The No Colored Sign – Bill Vernon
Carl’s Cafe and Diner wasn’t much to look at, a one-story white-washed concrete block building with a tin roof and two big front windows, one bearing a repugnant, hand-painted NO COLORED sign. I went there anyway early one afternoon a few days after deployment to Bogue Field. The diner offered something different, something civilian, and my other choices for that weren’t attractive, to take a shuttle back to Cherry Point, the main base, or hitchhike. I would have ridden off with a marine who had a car at Bogue Field, but I didn’t know who owned the half-dozen cars parked there. The diner was the only business in walking distance, just 60 yards east of the gate, on the other side of Route 24, so that’s where I went.
Inside were six round tables, two locals seated at one, farmers, and four marines in utility uniforms at another. I went to the small counter on the other side of the tables and ordered a drink from the man wearing a white apron and frying two hamburgers on a grill.
“Anything to eat?” he said.
“Not right now.” I took the glass clinking with ice and gave him 25 cents.
“Let me know when you’re ready.”
I nodded, turned around, and headed for a chair against the rear wall near the counter.
“Hey!” It was Joe Travis, whom I hadn’t noticed before. “There’s room here.”
I said hi and sat where he pulled over a chair from another table, between him and Beetle Bailey. Joe introduced me to the other two who were PFCs with a fire crew. Two fire engines were kept on the flight line. Beetle Bailey (E-4 corporal, nicknamed from the cartoon) and Joe, about the only marine and certainly the only sergeant I called by his first name, were leaders on my recovery crew. Joe looked like the Penobscot Indian he’d told me he was, tall, dark, Roman nose, strong. Beetle Bailey was 5’10”, pale and paunchy.
Joe said, “These firefighters almost had some business today.”
One of the PFCs said, “We were hoping.”
Everyone laughed. Their job of sitting all day, waiting for an accident to happen, had to be boring.
Behind me there was noise and we watched the two farmers leave. They clomped to the door, waved to the man in the apron, and went outside to a car.
Joe, back to his story, described this afternoon’s incident. Kneeling down by the runway, waiting to put the half-tires under the cables to raise them for the next plane to hook, I’d had a clear perspective. The plane’s hook had missed our first cable and bounced over the second. Then the plane couldn’t get airborne. Operations closed down early because the emergency arresting gear at the end of the runway had caught the plane and stopped it. There couldn’t be landings or take-offs until we removed the plane and reset the emergency arresting gear.
I’d helped reset the big net after the plane’s removal. The emergency arresting gear’s simplicity had surprised me. It was no more than a heavy duty mesh raised up higher than a tennis net to catch a plane’s nose. We hadn’t finished our work until evening mess call. I’d transferred into the unit two months ago, but everything still seemed new and dangerous to me.
Joe said, “That pilot had his head up his ass. He sat down late and forgot to maintain speed.”
“Here you go, gentlemen?” The man in the apron slid a hamburger with fries on a plate in front of each fireman, then set down a bottle of ketchup between them. “Enjoy.”
Joe said, “Carl, you made a mistake. They’re not gentlemen.”
Carl smiled. “Maybe you’re not, but they could be.”
Joe said, “No, we’re all enlisted, and that rules out our being gentlemen. Anyway, while you’re here, can we get another round?”
I said, “I’m good.” Joe swallowed his drink, and the rest of them did likewise. They all had beer bottles in hand so my glass stood out.
Joe noticed. “Hey, what’re you drinking?” He took my drink, smelled it, and asked if I didn’t drink alcohol.
I smiled. “Too young. Not 21 yet.”
“That doesn’t matter, does it, Carl?”
“It’s the law, Joe.”
“Yeah, but who’s gonna know? It’s just us here and we can see the parking lot. Anybody comes in, he’ll put his beer in front of me and go back to his soda.”
Carl looked from Joe to me. “It’s my license on the line.”
“Forget it,” I said.
Joe said, “Come on, Carl. Who’s gonna know? We’re surrounded by trees and farms, and we’re gonna give you a lot of business the next few weeks.”
