I had never seen black skin up close
Updated: Jun 11
The Cadre (mixed race), were passing my desk and greeted us with big smiles “Hi Ladies!”
My co-worker J. and I laughed and smiled. She said, “They think we are talking about unimportant, easy things.” We were in fact discussing our respective experiences of being beaten by our ex-husbands. This was my first grown-up job. I worked for ROTC on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus. J. was the federal Secretary and I the state.
Major Spriggs, our boss, was the first black person I ever knew. I met him as he interviewed me for a position with the Military Science Department at UW-Platteville. I was nonplussed to see his black hand across the table from mine during the interview. I had never seen black skin up close. I needed the position, but I knew at that moment that even more I needed to work with him. Fair, funny and diligent, he was one of the best bosses I have ever had; in company with a small select group all of whom but one have been men.
I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and then western Wisconsin. There were no black people in my life – none, not even in college, though while I was a student at UW-Stout in 1972, I did go to listen to Angela Davis speak and concluded at the end of it that she hated us all.
Major Spriggs was part of the company of Army guys who helped me move from one old Victorian house to another. He, his wife Fanny and two young sons, Derrick and Pickles became my neighbors. They came over for dinner, felt sorry for me that I had no wine glasses and bought me some. Fanny often lamented “You are a hard man, Jack,” but it seemed to me they loved each other well enough.
Major Spriggs liked to glower at J. and me as he came into work in the morning. We laughed about how he was trying to scare the little white girls. He was Adjutant (Chief paper pusher, as he said), was good at it and required that we be good at it. He remarked many times how much he hated Physical Training (PT), and camping; how he loved concrete and bright lights. We thought in that regard that he was crazy.
Sergeant Major Spikes from Louisiana, also a black man, served multiple tours in Vietnam prior to coming to Platteville ROTC. He was noble; devoted to his wife and family, one of the gentlest people I have ever met. In his position as Sergeant Major it was he who taught the cadets how to be in the Army. He was responsible for their PT and as cadets they were his subordinates. After the swearing in ceremony, a newly commissioned smirking First Lieutenant approached him, gloating in the fact that Sergeant Major Spikes was now required to salute him. Sergeant Major Spikes’ salute was disciplined and professional; in my eyes his patience even more impressive.
Sargent Major M., Sargent Major Spikes' predecessor, appalled me by his total lack of a conscience. One day as I suggested that he had a responsibility toward the children he had sired, he remarked “You mean to tell me that if I spill my seed, I am responsible?!” I couldn’t believe it, but told him that “Yes”, I thought so.
Major Spriggs was replaced by a black major, whose wife R. became a good friend. Through her I got to experience a Baptist worship service for the first time. Unbeknownst to her, while I was in the midst of drawing various women as Arwen from the Lord of the Rings, did one of her on a horse. Her husband was not a great boss, not a good Adjutant. J., a professional, who had worked there for five years, fed up with doing her job and his while being badgered by him, quit. I left soon after.
These were my first encounters with black people.