Although the Coronado Eagle & Journal newspaper seems to encourage stories from days of yore – e.g. Ms. Viera and Mr. Pietrzak come to mind, and embolden me to join in the reminiscing, it really was the rioting in the Capital that triggered an incident in my life that I thought was long buried in my memory bank.
The year was 1968. I had ended my 13 months in Vietnam and was assigned to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, as base chaplain. Remember that in 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and nerves were raw, especially in the Black community. There were several bad scrapes in the fleet and sailors were on edge everywhere.
At Pax River, Maryland, the Hospital basketball team needed players for the intramural league that included several squadron teams. I volunteered because they needed bodies ASAP. Never a scoring threat, I was billed as a play maker/rebounder – that’s what they call players who don’t score much.
On this particular night, our Hospital team composed mainly of doctors and corpsmen were playing an all Black team in gold uniforms. To me, they looked like the LA Lakers - they were as fast as we were slow and deliberate. We were holding our own until I went up for a rebound. I got the ball under one arm but my legs went out from under me, so I reached out to break my fall. Unfortunately, the only thing I could grab was an opponent’s neck. We both tumbled to the floor hitting our heads and losing the basketball.
I was sitting on the floor, slightly dizzy and about to apologize to the player I brought down with me, when one of his teammates picked up the ball and flung it at the back of my head. I immediately went prone seeing stars again. That act started fist fights and wrestling matches all over the court – unfortunately, fans both Black and White, poured out from the stands to enter the fray.
They tell me it was a full on race riot (remember, I’m on my back, waiting for the stars to disappear). I did hear a lot of whistles and later sirens. When the Shore Patrol entered the gym with bull horns, tear gas, weapons and threatening brig time, all fighting stopped and all combatants fled the gym.
The next morning the Base Commander ordered to his conference room the two coaches, the team captains, myself, the fellow I nearly throttled and the young man who tried to dislodge my head with the basketball. We all duly apologized to the Captain and to each other and hoped that would be that. Not so, the Base Commander stopped all basketball games for ten days until each command held racial training sessions.
I would like to say that when I finished my tour at Pax River, I would be known as the kind and competent base chaplain. Instead, I was more often than not, pointed out as the chaplain that started the race riot at the base gym.