The New Man

 

 

 

This came about as a challenge to "come out of the comfort zone" about the time that I was writing another story and toying with the idea of introducing a new character into the pantheon of Seaview's crewmen.   In order to be as accurate with emotions and reactions as possible, I used aspects of several wonderful people I have met through the years.  Hopefully, by doing that, I have made RJ and his family realistic and believable.  

An African American was in several episodes beginning in the latter part of the third season.  I would like to think that it was RJ Porter....

*In memory of Deloris White-- friend, colleague, terrific cook and a wonderful woman with a terrific family.  I wish she had lived long enough to read the story.   10/13/06. 

 

 

Rashard Porter sat on the porch of his north Knoxville home listening to the creak of the porch swing.  He had only been home for a couple of days and already he was bored.  There were times that he wondered just why he had left the Navy.  All in all, it had been a good job these past six years.   He had learned a trade none of his friends or family would have dreamed he would consider, but he had enjoyed it-- every minute of it.  He looked at his hands.  Long brown fingers, calloused palms.  He clenched his fists.  The strength of steel, he’d been told.  Those hands had saved lives, he thought with pride.  He had served well and he had received the top efficiency marks of his rate.  Seaman Rashard J. Porter, expert deep-sea diver and submariner. 

He sighed.  So why had he quit something he had come to love so much?  There had just been too much garbage involved, especially on his last assignment.  Prejudice seemed to be in the ranks of the Navy, just as it was everywhere else.  Even in the late seventies, what did he expect?   And in a small microcosm of a submarine?   It had become just too much.  Perhaps he could apply for a position with a petroleum company on an oilrig, or deep-sea rescue or even with the water rescue unit that operated out of this area.   It certainly wasn’t as demanding as what he used to do, but it would be close to home and there was a need, what with the Tennessee River, Loudoun Reservoir, the Clinch River and other nearby bodies of water.  Then he shook his head.  Pulling dead fishermen out of the murky waters just didn’t sound like something he wanted to do the rest of his life. 

Inside the house, his mother was making another red velvet cake for the upcoming family reunion, singing robustly the entire time.  He had once joked with her, asking if she actually knew all the cousins-- first, second and several removed, aunts, uncles and relatives by marriage.  She laughed and said it didn’t really matter.  She knew most and the others were known by other relatives who knew her.   God would straighten out everything else, she had told him.

It was a monster of a family and Rashard, or RJ to that same family, felt comfortable with them most of the time.  He sighed as he watched the mailman drive up to their mailbox and dump off the latest round of bills, offers for credit cards, catalogs and Navy re-enlistment offers.  Slowly he got up, walked down the stairs, which needed a good coat of paint, and walked the short path to the mailbox.  Peering inside, he noted that it was just what he thought it would be.   Plus a couple of letters expressing excitement for the upcoming reunion.   Then he saw an official looking envelope.  At first he thought it was the Navy letter that most recent ex-sailors got, but it wasn’t.  He looked at the back and his eyes widened considerably.  It was from NIMR.  Everyone in the Navy heard of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, headed by the influential genius, Admiral Harriman Nelson.  Rashard turned the envelope over and looked at the address and name.  Yeah, they had sent it to him.  But why?

Slowly he walked toward the house, almost oblivious to his surroundings.  His toe caught on a piece of cracked sidewalk and he brought himself back to his surroundings.  He opened the screen door and carried his haul to the kitchen table.  The kitchen table was full, though, and he stood there with the catalogs, bills and letters in his hands.  His mother was cooking the cakes ahead of time, freezing them so she could get them out next week and frost them the night before the reunion.  “I don’t think you have enough there, Mama,” he said dryly. 

She laughed warmly and glanced at what he was carrying.  “Put the mail in the basket, help me get these wrapped for the freezer and then we can look at our treasures.”   He complied and soon they were sitting in the ladder-backed chairs, she opening the reunion letters and he carefully unsealing the NIMR letter. 

“Must be mighty important for you to be taking that kind of care,” his mother said. 

Rashard wondered why he was so careful, too.  “It’s from NIMR,” he said, slowly pulling the letter from the envelope.  He looked up and saw his mother’s confused face.  “Nelson Institute of Marine Research.”  She still looked confused.  “Ever heard of Admiral Harriman Nelson?  Or the Seaview?”

Recognition dawned along with possible implications of such a letter.   “Oh, sweet Jesus, what do they want?”

