It was 1964, a less than terrific year for white people in Columbia, South Carolina. On various fronts, segregation was hanging on by its fingertips. In his final speech, outgoing governor Fritz Hollings announced that South Carolina was running out of courts and that once all legal remedies were exhausted, they should accept the law of the land with dignity. And so, for black folks, coloreds as we were known back then, change was definitely in the wind. You could feel it. You could smell it. You could almost taste it, almost. But although it was a time of great hope for black people, most certainly it was a time of incredible discomfort and even fear for others.
“So, Lt. Levy said we could stay over and take care of the snake.”
Alex had stopped by my wall locker on the way to his bunk. He was a big shouldered guy, slow moving and methodical, but always pleasant.
“Okay.” I had mixed emotions. “He’s in a tank, right?”
“Oh yeah, it’s very secure.”
I was an Army PFC (Clinical Psychology Specialist), assigned to the Hospital Company at Ft. Jackson, a huge basic and advanced infantry training base just outside of Columbia, South Carolina. There were very few other colored soldiers in the company, none in the Mental Hygiene Clinic where I worked and only one in my barracks. We all got along. Whatever problems or disputes we may have had were not related to race. We were from everywhere in the country. We all ate, slept and lived together in relative harmony. The problem was when we left the base, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of South Carolina, where all the rules were completely different. So much so that whenever we left the base, the white and colored soldiers would mostly go their separate ways. Since the city was not all that welcoming to colored people, travelling in mixed groups was sometimes impractical.
“They’re leaving Saturday morning.” Lt. Levy and his wife were heading home for a little vacation. Levy was Alex’s supervisor. Both were white. Before he came into the army Alex had been a curator of reptiles at the Cincinnati Zoo.
“What kind of snake is it?”
“It’s a Boa Constrictor, maybe four feet or so.”
We had snakes in the Bronx, little ones a few inches long. Now and then as kids, we would come across them on Rosedale Field near Tremont Avenue where we went to play baseball. We’d play around with them, put them on the hood of a parked car and laugh as they slipped and struggled along on the smooth painted surface. That was all I knew about snakes, except for jungle movies and the Bronx Zoo. I was very happy to spend some time away from the barracks, in a nice house, looking at TV, drinking beer. Although most likely that is what I would have been doing in the barracks, doing it somewhere else would be nicer, like a vacation. The idea of babysitting a snake didn’t appeal to me, but it came with the vacation.Early Saturday morning we drove to Lt. Levy’s house in Alex’s car. It was a pleasant rancher in a puzzle of low slung houses, winding roads and tall trees. It smelled of sweet pines and melted asphalt. From what I could tell, most of the white people had nice houses in the suburbs. The colored people seemed to live mostly in older homes just outside of downtown Columbia or in some newer low end townhouse developments built exclusively for them. Just as we pulled up, Lt. Levy and his wife came out of the front door. He was hefting two small suitcases. He tossed them into the trunk of his car parked in the driveway. I knew Lt. Levy. He was slightly built and despite a severe demeanor behind his curly black hair and rimless glasses he was actually a very amiable, egalitarian guy. He would sometimes sit with us in the enlisted section of the mess hall, which did raise eyebrows among the officers. His wife would come to the base occasionally. She was quite the bohemian, long skirts and straight dark hair. She had a great sense of humor and a flair for looking good in mismatched clothes. They were good people from Philadelphia We all stood in front of the house for a few moments exchanging pleasantries. Then, Lt. Levy gave Alex the door keys and they got into their car. We wished them a safe journey and stood in the driveway waving until they disappeared up the quiet tree lined street. Alex and I went into the house and made ourselves at home. It was a nice place, a bit sparsely furnished, but nice. Lt. Levy and his wife were transients like us. If the Army decided to send him somewhere else, they could easily be in Texas or Massachusetts next month. And if he got shipped to Vietnam she’d most likely return to Philly for the duration. So we weren’t surprised that the bedroom furniture consisted of a small table and a mattress on the floor. The living room in contrast had a reasonably full complement of the usual things. And there were two comfortable looking couches angled before the TV. Alex claimed one and I took the other. They were perfect. I noticed something interesting against the far wall. It was a small cabinet with a glass front, replete with enticing liquor bottles of various shapes and sizes.
“That’s the bar.” Alex said with a smile. “We’ll definitely check that out.”
We decided to do that later, after we (he) took care of the snake. I really could have passed on that part. But technically that was our whole reason we were there, that and a few thirsty plants. The snake was inside of a large rectangular glass fish tank on a table just outside of the kitchen. Alex removed the cover, reached in and pulled it out. It was a light tan color with an even pattern of black and brown squarish markings. Alex carried it, and then showing off, draped it around his shoulders. It seemed a bit sluggish. He put it on the wooden floor in the living room. We sat on chairs and watched as it slowly came to life, crawling tentatively around, smelling the air with its forked tongue. It (I can’t remember if it had a name) was about four and a half feet long and seemed very docile. The more I watched it the less intimidating it appeared to be. After a surprisingly short period of time, I worked up the courage to touch its smooth leathery skin. The feeling of it was not at all unpleasant. Very soon thereafter (much quicker that I would have imagined), I took the snake from Alex and held it loosely in my hands. As it crawled across my arm and back down to the floor, it seemed all but unaware of my presence. The pretty patterned snake was just another curious little creature creeping carefully along, exploring its surroundings. Alex said, “Handle it gently. Don’t make any sudden movements and you’ll be fine.”
