This is the story of my first encounter with a black-skinned person and the confusion and humiliation I experienced because of it. (Surely he did too.)
The year was 1942. Prior to that time the area I lived in Seattle was populated with white folks like me, the preponderance being of Scandinavian origin. My roots however were English on my mother's side and Colorado cowboy on my father's. Often I felt inferior because I was different. It never bothered my glamorous young mother, however. She was a party girl and often entertained strange men at home when my father was working. Such was her reputation that when the other mothers of my friends formed a Blue-Bird group I was excluded. It hurt. One might say that was my introduction to discrimination.
The only person I ever met who looked visibly different was a gypsy foretune-teller working in a tea house in Vancouver. Years later I was to learn she was really English made up to look like a gypsy to fool the customers. I was crest-fallen. No wonder the glamorous fortune she predicted in my tea leaves never came to be.
In my school were two children of Japanese origin. How com I never noticed their skin was a different color than mine? Perhaps because they were shy and inconspicuous? Their modest home was on a skinny lot near the steep top of Dravis Street hill, and their garden, arranged in terraces, glowed with color year-round, outdoing all the others. Everyone envied it and marveled at the construction. I hardly noticed the day the children disappeared from school. Taken, with their parents, to a relocation camp I imagine. What I did notice was how the beautiful gardens and terraces disintegrated to a crumbly weed-patch. I felt a lump in my chest.
With the war came workers and military personnel from all over the country. My bus to and from school on Queen Anne Hill required three transfers even passing by a busy naval installation, Pier 91. The trip was a little scary for a twelve year old. Today Pier 91 is the berthing place of giant tour ships but at that time it was just an industrial pier framing, on a clear day, Mt Rainier.
Here is my memory: Gathering rain clouds colored the air over the harbor light grey. I was sitting next to the window on the Elliott Bay side, about half way back in the bus. I remember the very seat today, so profound was the experience. At the Ballard Interchange a young sailor with dark skin boarded. I more than stared; I gaped. I had never seen a black-skinned person. I deduced he was what we then called a negro, although I had never seen one except in pictures.. His sailor uniform with white middy looked sharp and fit snugly. He seemed young and tentative. I imagine he was only 17 or 18. With extreme care he took the empty seat next to me on the almost full bus, being careful to avoid any bodily touch. We both looked straight ahead, never making eye contact. I felt a growing discomfort and a feeling of bewilderment.
"Was it wrong for him to have sat down next to me?" I had no idea. But soon I noticed other bus passengers squirming, some even staring at him or me or both of us. A sense of tension grew. "What are the rules?" I wondered. I tried to melt into the side wall of the bus putting more distance between us, but of course that was not possible. We had gone about half a mile before I could not bear the tension. I gave up, and slipped past his knees to stand in the aisle a few feet forward. There were no other empty seats on the bus. Still, so many eyes were focussed on me. I flushed, my insides squirming. I could not wait till dinner time when my dad would get home from work and I could ask him what I should have done.
To be continued next week.