He scanned the letter.  “They want me to consider serving on the Seaview.  They would like for me to arrange a meeting, at my convenience, with a representative of the Institute,” he said softly.  RJ felt conflicting emotions right now.  He couldn’t deny that he felt a certain amount of pride that they would even consider him, but as far as he knew, there were no African-Americans serving on the sub.  There hadn’t been on the last one he had been on, either.   The one where his tormenters never let up; never let him forget who he was and what they felt he represented. 

Rashard felt his mother’s warm hand on his arm and looked up.  “Tell me again, baby, why you didn’t re-enlist in the Navy?”

“I couldn’t take another four years of all that racial crap.”

“Didn’t I teach you that there would be that kind of thing wherever you went and whatever you did?”

“Yes’m, you did, but this was beyond….”

“No, RJ, let me tell you what you seem to have forgotten,” she said, her eyes loving and stern at the same time.  “Doesn’t matter what anyone else says, you are inferior only if you let yourself be.  You will be a slave, only if you choose to be.”  She squeezed gently.  “I know what it’s like, baby.  Believe me, it used to be worse.”  She leaned back.

“Mama, you have no idea what it was like on a submarine where more than a dozen of the men were closet racists,” he said, remembering the horrors of the hazings.  Oh, they never physically hurt him, then there would be proof to take to the XO.  It was the constant haranguing, bullying, and dirty tricks.

“Maybe I don’t, but maybe I do,” she said.  “What I want to know is, if you are so set against setting foot in the Navy again, and this ship, uh, boat is pretty much Navy, despite it being owned privately, why even the interest?”

“I don’t know.   I guess it’s because I’ve heard it’s an honor to even be considered for a job at the Institute.  And to be considered for the sub?  I had Navy buddies who would think they had died and gone to glory.”

“Then why don’t you call them?”

“The crew is all white,” he said dully.

“If I understand between the lines, RJ, the crew consists of the most talented and experienced men in the country.  Isn’t that all you ever wanted to be considered --an excellent diver, not an excellent black diver?” she asked pointedly. 

“Of course, Mama, but sometimes that’s not enough.  No matter what I do, some people will still see my skin, not my abilities.”

Mama smiled sadly.  “I know that, son, but it’s the ones that learn the contents of your heart that count the most.” 

But I’ll be away from home most of the time,” he added weakly. 

“Baby, I’m not even going to answer that one.  I want you to search your soul, decide where your happiness lies and then decide whether to call these people or not.”  She smiled.  

“What if they’re trying to fill a quota?”

“Possibility, but do you think you can live up to the standards of this service?”

“I . . . yes.”

“Three hour time difference, RJ.  You choose.”

Rashard studied the letter again and then walked to the phone.  An honor.  But could he endure being the only black man on a gray sub with a white interior?   Only one way to determine if this was what he wanted to do.  He dialed the number in the letter. 

“Admiral Nelson’s office,” came the brisk female voice on the other end. 

Rashard raised his eyebrows in surprise.  He expected some Lt. JG’s office.  “Yes, ma’am.  This is Seaman Rashard Porter.  I received a letter from you this afternoon.”

“Wonderful, Seaman Porter!  We were hoping you would call.  The admiral is in need of a good diver.   Would you like to meet with one of Admiral Nelson’s representatives?   Say within the next week?”

Rashard didn’t think his eyebrows could go any higher in surprise.  “Yes, ma’am.  Did you want me to come out to Santa Barbara?”

“No, we will send someone out to meet with you.  The admiral likes to not only find out more about his potential employees, but their families as well.”

“Why?” he asked bluntly, then realizing to whom he was talking.  “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I didn’t mean to sound rude.”

She laughed softly.  “You weren’t rude.  Families have a great influence on the men that serve.  Negatively or positively.   So it’s not that we’re trying to be intrusive, we are just wanting the best.”

“Yes, ma’am,” RJ said quietly.  

“When and where would be a convenient time for someone to meet you?” the secretary asked.  

Rashard thought a minute and then said, a slight gleam in his eye.  “Would next Saturday be all right?” 

“I think there would be no problem with that.  Can you give me the address?  And what time would be best?”

Rashard gave her the address and the time and hung up. 

“RJ, what in the world is going on in your mind?”

“A test, Mama.   They said they wanted to meet my family, too.”  

“Oh, blessed Jesus, save me,” Mama said under her breath, rolling her eyes toward heaven.

   

==================

 

The beautiful June day dawned bright, with the promise of clear skies. Rashard had spent the previous week fixing up around the house with his father and brother, while his mother and aunts had taken over the kitchen preparing for the reunion. 

“Best to stay away when all of them get together,” Papa had remarked sagely a couple of days previously as he and Rashard had scraped peeling paint off the porch railings.  Nine-year-old Anthony had followed almost on their heels, wielding a paintbrush with casual abandon.  “Watch what you’re doing there,” Papa snapped good-naturedly.  “You’re about to change the colors of my sneakers.”  With so much happening, with the steady arrival of outlaying relatives, you just couldn’t stay angry with anyone, although Anthony could try the patience of Job himself. 

As the sun continued to rise on that beautiful Saturday morning, though, the work grew more frantic, as did Mama’s voice. Ice chests of deviled eggs, salads, greens, and pinto beans and ham were loaded into the back of the station wagon.  Separate boxes of cakes and cookies where handled as carefully as the most delicate filigree. 

“Now y’all hurry up and get the rest of these things in the back. I don’t want the icing to run before we even get started,” Mama directed with the authority of a traffic cop. “Willie, you get that car started so the air conditioning can keep everything cool.”

RJ’s father said nothing, only did as he was told.  Soon everyone was piled into the car.  Rashard shared the back seat with Anthony and his mother’s sister, Dolores and her girl.  The girl, Tamika, kept making eyes at him.  Made him uncomfortable.   Mama looked back at him with a raking glance.  She was still upset with what she felt was a shabby trick he was playing on the NIMR representative.  Well, perhaps it was a bit, but while RJ would dearly like to continue working as a diver on a submarine, he wanted to make his point, too, even if it did cost him the job.  He hoped he wouldn’t regret his decision. 

“Well, at least you wore something decent,” Mama muttered before turning back to face forward.  He had worn a polo shirt and khaki pants.  Nice enough, but not so nice he couldn’t play a bit of baseball after the interview.  Behind them, several other relatives were waiting in their cars and the procession headed out for Chilhowee Park.  RJ shook his head at the unreality of everything.  The reunion was so large they had to rent the park for the day.   The local AME church, big as it was, was much too small. 

They arrived shortly, and everyone began unloading all of their goodies. Desserts were set up on a separate table with some of the youngsters fanning them to keep the insects from feasting before they did. Not entirely Samaritan, the children thought they might be rewarded with a cookie before dinner. 

Some of the relatives had brought their instruments. Johnny invariably brought his steel guitar, thinking himself a black Elvis; Melvin his fiddle, Mae was unpacking her clarinet. There were others whose names he couldn’t remember, but it promised to be a rousing evening when the sun set. 

The smell of bowl after bowl of food enticed his nostrils and RJ had to work hard to keep from walking the long line of tables and checking it all out. Soon everything was in place, ready for the reunion to begin promptly at noon. Preacher Miles called everyone down and it grew quiet. Even the mockingbirds in a nearby tree ceased trying to outdo one another for a few minutes. In a voice loud enough for every one of the almost three hundred guests to hear, the pastor said the prayer, adding grace on the food. The prayer ended and an exodus not seen since the days of Moses began to proceed to the tables holding the food.  

Then Aunt Dolores stopped short, causing Tamika to plow into her. “Will you look at that,” she breathed. “RJ, you do something before you left the Navy that would have them after you?” 

RJ looked up and realized with horrible certainty that Mama had been right. He had pulled a stunt that was coming down around his ears.  Standing between the pavilion and the parking lot was a tall, formally dressed Naval officer.  RJ squinted and groaned. The visitor had three stripes on the sleeve of his khaki uniform jacket denoting full commander status. “Oh, Lord!” Rashard said audibly, his stomach wrapping itself around his toenails. 

“Son, if that’s the person who’s supposed to be coming to see you, I think you’d better get out there and invite him to dinner,” Papa said. Then he whistled appreciatively. He had served in the Army during the Korean War. “They sent out a top man, didn’t they?”

“No kidding, Papa,” Rashard mumbled at the understatement. As others noticed the newcomer and began staring, RJ jumped out of line and walked very quickly toward the officer. He almost saluted as he approached, but stopped himself just in time. “Commander, I . . . uh, I’m Rashard Porter.”

“Captain Lee Crane,” the visitor said, his mouth shaped in a wry smile. “This is not exactly what I was expecting.” 