He was right. I won’t say I fell in love with snakes, but I did overcome any unreasonable fear that I may have had. We put the snake back into it the tank and left the house for the pet store. It was time for the snake to eat. So we needed to get a live mouse for its dinner. When we got to the pet store, Alex looked at several mice before he selected one that was the right size. Mice are cheap. But the mouse he bought was extra cheap, as I recall by more than half, because he bought a snake food mouse. It was exactly the same as a regular mouse. But if you bought one as food for your snake, for some reason it cost less. To me, this was all new information.I am certain that many people are attracted to snake fancying just to experience this once a week or so event, when the live prey (in this case a mouse) gets eaten. It is a stunning moment, quicker than the eye can see. The mouse is strolling around inside the tank without a care. Then suddenly it is caught, completely wrapped up and suffocated by the coils of the snake. Its jaws seem to unhinge as it takes the now dead mouse head first into its mouth. Very soon the mouse is altogether gone, transformed into a slow ingesting lump in the snake’s long neck.And that was end of the mouse and also the end of playing with the snake. So, we left it to its digestion while we spent the evening eating burgers and fries, drinking beer, watching TV, and exploring Lt. Levy’s liquor cabinet. That was when we discovered that we really did like the taste of Benedictine and Brandy, a very nice liqueur well beyond our price range.Finally, we topped off the evening watching The Old Grave Digger horror movie show on WIS TV. He was very popular for a time, and by the way, he was a New Yorker just like me. Alex and I went back to the base Sunday by about noon so we wouldn’t miss dinner. The food at the Hospital Company Mess Hall was very good. Ft Jackson operated under the southern; breakfast, dinner supper system. Dinner was the big lavish midday meal. Supper might be cold cuts. After dinner we went back to Lt. Levy’s house to briefly check on the snake and then returned to the barracks.During the following week Alex went back to Lt. Levy’s house several times to see the snake and water some plants. I think I may have ridden with him once. Lt. Levy and his wife arrived back home on Saturday night. Alex drove over to return the keys on Sunday. When he got back to the barracks he couldn’t stop laughing as he was telling me how pissed off Levy was because we drank most of his B & B. That stuff was just too good. We joked about how he should have known better than to trust us to babysit his liquor cabinet. Consequently, it was really his fault. But then, after all that we agreed to scrape up enough money to get him another bottle. That promise sufficiently salved our conscience just long enough to forget the whole thing.By Monday, when Alex reported for duty Lt. Levy was fine. He wasn’t one to hold a grudge. And things went along as usual until Wednesday.
“Guess what?” Alex said, coming up the center aisle of the barracks after work. “Lt. Levy and his wife got evicted!”
“Why !?” I asked. But somehow I already knew the reason. At least I thought I knew.
“Well....” Alex grimaced and used both hands to help find just the right words.
“It had to do with us staying over there.” He said finally.
“No,” I immediately corrected. “It had to do with me staying there.”
I hadn’t really thought of that before. But I should have. I remembered how Alex and I stood in the driveway waving goodbye as Lt. Levy and his wife drove off to Philly. Although I didn’t see another soul on the street, most certainly watching eyes were everywhere.
“Levy said, the neighbors thought we were moving in.”
All at once I felt bad for the two of them. I should have known better, I thought. I should have known better. Lt. Levy and his wife, and Alex, none of them were thinking. They were just white northern tourists without a clue. White people just go wherever they want and never give it a thought. They usually don’t have to. I should have known. But I suppose everything at the time seemed so natural that I didn’t think about the consequences. I briefly forgot where I was. At the very least, I should have remembered what happened some months before at the clinic where I worked. Sergeant First Class Brouse was the Clinic’s NCO IC. His job was managing the office and herding its eight or so enlisted personnel. Although we received our work assignments directly from various medical professionals, Brouse took great pleasure in reminding us (seemingly every minute of the day) that we were in the army. One day in December he walked into my office closed the door and sat down in the chair next to my desk. His head was bowed and his mood was somber. And I thought, What the hell did I do now? I usually stayed out of his way as much as possible, although I did try to get his goat now and then. He was a stickler for punctuality. My workday started at 7:30 am. Once I came strolling past him into the clinic at 7:20, in my civilian clothes complete with run over sneakers. At 7:30 precisely he banged on my door and I greeted him all pressed and buttoned up in my full Class A uniform. He was so disappointed.There was definitely a problem. So I waited. After a long thoughtful moment, hand on his chin, staring into space, he finally looked up at me.
“I have a dilemma. I need your help.”
“Sure.” I said, “The office is having a Christmas party. It’s going to be at my house.”
At this point I could kind of see where this was going. His next sentence came out slowly, after taking much too long to be born.
“The thing is.” He said, “This is South Carolina.”
