Sunday, December 16, 2012

Down the rabbit hole once more ...

Where does one start?  Maybe with the culminating event of the WWII International Conference at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street -- just outside the French Quarter.  Yes, we'll work our way from there:

After three days of presentations by eminent scholars and historians from a list that boggles the mind, plus noted authors and military experts from every branch of the service, and all of them male save one -- a Holocaust survivor who was interviewed by her son.  I had just about overdosed on "The War!"  In order to see the presenters in the grand ballroom (500 attendees), we had to peer through a veil of testosterone dense enough to obscure  all but the most obvious.  And the most obvious was that there were no other people who looked like me in that audience.  Only the hotel maids, bellhops, clerks behind the reception desk, and other assorted service staff were African American.   But it was also true that there were some hotel guests of color at the time, just not connected with the Conference.

I was reminded that it wasn't all that long ago that my relatives could only be admitted to such a hotel in the city of New Orleans through the back entrance, and only if they were providing a service or making a delivery.  That's a kind of progress, right?

...but this was the third day of the Conference, and my presentation would occur between 5:00 and 6:00 that evening.  I would share the lectern with Dr. Jerry Strahan, author of a book on Higgins Industries, and a charming and very personable man -- who gave me an autographed copy of his book on the French Quarter at the end of the evening.  The inscription is to be treasured.  Higgins was the New Orleans version of our Henry J. Kaiser, but he built PT boats.   I was later to learn from my first cousin, Armand Charbonnet, that 3 of my uncles had worked for Higgins on those boats.  They were super craftsmen.

With Omar Bradley Beukema, grandson of General Omar Bradley
As usual, I'd prepared nothing and there were no meticulously-ordered notes to lead the way -- only whatever truth I could bring to the surface in the moment.  I've learned over the years with the National Park Service to trust my memory in combination with an innate ability to read audiences.  But this was "prime time,"  after all Tom Brokaw had been among the presenters in 2011.  Whatever was I thinking?  I felt a moment of panic as Jerry Strahan brought his prepared sheaf of papers to the lectern and preceded my talk with 25 minutes of well-delivered facts about his subject.  I would depend upon my inner clock to tell me when to stop talking, and (hopefully) the words would come when summoned.

As the applause ended for Strahan, I walked to the lectern and stood silently for what seemed an eternity while waiting for the thoughts to get organized like metal shavings against a magnet.  I opened with the fact that I was a 20 year-old file clerk in a Jim Crow Union hall in Richmond, California; that I'd not ever seen a ship under construction, but that being a clerk was a step up from the only opportunities available to me as a woman of color -- working in agriculture, or, as a domestic servant.  (Later cousin Paul Charbonnet told me that I sounded angry during those first few sentences of my talk.)

I'd brought along "Lost Converations" my little 4-minutes video created with NPS Ranger Naomi Torres, in the early days of my service.  I'd handed it to the technicians prior to my presentation, but it felt like overkill, so I didn't give the signal at the point where it was to be inserted into the program.  By the silence in the room, and the looks on the faces as the words began to flow -- in much the way it does in our little theater in my afternoon talks -- we were as one.  There were suddenly no strangers in that vast room.  The magic was at hand.  And, as usual, it was an overwhelming experience, and I felt that I stopped more abruptly than intended as I realized how fully engaged they were, and of my obligation to fill the silence with meaning.

... then the thunderous applause, and the rising from the chairs in a standing ovation that still rings in my ears in the silence of the night.

But that's only the beginning ... . 

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