That’s how I was able to drink beer underage at Carl’s diner, though Carl didn’t seem happy about it. It was also the start of what I consider a fateful close association with Joe, Beetle Bailey, and Charley Brown, another marine with a cartoon nickname. Charley Brown wasn’t present for obvious reasons. Anyway, those three played pinochle, and so did I. Beetle Bailey needed a partner and asked me to be his that evening. Back in our 15-man tent at Bogue, with Charlie Brown, we played a lot of games, drank beer from the iced bottles in the new galvanized metal 30-gallon trash can (which Joe “borrowed” without permission from the mess tent), and found out that Beetle and I were hard to beat as partners. We played for money. Cheating and signals were outlawed of course, but our system of bidding and playing cards pretty well told us what was in each other’s hand. We made good spending money from pinochle.
Let me say the obvious, that times and places have changed. I’ve checked the 1962 Carteret County newspapers for stories about the death, but to access the relevant issues was such an involved process, I decided not to bother. I wouldn’t want to use real names anyway, and what I’d been stewing over all these years were the facts as I knew them then.
Maybe this story was never printed. A lot of things were kept out of the public’s eye at that time. A month after this incident during one of our launches we almost killed JFK and some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a visit to Bogue, and that accident was never reported. My crew’s job of launch and recovery wasn’t secret, but not many civilians ever heard of it.
Online satellite views of Bogue Field now show that Carl’s Diner is gone, probably long gone. The whole area has become more civilized, grown up with houses replacing farms and woods. There are permanent buildings at Bogue Field, but none when I was there. Emerald Isle across Bogue Sound from the 875 acres of the Field had just a few buildings then, a ferry, and one bridge. Now there’s a bridge at both ends of Bogue Banks. It’s touristy. Vacation homes cover the islands now.
Duty at Bogue Field back then was like a vacation, which was nice except that we had too much freedom, meaning we were left unsupervised too often. Yet most of us were also virtually trapped there. The saying that idleness is the devil’s workshop never occurred to me then, but does so now in retrospect.
When there were no night operations, after flight operations concluded each day, Bailey, Brown, Travis and a few other NCOs among the troops at Bogue Field out-ranked everyone because the commissioned officers and the older, higher ranking NCOs went back to their billets at or near Cherry Point. Even those assigned to be Officer of the Guard and Sergeant of the Guard each day held those posts at our Squadron Headquarters, Cherry Point, in absentia from us. They were commuters, going to work at Bogue in the morning and returning home in the evening. We grunts were living full-time in tents at Bogue.
When Bailey, Brown, or Travis was Bogue’s NCO on duty, we’d end up in Headquarters tent playing cards. The NCO on duty was on call, and that tent held the landline. My three pinochle-playing friends would jeep over our heavy trash can of ice and beer, which we freely imbibed often way past 10 o’clock lights out. Same thing at our own tent where we’d play when none of them had the duty. We kept our light on as long as we wanted despite regulations. Saying that discipline at Bogue was lax is an understatement.
I often hiked about the Bogue perimeter at night like a sentry, but mindlessly, especially late, when I couldn’t sleep and everyone else was. I’d walk the fence line parallel to the highway, watching the sporadic passage of cars and pickups, as well as the dim light left on in Carl’s Diner. Sometimes I’d slouch down on the uncomfortable wooden chair in the little square unmanned guard shack and read. Although the outside light was dim, reaching inside the shack down from its pole across the two-car-wide entranceway, I could station my flashlight so its beam fell across my lap where my book or magazine was, and that made reading easy though it was also a little awkward.
The guard shack always reminded me of a friend on guard at a manned guard shack elsewhere. Twirling the duty-assigned .45 on his trigger finger, he’d shot himself in the head, apparently not knowing that the safety was off with a round in the chamber.
That death had been in my mind for three years, and since my arrival at Bogue so had the large sign at the gate. Holes from bullets and buckshot were so plentiful on the big white wooden rectangle, they obscured the name and the Marine Corps logo. “Riddled” was the word that came to mind whenever I passed the sign or remembered its appearance. Bogue Field had been virtually abandoned for ten years before its recent reuse.