I nodded carefully in response to that revelation. My nodding seemed to make him more comfortable. I guess he perceived that we now had a common understanding of the basic framework for everything. With that, he began to talk in a rambling way about South Carolina and how people there thought a certain way and had certain way of doing things. I listened as he droned uncomfortably along until he finally got to the point. And the point (of course) was, if I was to come to his Christmas party it could be a problem. He wasn’t completely clear on the specific nature of the anticipated possible problem. But he did indicate that it was related to his neighbors, traditions and the difference between South Carolina and other places.
“So, we could just cancel the whole thing.” He said expansively. “Or, maybe have it here in the clinic. What do you think?”
So, it would be my decision. I would be the reason that the Christmas party got cancelled. And/or, I would be the reason that we had it in the clinic (a no fun zone if there ever was one). Having it at his house with me present was not an option.
“Look.” I said. “This is South Carolina. I understand that. I think you should go ahead and have the party at your house. I just won’t come.”
“No!” he said immediately, and then, almost in the same sentence. “Are you sure?”
I could sense his elation so much that I almost laughed. Sgt. Brouse got to his feet at once and started to the door. Then he turned toward me.
“I hope you know that there is nothing in this world that I would like better than having you come over to my house to have a few beers and maybe watch a football game. I’d love that. I really would, but...”
“This is South Carolina,” I said, finishing his sentence.
“Exactly," he said and nodded in agreement.
Sgt. Brouse was a World War II combat veteran with a Purple Heart. Pieces of shrapnel were still lodged in his left arm. I wondered; “How brave do you have to be to have a colored person come to your house?”
But perhaps that thought is a bit snarky and unfair because the answer to that question is complicated. Look what happened to Lt. Levy. He was as much of a foreigner in these parts as if he had just got off the boat from Lithuania. He didn’t understand the risks. On the other hand, I’m certain Sgt. Brouse did and despite his record of wartime bravery, these were risks he would not take. I believe Sgt. Brouse was a good person and we did get along well. But even if he wanted to go against his community’s rigid rules (and he did or maybe he didn’t), would he risk his family and community standing for me, a person he hardly knew? Back then since few were willing to do so.
When Alex proffered the notion of us staying over at Lt. Levy’s house and taking care of his snake, I should have immediately said, “Wait. That could be a problem!” But I didn’t. Was it my fault that he got evicted? No, but I liked Lt. Levy and I do regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to voice a note of caution. After all, I was the one person among us who was most likely to have both eyes wide open to the complexities of this foreign place.
“It’s up to Black people to save America because white people aren’t paying attention.”
I had heard this particular observation attributed to James Baldwin. I don’t know if Baldwin said it or not, but I liked it.
On Thursday, Lt. Levy called me. We spoke for a while about the incredible unfairness of his situation. Finally, he asked if I might know of a place that they could rent in my community.
“Wow,” I thought. “How interesting is that? The man is so angry with his own people that he wants to become a Negro.”
I could have told him that we really weren’t recruiting right now. But instead, I sympathized with his plight and told him how distressed I was over what had happened. I said that if I found a suitable house or apartment I’d let him know. I truly felt terrible. Lt. Levy and his wife had opened their home (and their liquor cabinet) to me and I paid them back by getting them evicted. They were innocent good people from Philadelphia, almost as much out of place in Columbia as I was (almost).
However, that next Tuesday things took a positive turn when I saw Alex in the mess hall.
“Everything is okay.” He said.
“Lt. Levy told me that he had spoken with the post housing people. They contacted his landlord.”
“Really? What happened?”
Alex smiled. “They told the landlord that if he evicted Levy, Ft Jackson would take him off the approved housing list and he would not be allowed to rent any of his properties to military personnel.”
This was terrific news.
“So, right then Lt. Levy was un-evicted.”
This was good for Lt. Levy and his wife. I was glad for that. A grievously transgressing white couple would be forgiven and allowed to remain in their white community. It doesn’t sound like a great civil rights victory. No, but it was a small one and not just for Lt Levy and his very amiable wife. It was a victory for all black people as well.
One day blacks and whites would live as neighbors side by side in that same community. Such radical change would not happen that day or the next year. It would take many years. And along the way a point would be reached where a black person at a Christmas party in some restricted white community, or even spending the night there would not cause universal apoplexy. It would take the 1968 Civil Rights Act and many years of continued struggle to bring about any meaningful change.
However, the Army’s actions, at that time, in support of Lt. Levy, were significant. Ft. Jackson was undoubtedly the biggest rental client in the Columbia area. Its oversight of the military rental market would most certainly ease some of the restrictive practices regarding black visitation in the white communities. By standing up for Lt. Levy the Army created one tiny crack in the South Carolina apartheid wall. It would take millions of cracks to crumble that wall and the movement of this one little crack was so slight that it was almost imperceptible.
But I felt it.
And on that day in 1964, the hot South Carolina sun seemed a little less formidable and the elusive summer breeze just a bit sweeter than it had been the day before.
Author Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx, is a graduate of American University and presently resides in National Harbor, Maryland. His fiction has appeared in; Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Good Works Review, Massacre Magazine, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere.