming hulk of the USS Housatonic, a Union warship engaged in blockade duty just offshore of the port of Charleston.

The USS Housatonic

When the long spar on the front of the Hunley struck the Housatonic, Dixon ordered his men to reverse their cranking in order to deposit the TNT charge in the hull of the Union warship. The idea was to deposit the charge and then back away from the Housatonic so that the charge could then be detonated by a pullcord. But Murphy’s Law took over and the resulting explosion not only sank the Housatonic in less than five minutes, it also sent Dixon and his entire crew to the bottom of the harbor shortly thereafter. On that dark night, the Hunley became their tomb. The submarine would not surface again until it was located and raised in August of 2000.

The CSS Hunley being raised in August, 2000

Speculation about the identities of the crew, and most notably the commander of the Hunley ended when one of the researchers found a $20 gold piece inside the hull of the Hunley near the remains of one of the crewmembers. Not only was the coin bent like it had been struck hard with something, it bore the initials G.E.D and the inscription My Life Preserver. Sadly, the coin that saved George Dixon’s life at Shiloh and allowed him to find his true place in history was not able to save him from his watery grave.

Ghost stories about the Hunley and its crew abound in the Charleston area. When the remains of the crew were finally buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, next to the two previous Hunley crews that had lost their lives during the Hunley’s sea trials, thousands of people turned out for the event. The people engaged in the burial ceremony wore period-correct Confederate uniforms and civilian attire in order to pay respect to the fallen crew of the Hunley.

Spectators reported seeing Civil War soldiers walking among the crowd but when they later examined the photographs they took of the ceremony these soldiers could not be seen in the photos. One woman reported snapping a picture of a Confederate soldier adjusting the canteen strap of one of the reenactors standing in formation near the gravesite but when she later examined the photo the soldier was not there, leading her to believe that the soldier she saw adjusting the canteen strap had been a ghost.

The crew of the Hunley had been instructed to surface and light a signal lamp upon successfully sinking the Housatonic.  Witnesses on shore reported seeing a light shortly after the Housatonic sank, but the Hunley never returned.

But ask any Charlestonian and they will tell you that if you go to the water’s edge on the night of February 17, you might just see a light in the distance, hovering just above the surface of the water. Some say the ghost ship and its crew, the first submarine crew in history to sink an enemy ship, remain on patrol signaling in vain to a shore party that has long since vanished.

Live Long and Prosper

It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Leonard Nimoy yesterday. Forever to be known as Mr. Spock, he was one of my biggest childhood heroes.

I didn’t start watching Star Trek until the mid-seventies, but that didn’t matter. Once I saw the first episode I was hooked for life. I’ve been a Trekkie ever since. Despite loving all of the characters in the show, my favorite character by far was Mr. Spock. As a wide-eyed twelve year old sitting in front of the TV, I had never seen anyone like him.

One of the best things about Star Trek was the interaction between Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy. McCoy loved to spar with Spock and try to rile him into showing his human side, but it was the “bromance” between Kirk and Spock that took center stage in the show.

My best friend and I were consumed by Star Trek and had a bromance of our own that mirrored Kirk and Spock’s. We greeted each other every day with Spock’s trademark split finger salute while deadpanning “live long and prosper”. Then we would rehash the previous night’s episode, discussing at length whether or not the Klingons would win the next battle and take over the universe, or if the Enterprise would make the mistake of crossing into the Romulan neutral zone never to be seen again.

I was a model builder back in those days and I built every single plastic Star Trek model available. Hanging from the ceiling in my room were models of the Enterprise, a Klingon battle cruiser, the shuttlecraft and a Romulan Bird of Prey. I even built models of Spock’s Phaser, Tricorder and Communicator. I carried the Communicator to school with me and on more than one occasion tried to raise the Enterprise on a hailing frequency from the boy’s room at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school in Daytona Beach. I never could get the Enterprise to answer and I always attributed this to the fact that the Romulans had to be jamming all the frequencies.

Courtesy of CBS

The best way to live long and prosper is to find out what you are good at, and then find out what you enjoy doing. If you’re blessed they will be the same thing. Leonard Nimoy was blessed in this way. He brought a character to life that has endured for generations, one whose face is instantly recognizable whether it be on Earth or Rigel VII. He gave young boys like my myself someone to look up to in an era where we were very short on heroes. He gave the smart kids a reason to be proud because as Mr. Spock he made being intelligent look very cool.