The sign’s condition had also alerted me to negative possibilities. Neighborhood residents had apparently fired the shots and done the damage. Obviously the locals loved their guns, but maybe not us Marine Corps intruders. The riddling coupled with the sign in Carl’s window also implied that racial matters here could be as bad as anywhere, maybe worse. Being in the South had me on edge because of its policy of racial discrimination, which I’d recently experienced before and after arriving at Cherry Point. Let’s just say that I had misgivings about being there.
Like most people I shove unpleasant truth aside, particularly when work or pleasure absorbs me. I can usually disregard dangers when I need to, such as back in the infantry in full combat gear climbing down a lengthy rope ladder into a bobbing landing craft in a rough sea, rappelling down a cliff, or from the belly of a hovering helicopter lowering myself by rope down to the ground. I can board a commercial airplane fully aware of my personal controls being given to strangers, pilot, control tower, mechanics, other pilots on other planes, and simply accept the situation. Whatever occurs will occur. Thus I can relax and sleep.
I didn’t intend to go back into Carl’s Diner and drink beer underage. We drank it in my tent at Bogue Field. I didn’t care to enter a place that openly discriminated against black people. I didn’t want to hassle the proprietor of such an establishment, and I certainly didn’t trust him.
This thinking I told to the other pinochle players between hands one evening, when one of them suggested going there.
Joe said, “Carl’s a good old boy. He’d let Charley Brown drink with us if we asked him.”
“Oh no,” Charley Brown said. “Don’t bother.”
I said to Joe, “That’s not a good idea.”
The next two evenings we argued the idea while playing cards. Those evenings Joe and Beetle Bailey cut our playing short and went to Carl’s for drinks. Charley Brown and I stayed in the tent during these forays, which turned out to be recon patrols.
The evening after their 2rd straight evening there, Joe said as we played cards, “Beetle and I got the lowdown on Carl. He dislikes that sign in his window as much as we do. He’s from the North. New Jersey. He said he served with a lot of black people in the military. He’s retired Navy and settled down here because he likes the weather and slow life style. I think Charley could drink with us at Carl’s place with no problem.”
Charley Brown said, “But does he love black people?”
We laughed, and Beetle Bailey said, “You could tell he thinks like we do.”
Joe said, “Only marines in there the last two nights. Seems like he depends on our business and doesn’t get much from his civilian neighbors. You’d be improving his livelihood. He lives by himself in back of that building.”
“His wife died last year,” Beetle Bailey said.
I said more loudly than normal, “You better remember what happened when Johnson, Kravich, and I went with three Negro Women Marines into the Enlisted Club.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, that’s why we thought you’d be all for integrating Carl’s.”
Beetle Bailey said, “That was gutsy, man.”
“It was stupid!” I couldn’t believe what they were forgetting. Or ignoring. “The women and we could’ve been killed. The EM Club emptied after we went in there. It was scary. You could feel the tension. We all got back safely to our barracks only because we left right away. If the rednecks could’ve gotten back there quicker, it would’ve been different. A day or two later, they threatened Pennywell and the other black marines in our barracks. Remember?”
Joe said, “That wasn’t about what you did at the Em Club.”
“Yes it was. It was retaliation. Pennywell predicted something like that would happen.”
Charley Brown said, “Don’t forget the rednecks beat up that other white boy who took a black girl to the club. Put him in the hospital.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Exactly what I’m talking about.”
“God damn!” Joe stood up and put his hands on his hips. “That was on base. Those were marines. We’re out here in the boonies. Hardly anyone lives around here. The marines out here won’t do anything. They won’t care. Charley’s as good as anybody around here, better than all the rednecks put together. He’s our friend and we shouldn’t put up with this white trash nonsense. I know about discrimination. I been in places where they said it was against the law to serve Indians. Redskins they called us. What a load of shit that is.”
I said, “Go look at that sign by the gate. Who you think shot that up?”
Beetle finished another beer and burped. “Rabbit hunters.”
Joe said, “Come on. Let’s just go in and see what Carl says. We won’t push it.”
I said, “I thought you liked him.”
Joe said, “I do. We won’t do anything to hurt him.”