“Uh, sir, I, uh, you did say you wanted to meet my family,” RJ said feebly, shaking the man’s hand.  He was totally in shock that the Institute would send out the skipper of the Seaview. Poetic justice, he thought grimly. Now he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting that job. 

Suddenly, Crane began laughing, softly at first, then harder as though he had been told one of the funniest jokes in the world. He brought himself under control and taking off his cap, wiped his eyes. “Yes, we did, but not your whole family. Just your immediate family.”

“Rashard, bring that man up here so he can get something to eat!” a woman’s voice called out over the murmur of several hundred voices. 

“Sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean to be rude. Come and join us, please,” Rashard said, still trying to figure out how to salvage the situation. 

“This is part of a family reunion, I gather. I don’t want to intrude,” Crane said, putting his cover under his arm.  

“Sir, I am the one who invited you, so you aren’t intruding,” Rashard said quickly, walking to where his parents were in line. Crane followed.  There were a few resentful eyes, but all in all, most of the folks nearby were either obvious in their attempts to ignore or in their attempts to covertly stare.  Rashard had thought to make a point when he had arranged this, but now he was regretting it. “Captain Crane, this is my mother, Viola and my father, William Porter.”

“Glad to meet you both,” the captain said, shaking their hands. “And thank you for the . . . uh, invitation.”

“Well, Captain,” Mama said, ever effusive. “You appear to be a bit on the thin side, so I want you to dig in and enjoy the food.”  Rashard couldn’t believe she had said that, but he made no comment.

Crane smiled and gazed at the long table of food. “Thank you, Mrs. Porter.” He surreptitiously glanced around the pavilion, took in the musicians tuning up, all the people loading up their plates, or staring at him, and Rashard could just guess what he might be thinking. Good! he thought, some of his former intention creeping back in. 

Just as they reached the end of the table and picked up plates and utensils, Anthony raced up and positioned himself behind Crane and in front of RJ.  He stared up at the lone white man, his eyes round. “You an admiral or something?” he asked. 

Rashard had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. Mama was horrified. “Anthony Michael! You mind your manners.”

Crane smiled indulgently. “No, not hardly,” he said. “And you are Rashard’s brother?”

“Yessir,” the boy said, grabbing a plate and fork. He almost danced from one foot to another, impatient to get to the food.  He looked back up at Crane.  “You’re the first white man I’ve ever seen at one of our reunions.”

Mama again looked mortified, but before she could say a thing, the captain replied, “I imagine I am, Anthony.  Quite an honor, I’d say.”

Everyone ladled up what they wanted and Rashard led the family to an empty table under a large oak tree.  A mockingbird was alternately imitating some of the notes of Mae’s clarinet and a warbler’s song.   The captain sat across from him.  While there was room at the table for more people, no one else joined them, Rashard noted.  RJ’s parents sat next to him saying nothing and Anthony was too busy shoveling food into his mouth.   Cornbread was in one hand and a deviled egg in the other each racing to see which would reach the boy’s mouth first.

“I know this is not a really good time for a job interview, but I guess since I’m here, I would like to talk to you about the position,” Crane said, sipping his lemonade.  Although it had been a bit cooler than normal the past couple of weeks, today it was rapidly heading toward the high eighties. Even in khaki’s, Crane looked a little uncomfortable. 

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m not going to try to sugar coat anything.  The Seaview is a wonderful boat on which to serve. I’ve been with her for four years and wouldn’t want to serve anywhere else. While she operates under Navy protocol, it’s a bit more relaxed on board then in the regular Navy. That isn’t to say that the jobs are easier, though, just that the atmosphere tends to be.”

“Captain,” Mama interrupted, “Those are darned fine greens, but they won’t be if you let them get cold.”

Crane blinked in surprise and promptly took a bite of the vegetable in question. He smiled. “You’re right, they are good, Mrs. Porter. Yours?” She nodded. “I wasn’t trying to be impolite. I just wanted to get the business out of the way so that you folks could all get back to what you were here for before I showed up.”

“If by that, you mean you plan on leaving as soon as you talk to RJ, be aware that when the invitation was extended, it was for as long as you wished to stay,” Mama declared. “Or as long as you’re comfortable visiting with us.”

Crane took another drink of his lemonade. There were still surreptitious as well as open stares toward their table. “In all honesty, I do feel a bit, uh, out of place. I mean, this is your family reunion….” 