Mr. Spock was a hero to my generation. He was the ultimate bad-ass scientist. May his memory live long and prosper.

The Ghost of Tobacco Road

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On the banks of the Skeleton River in a remote part of North Carolina lies the small town of Starlight. Once known for its tobacco fields and rural charm, Starlight has seen better days. Now most of the stores on Main Street are boarded up, and many of the residents have left town for good.

Logan Shaw, a down and out used-car salesman living in Wilmington is convinced that the letter he has received from a small law firm in Starlight has to be a mistake. The letter states that Logan has been named the sole beneficiary in the last will and testament of one of Starlight’s residents, a reclusive old woman recently found dead in her home on the outskirts of town.

After arriving in town, Logan meets an attractive young woman named Colby who has lived in Starlight all of her life. No one knows better than Colby about the stories passed down over the years of what can happen when the harvest moon rises over the tobacco fields outside of town.

With Colby by his side, Logan struggles to comprehend the unspeakable evil that has entered his life, and to understand how he is strangely connected to it. Under the light of the harvest moon he will learn of the dark secret that Starlight holds, and of the legend the locals refer to as “the ghost of tobacco road”.

Pinball and Prostitutes on Court Street

Playing pinball and negotiating a business deal with a prostitute are not usually two things that are done at the same time, unless, of course, you’re on Court Street in Jacksonville, NC.

Every Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in the 1980’s remembers Court Street. It was the center of our world, because, well, our world was centered on pole dancers, titty bars, tattoo parlors, and on occasion, a good game of pinball.

Now I’m not exactly the Pinball Wizard, but I’ve played my fair share of the silver ball. But the most memorable game I ever played was on Court Street not long after I arrived at Camp Lejeune to begin my service with an artillery battery in the 10th Marine Regiment.

Being fresh out of boot camp and unschooled in the ways of the world when it came to purchasing whiskerbiscuit from a working girl, I had no idea of the existence of the golden rule. But after that night on Court Street, I learned my lesson and learned it well.

The end of an era. Court Street was cleaned up in the late 1980’s. It’s all law offices and bail bondsmen now.

I was hanging out in one of the snack bars with several of my fellow Marines just playing pinball and marveling at the fact that in just a few months I had been transformed from a lost high school student into a very focused U.S. Marine. I was surrounded by a world that up until that time in my life I had only seen in the movies.

“You looked at her twice,” replied the salty Marine sergeant standing next to me as he watched the prostitute make her way towards us. “Now you’ll have to talk to her.”

Who knew that the golden rule with prostitutes was that you could look at them once and not be committed but if you looked at them twice they took it as a sign that you liked what you saw and wanted to commence negotiations?

Sure enough, I had looked at her twice and the game was on.

I could hear her heels clicking as she approached me. Then I felt her arm around my shoulder as she moved in close. Her scent was a combination of mint chewing gum, cheap perfume and cigarette smoke and that scent, along with her arm around my shoulder made it a struggle to keep the silver ball out of the gutter. Only my raw skill at pinball kept me from losing my quarter.

“Hey baby, you want a date?”

A date? I thought silently to myself. Did she want me to take her to the movies and then for cheeseburgers before we broke out the condoms? I was in uncharted territory.

In hooker lexicon, a “date” is the actual act. You take a girlfriend to the movies on a date. You take a hooker to the alley for a date. Often the outcomes of both scenarios are the same.

DSCN0299
Now abandoned, this building was the site of the infamous game of pinball.

I lost my quarter in the pinball machine that night, but I gained something much more valuable. My negotiating skills failed me and no business transaction took place, but there would be other transactions in my future as my skills with decent women, as well as prostitutes, improved. From that point on I made it a point to remember the golden rule.

But of all the working girls that would cross my path in the many foreign ports I travelled to, none would hold a place in my memory like that gum chewing, fake mink shawl-wearing, high-heeled business woman that interrupted my pinball game that night on Court Street so long ago.

As any Marine can tell you, you never forget your first working girl.

Tower Chicks

In a previous post I talked about America’s infatuation with cell phones. We have  become a nation of yappers and thumbers, and it’s time we pay tribute to the people that make it all possible for us to communicate with each other.

Just as most people nowadays have no idea what goes on under the hood of their car, they also have no idea how their cell phone works, or that there is a small, specialized group of people out there that risk their lives every day so that Americans can have cell service.