I am aware that ordinary activities often have inherent dangers. Accomplishing something sometimes requires taking a chance. What about those who do dangerous activities for the sake of thrills? Swimming in the ocean gives me qualms, but I occasionally do it. I don’t seek out and swim with sharks and sting rays though. The sea is not my element. Nor is the air. I can admire the skill of climbers going up the face of a sheer cliff, but I don’t want to watch them, and I don’t want to pick up their pieces when they fall. Ordinary life isn’t thrilling enough for them? Taking risks for a thrill is questionable.
Even so, just like my “date” with the Negro Woman Marine back at Cherry Point, I have to admit that the idea of integrating a discriminatory business produced a thrill. It was showing off, forcing our point of view on people who’d been forcing their view on us, daring them to show themselves for what they were.
I knew about the integration of the Little Rock school system years before and Rosa Parks’ bravery. At home in Ohio on leave before traveling to Cherry Point, I’d seen media stories about freedom marches, voter registration drives, confrontations about public accommodations. The righteousness of integrating Carl’s attracted me despite what had happened at Cherry Point, but I knew that what could happen as a result could be bad.
It was dark. We looked through the windows before we went in, having agreed not to try it if locals were present. The place was empty. No marines or anyone else.
Joe led us inside to a corner table, and before we could sit Carl came hurrying over. “Whoa now, fellows. You know I can’t serve your friend.” He nodded toward Charley Brown.
Joe said, “It’s not a law, Carl. You told us you didn’t like it.”
He nodded vigorously. “Yeah, that’s right.”
Joe said, “Well then, let’s talk it over.”
The four of us sat, although Charley Brown didn’t look happy. In fact none of us sat back and relaxed.
Carl wiped his face with a stained white hanky and shook his head. “It’s not a law, but it should be.”
Joe crossed his arms on his chest. “What?” He sounded angry.
Carl said, “I mean a law would make this easier. For everyone. Not just your friend or me. It’s a policy, you know, but it’s like an unwritten law.”
Beetle Bailey said, “Yesterday you told us you didn’t like that sign in your window.”
Carl said, “Yeah. I didn’t put it there to be mean. Heck, I got Negro friends.”
Joe said, “Policies aren’t iron-clad, Carl. They can change. So can laws for that matter.”
Carl’s laugh came out like a snort. “Not around here. Not today.”
Joe said, “Just bring us a round of beer, okay?”
“Joe, I told you I can’t serve him.” He threw his hanky on a table beside us, and I recognized it was a wash rag, thicker material than I’d thought. He put his hands on his hips, then looked down at Joe, whose arms were still crossed on his chest. “I’ll level with you. I got to get along with my neighbors.”
Joe looked around the room pointedly. “There’s nobody else here.”
“One could arrive any minute.” He looked out the window behind Joe.
I became aware of the occasional car passing on the highway, the sound carrying over the country music playing quietly on a radio over at the counter.
Carl said, “I been here ten years, and those people are just now accepting me. My wife inherited this place from her father. He was one of them, but I’m just hangin’ on. They keep me going, you know, eating lunch here, having a drink. You marines aren’t here all the time. Fact is you all just started staying over there regular last year. I depend on my neighbors. If I served Negroes, they wouldn’t give me their business.”
Maybe they’d do worse. I remembered the bullet holes in the Bogue Field sign. Two cars roared past outside on the highway. I said, “Let’s leave.”
Carl smiled and looked at Charley Brown. “I could serve you a carry-out. You want to have some food or drink and take it to eat over where you live?”
Before Charley Brown could answer, Joe slapped the table. “That’s insulting, Carl.”
Carl shrugged. “I’m just stating the facts. Trying to be honest.”
Joe said, “Okay, then, one beer. That’s all. I understand your thinking. One round. A beer apiece and then we’ll leave. You don’t want us to go to our tents dry, do you?”
Carl served us a round of beer, said it was on the house, refused to take money, even apologized. But he asked us to hurry and go. He had to close early today. In ten minutes in fact. He’d been cleaning up before we came in. Then he took his dishrag over behind his counter, wiped it off, turned the radio up so we could hear it, turned his back to us, and proceeded to wash, dry, and put away dishes.
We drank, and at one point Joe asked Charley Brown if his beer tasted good.
“Too bitter,” Charley Brown said.
Mine was bitter as well. I don’t think any of us enjoyed the brew.
