|John M. Brooks|
A tall black Marine stood across from me at the motel registration desk. His uniform was filled with service medals and his sleeves dominated by sergeant stripes and gold hash marks. I knew enough about military medals from my mandatory ROTC classes to recognize him as a decorated and honored defender of our country, an image he likely meant to convey. I admired him, but did not envy his job.
It was 1963, and our country was in the middle of the Vietnam War. I was nineteen and working as a motel night clerk in Springfield, Missouri, struggling to pay my way through college and hoping not to be drafted.
“Do you accept colored people?” the Marine said.
The way it is.
I took a deep breath and remembered instructions my boss, the motel owner, gave me shortly after I was hired.
“We don't rent to blacks," he told me. He couched his reasoning in business terms. "It's not that I have anything personal against them. But I have a lot of regular commercial customers who rent from me that do. Many of them are from the South and that's just the way it is. My motel is usually full year ‘round and it’s because I keep my regular commercial customers happy. During the non-season months, most all the other motels in town have a lot of vacancies, but we’re full. I depend on that. If you have black people wanting to rent a room, tell them all you have left is a higher-priced room, then quote double the posted price. They’ll go someplace else.”
The regular price for a room was eight dollars. The boss's instructions troubled me, but I needed the one-dollar-per-hour job. I was raised in an area not far from the predominantly black part of Springfield. I was in the fifth grade at Tefft Elementary School when President Eisenhower integrated public schools. I was not around blacks before elementary school, but the black friends I made at Tefft are still close friends. How would they feel if I denied them a room?
“We stopped at several motels with vacancy signs,” the Marine continued. “Clerks said they were full and forgot to turn off the signs. I have my family with me and we’re all tired. We’ll be leaving early in the morning. We still have a lot of driving to do.”
In the motel’s lighted driveway was a dust-covered car with a woman and two children inside. They were watching us.
“We have one room left, but it's ten dollars.” As quickly as I spoke, I was ashamed and frightened–ashamed of upping the price and frightened I would be fired for disobeying the boss's orders. The soldier appeared a little off guard. His head was lowered as though expecting another rejection. When he heard my words, he raised his head and smiled.
“I'll take it.” He retrieved the money from his wallet. “Thank you, sir.”
“No. I thank you, sir,” I responded with a smile. His demeanor and smile told me he understood what I meant.
His family expressed their joy with laughter and the children jumped several times as he returned to the car and held the room key where they could see it. He was returning from a successful mission to a happy family. I was happy, too, but regretted the inflated charge.
He turned in his key about six the next morning and thanked me. I was glad they left early. My disobedience to my boss appeared safely concealed.
When I came to work that night shortly before eleven, my boss was in the office. He was going through the cash register and removing the larger bills, which he occasionally would do, yet it was uncommon at this late hour. He soon let me know the real reason he was there.
“Did you rent to a black family last night?” Without letting me answer, he said, “Remember what I said about renting to blacks”
“Yes, I . . .” He interrupted me before I could respond further.
“One of my regular commercial customers got up early and saw them leaving the room you rented them. He was mad as hell and told me that if he knew he was sleeping in a bed that black people might have slept in he would never rent from me again. I apologized and assured him it was a mistake and I would make sure it never happened again. Why did you do it? Didn't you understand what I told you?”
Ready to be fired
“Yes, and I raised the rate to ten dollars, but they took the room anyway.” Weak, and I was not going to get by with it.
“Two dollars?” He raised his voice. “I thought I told you to double the amount, or triple it if you had to.”
I tried another approach to redeem myself. “I'm sorry for disobeying you. But it was late and he said he would leave early. He was Marine in uniform and had his family in the car. You should have seen how happy they were to find a room. And the service medals on his chest. There's no telling what that man has been through for us. I just couldn't turn him down. I might be over there with him soon.”
His stern expression relaxed slightly, but he was not swayed.
“I understand and wish it was different, but this is how I make a living for myself and my family and how I can afford to pay you. In the future, I want you to follow my instructions about not renting to blacks, okay?”
“Okay.” I don't know whether he believed me. We didn't have to test my sincerity. In the months following, no blacks came to the motel on my shift. If they had, my actions would have gotten me fired. No matter. I met a patriot and thanked him and his family the only way I knew how at the time. I pray he survived to experience the greater America he helped save.
Dedicated to my daughter, Julie, my little girl who is always on the side of the oppressed, with a heart of gold and a love of life and its adventures, on her 29th birthday, June 13, 2015. Carpe diem.
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Photo by Michael Humphrey