He started to say something else, but Rashard spoke up.  “Captain, do I have permission to speak freely?”

“Of course.  We aren’t on a ship and you aren’t in the Navy.”

“Have you ever served with an all black crew?”

Crane looked surprised.  “No.”  Then he studied Rashard’s face carefully.  There wasn’t any animosity or anger, just curiosity. 

“Well, I have served on a boat with an all white crew, sir.  And if by the grace of God, I was still to be considered for service on the Seaview, I would still be serving as the only black man in an all white crew.”

“Point well taken, Seaman Porter.”  Crane leaned forward.  “Is this what the special invitation here was all about?”

“I guess so, Captain,” Rashard admitted. “I guess I wanted someone else to understand a little of what it is like.” 

Crane nodded. “You had a bit of a problem on your last ship.  Is that why you decided not to re-enlist?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your previous XO mentioned in one of his evaluation memos that he thought you were overly sensitive about racial issues,” Crane said bluntly.  Rashard began to protest, even as he noticed that his father had stiffened. Everyone, including Anthony, was extremely quiet. The captain raised his hand. “Let me finish. I checked this out and found that you had some well-founded complaints. I won’t go into the details; it doesn’t really matter that much now.” He paused, looked at his plate and then continued. “Seaman Porter, I wouldn’t even be here trying to recruit you if I didn’t think you had the ability to work with the other men. You certainly have the expertise and experience, and we need a top-notch diver and special rescue team member. Do you have the resolve and the will to become a member of the crew of the Seaview?”

“Captain, I have always tried to do my best, to be the best in my field. I am a Navy deep sea diver and a submariner,” he said proudly. “I think I have that resolve you’re talking about, sir.”

Crane sat back and smiled. “That’s what I wanted to hear.” He sobered. “By the way, I do have to tell you that at times Seaview is sent on secret and sometimes dangerous assignments. Men have been hurt . . . sometimes there have been fatalities.” He looked at all of the Porters after his pronouncement.

“I understand that, Captain,” RJ finally said. “I understood that when I went to submarine school. Any submarine can be a dangerous place at times. I guess all I really want to do is be the best diver on the best submarine.” And he realized that he really meant it. “I guess I’m just worried that the same thing that happened on my last boat will happen on Seaview.”

Crane took a deep breath. “Seaman Porter, I think I know the men on Seaview fairly well by now, and I don’t think there’s a bigoted man on board.  However, I’m not going to say your apprenticeship period will be without some bumps.  I think almost everyone will be eager to help you fit in, if you still want the job. On the other hand, there may be some men that will need a bit of time to be convinced. I honestly don’t think you will have the same problem you had on the Beluga, but you have to be resolute in your desire, too.” He finished his glass of lemonade. “Are you willing? Do you want the job?”

“You mean you’re out and out offering me the job, sir?  You aren’t going to talk to Admiral Nelson first?” 

Crane laughed. “The admiral trusted me to come out and talk to you and make the decision. You kind of pulled a fast one on me, but I’m still impressed. In fact, I like your ingenuity. I think the Institute is lucky to have as good a submariner as you available.” And then, while Rashard was still trying to assimilate all that had just taken place, the captain commenced to eat his lunch.  

Rashard noticed that Mama and Papa were watching him carefully. Mama’s eyes were shiny with unshed tears. Anthony was gazing at him as he chewed the last large piece of cornbread that had been on his plate. RJ waited until the captain had finished his lunch. Then, “Yes, Captain Crane, I would be proud to serve on board Seaview.”

Wiping his hands on his napkin, Crane reached over and shook Rashard’s hand. “Welcome aboard, Seaman Porter,” he said with a smile of welcome. 

It was then that RJ noticed that the musicians had finished tuning up and had been playing bluegrass for several minutes. A few of his cousins had found some bats and balls and were putting together a game of baseball on a nearby diamond. He gazed at the skipper and asked, “Sir, do you play baseball?”

“In this?” Crane asked, gesturing at his uniform.  He looked at the ball diamond, the young man across from him and the others at the table.  Then he unbuttoned his jacket and laid it on the empty end of the table, the tie and cover following.  “What the hell,” he murmured under his breath.  Then with a grin, he added.  “Let’s see if you youngsters can keep up with an old man like me.” Rashard grinned back. He was beginning to enjoy his new job already. 

    

 

 

 

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