We must have been drinking too slowly for Carl. He hung up his dishrag and a towel on a little rack and turned off the light over the counter.
We were about done when the hit song “Wolverton Mountain” came on the radio, and just then a movement outside the window I was facing caught my eye. Three people were out there gazing in at us, and then were gone. They’d been there and not there so fast I wondered if I’d imagined it. Then car wheels turned throwing gravel and an engine whined accelerating away from us down the highway. The three people had parked on the side of the diner, not out front, and been walking across the front of the diner toward the front door. They hadn’t come in. What had changed their minds? Had to be what they’d seen through the window.
I said, “Let’s get out of here,” and told the guys about the faces at the window.
We set our empties on Carl’s clean counter, said good night, and strolled back to the gate as if we were unconcerned. We were being phony. None of us knew what the appearance of those three people meant, but we assumed there could be a problem. For whom though? Carl? His neighbors?
Looking back, I admit this little incident doesn’t compare to the suffering that would bloody Black people and their supporters struggling through the coming years of marches, civil disobedience, sit-ins, and white bigots’ retaliation: police beatings, hosing, dog attacks, shootings, burning, and bombings. Those were not far away in distance and time from where we were then. In the briny, pine-scented air on the southeastern edge of North Carolina, we sensed something coming the way you can feel a storm’s approach.
We didn’t have long to wait, relatively speaking.
The next day was Friday and payday. Those at Bogue Field had a weekend to look forward to with money in their pockets, except that our unit, a firefighters’ unit, and a medical unit were scheduled for duty, meaning we had to stay at Bogue Field without being able to go back to Cherry Point and from there out into the countryside. Plus, Saturday for those of us required to stay at Bogue was a workday.
All day Friday we spent catching two flights of A-4Ds and F-8Us. They’d land, then take off using retro rockets so the Bogue Field catapult went unused. My hands got sore handling the cables and the half-tires. During the operations we used Mickey Mouse ears to protect our ears from the noise, and those devices locked us into ourselves with plenty of time to wonder what if anything might happen because of our excursion into Carl’s. I vowed never to go there again. Charley Brown had said the same thing. That evening we stayed in our tent, drank beer together, enjoyed our cards, and went to bed happy there’d been no repercussions.
Sirens screaming, rushing past the gate out on the highway woke us about 3:00 A.M. We dressed and hurried to the highway. Bogue’s NCO on duty, members of the firefighters, our crew, basically everyone at Bogue gathered and from the middle of the highway stared west where lights were flashing a mile or so away. We were a motley bunch, standing in the middle of the road in untied boots, white tee shirt, unbuttoned dungaree trousers, two men in skivvies and shower shoes. Within 10 minutes an ambulance with siren blaring and lights flaring swept down the road toward us like a jet approaching down a runway without cutting its speed. We scattered and let it pass.
“A wreck,” somebody guessed.
At breakfast we heard the truth’s early version. A Seabee, a kid just 18 years old, staying at Bogue when he didn’t have to, had been hit by a car on the highway and killed. More details dribbled to us throughout the day. The kid was from New York City. His father was coming to pick up the body. The state police reported the driver had fled the scene. It was a hit and run accident. They had no suspects.
It was a long Saturday during which two squadrons from an aircraft carrier did touch-and-goes. That meant we were on the flight line like the firemen, waiting for something bad to develop like a blown tire or malfunctioning landing gear. We were like the planes’ emergency recovery system. We’d catch the aircraft to save it. That scenario didn’t happen, but behind our machines just in case, we were again locked into our thoughts wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
While we were all in the mess tent the next morning, a Marine Corps captain took the floor. He was helping the dead sailor’s father get around and needed our cooperation. The father was a homicide detective in New York and was investigating his son’s death. Back at Cherry Point, the man had interviewed the young man’s fellow Seabees who were not on liberty, then out here the two who’d remained at Bogue Field. These two had reported that they’d all been drinking and his son had wandered away from their tent. They didn’t know where he’d gone.
The captain said if any of us knew anything about the accident or the comings and goings of the deceased, please come forward and talk to the father. He’d be at the headquarters’ tent for the next hour, then available at Cherry Point’s Provost Marshal’s Office for a day or two. The boy’s father was awaiting autopsy results. The father didn’t come into the tent, but we could see him pacing around outside by the captain’s official Marine Corps car.