They are known as the Tower Chicks.

Got balls?

Even though they’re women, Tower Chicks have more balls than most latte-sipping, Prius-driving American men who ride down the Interstate every day thumbing their BFFs while steering their car with their knee. These men, as well as all cell phone users, have no idea that Tower Chicks are risking their lives every single day to make all that thumbing and yapping possible.

In a male-dominated field, these women climb cell phone towers every day to repair or replace the equipment located at the top of the towers. They climb towers everywhere in America, from the deserts of New Mexico to the frozen wastelands of Wisconsin, to the flatlands around Miami to the gloomy mountains of Seattle.

In the cities and out in the countryside, these women spend their days climbing sometimes as high as four hundred feet in the air with tools hanging from their work belts. They live in motels, eat gas station food, and then climb to their “office” at the top of a tower to begin their workday.

Note the bird’s nest in the background

Cell tower climbing is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. It is not for the fainthearted, or for anyone, man or woman, who suffers from a lack of guts. These courageous climbers perform an essential task in our society and sometimes get hurt, or fall to their deaths while doing it.

So the next time you’re sitting in your pod at work surfing the Internet on your cell phone, or driving down the highway trying to check the stats on the game, think about the Tower Chicks that climb the towers to make it possible for you to have that privilege.

And when you drive past that 400 foot cell tower with the lights blinking on the top, tip your hat and toast your pumpkin latte’ to the Tower Chicks, and their male counterparts, that climb the towers all over America.

The world would be silent without them.

The South’s Most Infamous Prostitute

The Deep South has a rich and colorful history, as well as a dark and tortured one. People born and raised in Dixie, as the South is often called, know better than anyone that southern land is haunted by restless souls that wander through the night. Some of these souls are benevolent and do no harm other than to scare people out of their wits. As for the rest of the wandering souls in the South, be warned, they are not to be messed with. One such ghost that comes to mind is the ghost of the South’s most infamous prostitute, a woman who went by the name of Molly Hatchet. Men that crossed paths with her were known to lose their heads in the process.

Cropped MollyThe legend of Molly Hatchet dates back to the Civil War. In 1864 a Confederate soldier went missing from his unit just outside of Cold Harbor, Va. He was later found in a local boardinghouse, his body on the bed and his head on the floor. Witnesses said they had seen him in the company of a beautiful young woman just hours before his headless body was found.

In 1879 in the small harbor town of Beaufort, SC, sailors from the ships that visited the port were told stories about a mysterious woman outside of town whose business was to deal in the pleasures of the flesh. They were all warned by their captains to stay away from her. Many of them did, but on one fateful night a sailor from a visiting steamship, lonely from months at sea and in dire need of a woman, decided to pay Molly a visit. The next morning his headless body was found lying in an alley behind the local saloon. His head was never found.

Three years after the 1879 beheading, Molly was seen again setting up shop near Boone, a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Mountain men at the time were known to be lonely and Molly cashed in on this loneliness by collecting their heads. Five headless bodies were found before Molly disappeared from town in 1881.

Many Southerners that lived during the time of Molly Hatchet believed that she was a ghost, a demon of sorts, sent to punish the men of the South for their participation in the Civil War. Others felt that she was sent to punish men in general for the wickedness that existed in society during the Reconstruction years. No one knows for sure. But no woman ever lost her head at the hands of Molly Hatchet. Only men bore the brunt of her rage.

It was said that Molly Hatchet possessed such striking beauty, as well as a body no man could resist, that she had no trouble luring men into her parlor despite the rumors that circulated about her. And no one knows if Molly Hatchet actually let her clients enjoy her body before beheading them. The only people that know the answer to that question are her victims, and like the pirates used to say, dead men tell no tales.

Dirty Woman's Hand Holding A Bloody AxeLegend has it that the ghost of Molly Hatchet can be summoned even today. Her ghost is said to fancy dark and lonely stretches of railroad tracks throughout the South. If a man is so inclined, he need only walk the tracks in the dead of night and call out her name.

He won’t be the first man to lose his head over a woman.

Rockin’ The Hilfiger

Paradise…

When I was a young I lived two blocks from the ocean in the heart of Daytona Beach, Florida. It was as close to paradise as a young boy could get without a girl being involved. But even though I spent my youth surfing, skateboarding and manning the jib sail of my neighbor’s 16 foot Hobie catamaran, none of it was enough to save me from the fate that awaited me when my wife and I took our teenage son to the mall to buy him some clothes for his upcoming senior year of high school.

