I was already in the parking lot, in the car when I realized: There are four older, black gentlemen in the lobby … black trousers and red dinner jackets. That is not a coincidence. I got out, went back inside.
For several years now Ginny has been going to a really good horticulture seminar at the Lewis Ginter Botanicala Garden in Richmond. They, the gardens, really are worth seeing if you are in Richmond.
The last time we went I made a side trip down to the Newport News/Hampton Roads area to check out resource locations for the novel I am currently working on: Hampton Roads ’44. I found several great repositories of information on the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation during the WW II years: the local newspaper, of course; the Mariners Museum … and the Virginia War Museum, located hard against the Newport News terminus of the James River Bridge ( US 17/258 ).
Material at the VWM relevant to my work is, for the most part, in secure rooms: one has to be escorted into and out of them by museum personnel. Staff was most helpful once I explained what I was looking for. There wasn’t time that day to really dig into the stacks, but I was able to find out what they had, make a list so that I could give them a heads-up before I showed up for the next visit.
There was a crowd there. Way more folks than one would expect on a Friday afternoon. A lot of older men, many of them with grandchildren in tow. They all seemed headed into the auditorium. I headed toward the parking lot, the car. There was one more venue I wanted to check out before my afternoon was over.
I went back inside the main building. … four older, black gentlemen. They were nodding to the incoming visitors, greeting, shaking hands. Several people asked for autographs. Then it hit me. The announcement at the auditorium entrance said: Movie … 2: 00 PM The Tuskegee Airmen. These men were the real deal … real Tuskegee airmen.
I introduced myself, told the one gentlemen what I was about. Oh, he said, you need to talk to Sergeant Williams. He knows everything. We talked a few minutes, Sergeant Williams and I. I got his card, his email.
Then I asked, “You embarked from here?”
“Right up the river,” he pointed.
“When did you sail?”
“26 December,” he said. “Day after Christmas.”
“What year,” I asked.
Of course. If I had thought for more than a second I would have known that. They did their thing in Italy in 1944.
“It was cold,” he said. “Cold as a son-of-a-bitch. … We were already on board; they pulled us off. Were loading bombs in the hole of the ship, they were. Made us sleep, spend the night, in a warehouse. Wind was blowing in off that water,” he pointed out toward the James River just across the parking lot. “Wasn’t no heat. Jus’ that cold concrete floor. … Didn’t nobody sleep much that night.”
I couldn’t have made that story up in a lifetime! … Sergeant Williams has filled in a lot of blanks for me since then. He is ninety-one now. I hope to visit with him again when I get back to Hampton Roads. Hope to take him for a ride in that part of Newport News, down where the docks and the shipyards face the river. Hope to get more of his stories.
There is, in my working manuscript, a fictionalized version of their story and that night. The Tuskegee Airmen are not main characters in my story … just passing through on their way to war: which is what happened in the Hampton Roads POE between 1942 and 1945.
Writers have to be good. Sometimes it helps to be in the right place at the right time. Helps to be lucky now and again.