On Monday the police specified the cause of death. They believed the sailor had wandered from Bogue Field until exhausted, then lain down on the highway, fallen asleep, and simply been run over by a passing car. The driver had left the scene, but it was possible, the police said, that the driver had not even been aware of hitting the body, or if he was aware of hitting something, that it was a human being.
Making excuses for the driver they hadn’t yet found? “That’s bullshit,” I said.
Joe, Charley, and Beetle seemed to agree, but Beetle said, “It is possible.”
“Just barely,” I said. “Hitting a body would cause a big bump. A driver would have to notice that. The story sounds more like the cops around here aren’t going to open up to a northern cop. Especially one from New York City.”
Charley Brown said, “I think we got that wrong. He may not be from the city. The radio and the captain just said New York.”
None of us would ever sort out that distinction. There were other things bothering us. I said, “Let’s face it, running over the Seabee could be intentional.”
The three other guys looked at me but didn’t say anything.
I said, “The so-called accident could actually be retaliation for us going into Carl’s. Rednecks are crazy enough to do something like that.”
Joe said, “Where’s the indication it was intentional? The police haven’t said that. Neither has the father who’s a policeman himself and an expert in homicides.”
I stared at Joe. “Maybe the three men looking in Carl’s window did it. Or their friends.”
Joe frowned. The other two guys looked away.
“Carl could be in on it,” I said. “He could’ve called people and told them what we did. Friday morning, Carl didn’t come outside onto the highway when we were there. I didn’t see him. Did any of you? All that noise didn’t wake him?”
Beetle said, “He sleeps behind the café, in back. He’s got walls between him and the noise. Maybe he wears ear plugs. Maybe his radio was up loud. It’s possible he didn’t hear it.”
I said, “Yeah, and maybe he didn’t want to appear out there because he was involved.”
Joe said, “How many ifs are you gonna bring up? Christ! You sound paranoid.”
“What I’m saying could’ve happened.”
Joe threw a beer bottle that hit the tent side and clanked down on a board near the trash can full of beer. “What do you want us to do? Go tell that kid’s father about taking Charley into Carl’s place?”
“That’d be crazy,” Bailey said. “It’d stir up a hornet’s nest for no reason.”
Charley said, “How could a New York cop all by himself question Carl and anyone else around here if the local police don’t? The farmers wouldn’t talk to him.”
Joe went to the trash can, came back with a dripping beer bottle, and pointed its neck at me. “If we knew something definite, I’d tell the father myself. But we don’t. Okay, if the kid’s father says he thinks there was something like a murder going on, then I’ll tell him the Carl’s diner story. You’d better wait until then too.”
That’s what we did. We waited to hear if the father ever came to believe there’d been foul play involved in his son’s death. We heard only that he’d taken his son’s body home. Surely, if the father were suspicious, he would have investigated more, interviewed more of us marines, aired his concerns. So we didn’t volunteer the information about integrating Carl’s Diner. What nagged me was that we seemed to be taking the easy way out and avoiding responsibility. The brass would not be happy if we laid the whole story of what we’d done on the police and the public. All three of my buddies were lifers. They hoped for a few more promotions before they retired.
I, Joe, and Beetle, minus Charley, went back into Carl’s months later, during our second deployment to Bogue Field. A lot had happened between the Seabee’s death and our second stay at Bogue Field. We’d nearly killed the president by accident at Bogue, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis deployed us to the Key West Naval Air Station. There we’d caught a number of malfunctioning, heavily armed aircraft and seen the barbed wire, tightly guarded enclosure where nuclear weapons were stored. I’d also been promoted to corporal E-4 and walked Shore Patrol duty alongside Joe Travis in the city of Key West. Our crew’s focus then was on the nightmare possibility that we and the Russians would destroy the world.
This time I entered Carl’s Cafe and Diner a man of 21. Without comment I showed him my ID and drank legally. Beetle, Joe, and I didn’t mention the boy’s death and neither did Carl, but then Carl and we never spoke again aside from conducting business. He stayed away from us and we did the same with him.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it at the college level. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.