It was on that day that I found out I was rockin’ the Hilfiger.

Anyone who has teenage children knows what a traumatic experience it is for them to be seen in public with their parents. We are just so uncool that it ruins their image to be seen with us. What they fail to realize is that we weren’t always so uncool.

So there I was standing in a clothing store at the mall, a surfing-themed clothing store if you can believe that, when a young salesperson walked up and spoke to me. His tone was one of unbridled amazement.

“Dude… I see you’re rockin’ the Hilfiger!” he said as he stared at my shirt, his eyes full of wonder.

“I beg your pardon?” I said.

“You’re rockin’ the Hilfiger,” he repeated. Then he reached up and touched the sleeve of my shirt like he thought it was made out of some sort of magic cloth.

“Nice shirt,” he said. “But we don’t sell anything like that in here. Can I help you with something else? Maybe something more stylish, like Neff or DC?” I could tell he was trying his best not to laugh.

“Neff? DC?” I said. “What?”

The kid just smiled and shook his head. In his eyes he knew I wasn’t nearly cool enough to understand his language, or to wear Neff or DC clothing. And like most kids his age, he was convinced that his generation had invented the surfing and skateboarding lifestyle. He had no idea that I am member of the Stacy Peralta generation, or that surfing legends Gerry Lopez and Tom Curren were my heroes when I was growing up in Daytona Beach. Well, them and Luke Skywalker but that’s another story.

So I decided to have a little fun and give the kid a run for his money.

Sex wax“No thanks on the Neff and DC,” I said. “But I’ll take a cake of coconut Sex Wax. And I could use another pair of Quicks and a new leash. I broke my last one riding the outside during a huge swell at Ponce.”

The kid looked at me dumbfounded. “What?”

“Sex Wax. I’m sure you guys sell it. I mean, I see surfboards hanging on the walls. Don’t tell me you don’t sell Sex Wax.”

“Sex what?” was all he could manage.

“Wax,” I said.

“Um, I don’t think we sell that,” said the poor kid. Then he turned and walked away, outwitted by a middle-aged father of two wearing a Hilfiger shirt.

There is only one thing better in the world… Photo by Stan Shebs

Even though I grew up at the beach and surfed almost every day of my life during my teenage years, had a year-round tan and a subscription to Surfer magazine, none of it was enough to save me from the passage of time.

I have long since hung up my Rip Curl wetsuits, sold my Logan Earth Ski skateboard and my Gordon and Smith thruster. And I haven’t sailed a reach on a catamaran in thirty five years.

The passage of time is a funny thing. Nothing stays the same. Wise adults know this. What the poor kid in the clothing store didn’t realize is that one day he will probably be standing in a mall with his son shopping for clothes. And he might even be wearing a Hilfiger shirt while he’s doing it.

And I can only hope that when that time comes he realizes there are worse things in life.

How The Marine Corps Handles Race Relations

Watching our country tear itself apart over the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions is both sad and painful. Sometimes I wonder if America will ever move past the racial tensions that exist between blacks and whites. But then I’m reminded of my time in the Marine Corps and how we had little, if any, racial tension. Believe it or not, the Marine Corps figured out long ago how to end racial tension in its ranks, and if the civilian world would just use the same formula then things would get better in this country almost immediately.

What is the solution? What does the Marine Corps do that erases the lines between black and white? It’s pretty simple:

Marine DI 3
Dark green Drill Instructor, light green recruit.

Every Marine is treated like shit on an equal basis, starting in boot camp. As soon as a recruit steps off the bus on Parris Island he is told that he is a worthless waste of human sperm until he earns the title of U.S. Marine. He is told this regardless of the color of his skin.

The key to race relations in the Marine Corps lies in the shared sacrifice expected of all Marines. Every Marine, regardless of his skin color, must pass the same moral, mental and physical tests required of every Marine that has gone before him.  When he is finally allowed to wear the uniform, he knows that he has earned it fair and square and that it was not given to him to satisfy some quota. Fair, equal treatment is borne of shared sacrifice, and the idea of shared sacrifice is what is missing from the civilian world. Hence the current state of race relations in America.

