Sailor Stories, Sailor Songs

to listen to

Opera in Italy, Train Station in Virgina

Jack Geiger, recorded in 2011 at a Labor Arts event in New York City.

USS Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941.Jack Geiger. Photo courtsey of Jack Geiger.

Listen to Jack Geiger

[Our ship, The Booker T. Washington, proceeded] to the south of Italy, to Bari, Italy. This was just immediately post-War, as I remember. And there was a regional opera house, and Jim Brown, a chief mate, Black, was an opera buff, and he suggested that a whole gang of us get together and rent the Royal Box. It was a regional opera house—have dinner and go to the opera, which we did. And we all had plenty to drink at dinner. And then we went to the Royal Box at the opera house.

It was pretty decrepit, but… the cast was even worse. It was, you know, wartime and they had all the castoffs and leftovers—and their voices were pretty bad. We got to the second act, and a baritone aria was about to begin and Jim Brown stood up in the Royal Box, right in the center of this place, which held about a 1,000 people. Jim Brown stood up and sang the whole aria. And as I said we’d had more than a little to drink. The cast was standing there on the stage looking at him: “What is this?”

If we had been in the United States, first of all, we probably couldn’t have gotten in. And second of all it would have had to have been in the balcony, if we did get in, and third of all, we would have been arrested. What happened in Italy was Jim Brown finished the aria and the entire audience stood up and applauded him.

In Norfolk, in contrast, life was miserable. And we decided to do something about it. So every third night, all the officers got dressed in their dress uniforms for the maritime service—and all of the crew in their best outfits—and we would go to the Norfolk railroad station, Pennsylvania or Southern, I can’t remember—and integrate the white waiting room—and dare the police to arrest us—and they never did. I think they were intimidated both by the numbers and the uniforms. But although this was before the creation of C.O.R.E. and non-violent direct action, it made an impression—and even got some coverage.

And then if we were disappointed—and a little bored—that we didn’t get arrested, we would go to the ticket office and kind of piss them off by demanding tickets “to the United States.”

The contrast was striking. The second thing that I remember worth reporting, of interest, hopefully historically, there were vigorous debates among the crew. A fair… a handful or more of the white crew members—without regard to whether they were crew or officers—and any of that jazz. One of the great things about the merchant marine, as compared with the military, was that they didn’t have much of all of that nonsense about rank and officers, and so on. It was functional. People had jobs and other people had jobs to supervise the plant. But everybody worked together and the only discipline was to get the work done—not who you were or what you were.

So there was this mixed group arguing a lot of nights. A handful or more of the crew, all of them by chance, at least then, white, were members of the Communist Party, which was still legal then. And their proposal was that there should be a separate secessionist Black nation carved out of the South. It was modeled on Soviet ideas of ethnic provinces, in effect. And the Black members of the crew, almost without exception, would have none of it. And you could spend a long evening listening to and taking part in that argument.

I still remember the names of people I sailed with Wallace Wiggins, my second radio operator and a number of the others. We went on in New York to try to make some of the same statements, as anti-racism struggles started to develop in New York. Vito Marcantonio has been mentioned, he was one of the people that joined us on a couple of those occasions.

I’ve gone on to do a lot of other things but time on the Booker T., time with the N.M.U., time with the Communications Workers Union, was among the best times in my life. I’m glad to recall it for you. Thank you.