Friday, April 02, 2010
It turned out to be far more.
After an eventful Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trip across the bay (there had been a fire at the Montgomery Street station earlier that morning) that took what is normally a 20 minute ride -- over an hour and ten minutes of stop and start lurching to reach the Embarcadero Street terminal. Here by arrangement a driver was to meet me for the short drive to the beautiful and historic Old Custom House on Battery Street in San Francisco where I was to give my presentation.
I was the guest (and honoree, as it turned out) of the US Customs & Immigration Field Office of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Upon arrival (20 minutes late!) I was taken to a gathering place where the program was already in progress with an African drumming combo performing. They were to bracket my talk at the beginning and end -- and by their presence it was obvious that this was no ordinary "Betty Talk on Rosie the Riveter Home Front Era of WWII."
I was glad that I'd worn my dress uniform and gold earrings for this event, and that I'd arranged in advance to share the DVD, "Of Lost Conversations," as a part of my talk, something that I don't ordinarily include except during the orientations before a guided tour.
After a few introductory words the lights were dimmed and the familiar music with the image of the launching of the SS Robert S. Abbott (publisher of the Chicago Defender) came up. I watched in the dark with the audience, looking at faces for signs of the ever-present surprise and power at the unfamiliar content. For some reason when the photo appeared of those gathered at the burial of the Port Chicago victims I felt an involuntary sharp intake of breath. It was a case of hiding in plain sight. I'd never noticed it before but its impact was almost painful. Though this was a solemn military burial rite -- the likes of which we've seen over the centuries -- something was missing. There is a glaring omission in this photo, and I'd failed to pick it up before now.
Four minutes and 21 seconds later the lights were turned up and -- as if the insight had not occurred -- I went on with my talk to an appreciative audience. We had a round of questions and answers and shared two kinds of cake, and then it happened. There was the presentation of a beautiful plaque with my name etched below the great Seal of the Department of Homeland Security in honor of the day. It wasn't until then that I noticed that much planning had gone into the event. The programs left at each seat had a reprint of the S.F. Chronicle's recent article on Port Chicago featuring my photo in full color. Why hadn't I been aware of the importance of this assignment? (I squirreled away several programs into my bag to impress my grandkids.)
Until the ride home with the commute traffic I wouldn't allow myself to think about that flash of whatever it was to rise to consciousness -- at least until there was time to figure out what it all meant. For the time being there was the excruciatingly loud and dissonant noises of the train as it traveled through the tunnel under the Bay. There would be time when I'd gotten back to my cubicle at our administrative offices in Richmond to let it gnaw at my brain until some understanding was possible.
Was this significant? The burial rites certainly preceded the mutiny trials, right? Could it be that the absence of the ages-old traditional flag draping of the caskets of the fallen evidence of the Navy's refusal to accept these men as real Americans at the time? Given the political climate in which those 302 men (220 of whom were African American) were lost in the tragic explosion --there was total segregation of the armed forces -- was this needed evidence that those men could never have been deemed worthy of a fair trial based on their being seen as lesser than ...?
Might this photograph form the basis of an appeal for exoneration for all those unfairly charged with mutiny for refusing to return to loading that ammunition until they could do so with relative safety?
After studying this photo for several days, I'm still wondering whether I'm reading more into this than is warranted ... or if that flash of insight after all these years is meaningful?
I'll ask those who are researching the events at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944 for guidance. I wonder if anyone else had noticed the anomaly?