One of the first examples I saw of how the Marine Corps handles race occurred when I was in boot camp on Parris Island in the summer of 1982. My platoon was mostly white but there were a good number of black recruits as well as a few Latinos. It was when one of our drill instructors noticed a small group of black recruits gravitating towards each other and trying to form a clique that I, along with the rest of the platoon, was given a first-hand lesson in how the Marine Corps handles race relations.

Yellow_Marine_Corps_Boot_Camp_Footprints
It all starts on the yellow footprints.

We had three drill instructors, one of which was black. He was the “Kill Hat”, which meant his job was to rip the ass off of any recruit that stepped out of line. He was like a machine and was very good at his job. When he noticed the four black recruits gravitating towards each other and trying to form a black clique he immediately took action. He knew how to fix the situation and put an end to a group of recruits trying to band together simply because they shared the same skin color.

Over the course of the next few weeks our Kill Hat took a particular interest in these four recruits, calling them “his little clique”. The rest of the black recruits in our platoon looked on in horror as these four recruits were punished. Several times a day our Kill Hat would order them to the quarterdeck of the squadbay, or out into the rose garden (the sandpit next to our barracks) where they would do pushups, leg lifts and all other manner of physical exercise until they collapsed in exhaustion. He damn near killed them, to be honest. In short, he was punishing them for trying to segregate themselves from the rest of the platoon. And given the fact that he was black himself, his words and actions carried a great deal of weight in the eyes of those four black recruits. It also made an enormous impression on the rest of us. I knew right then that the Corps was colorblind.

Our Kill Hat would walk down the squadbay and growl, “where’s my little clique? Get on my quarterdeck right fucking now!”

Marine DI 1
Marine Corps Drill Instructors are masters of communication.

The four black recruits would immediately run to the quarterdeck where they would drop and begin doing pushups while he stood over them explaining, in no uncertain terms, that there were no cliques inside the Marine Corps because the entire Marine Corps as a whole was a clique. He explained that there was no black, white or brown in the Marine Corps and that all Marines were either dark green or light green. He communicated this to the black recruits as they sweated and strained to keep doing pushups. Drill instructors are masters of communication, and our Kill Hat was no exception to the rule.

This went on until our Kill Hat broke the will of one of the black recruits in “his little clique”. That recruit was then thrown out of the Corps and sent home. After that the clique disbanded when the remaining three black recruits finally realized that the color of their skin meant nothing, and would not garner them any special favors, least of all from a drill instructor that was as black as they were.

Marine recruit barbed wire
Marine recruits know they are all in it together.

My bunkie in boot camp was a dark green Marine from Chicago. He and I became good friends even though as recruits we were barely allowed to speak to each other. We got off a whisper every now and then while we were all down on our hands and knees scrubbing the deck of our squadbay but that was about it. His skin color meant nothing to me, nor did mine to him. We knew we were brothers by way of the Corps and that our skin color would not save us if we couldn’t cut it. A little over a year after we graduated from boot camp, my bunkie was killed in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983.

The Marine Corps teaches that only one color matters – the color of a Marine’s blood. I know that on the day my bunkie died in Beirut, regardless of the color of his skin, his blood was just as red as mine.

Niner Eight
The Niner Eight

Once I got out into the regular Marine Corps and began my service in an artillery battery, I never saw a Marine get promoted because of his skin color, nor did I ever see a Marine get picked for a working party or put on guard duty because of the color of his skin. We were pretty much all treated like shit on an equal basis. And I mean “treated like shit” in a good way. The Marine Corps is a bastion of testosterone and authority, perhaps the only such bastion left in America. A Marine will either do as he is told or his ass will be ground into dog meat. And it will not matter if his ass if black, white or brown. The color of his skin will not save him if he can’t follow orders and carry his share of the load.

Illumination rounds
Marine artillery firing illumination rounds, known as “hanging the artificial sun”.

When one of us got picked for a work detail we knew it was because we had either screwed up or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because we were one color and our platoon sergeant was a another color and had it out for us. In my time as a Marine, I had more black platoon sergeants than I did white ones, and I was treated fairly by them all. Marine DI 2

The Marine Corps has a way of breaking down racial and social barriers by using discipline, good old fashioned hard work, and the time-honored notion of “shut your fucking mouth and do as you’re told”. That last part about shutting your fucking mouth and doing as you’re told has turned many an undisciplined teenage punk, black, white or brown, into a hard charging, well-disciplined U.S. Marine.