My father, Robert C. Keeve, was 89 years old on May 7th or 10th, depending on which document you look at. Like many Americans – especially African Americans – born in rural America in 1931, the official date on the birth certificate often did not match the actual date of birth. Instead, the official date was more than likely the date the doctor got around to filing the Birth Certificate with the Department of Vital Statistics. By the time he was school age, his mother had told him he was born on the 7th and so his school records carried that date because in the 1930’s schools put whatever date the parents told them was the date of birth. This date followed him into the military, which also, at that time, recorded whatever date was told to them.
As my father approaches 89, he realizes he has more past than future and his memories often rest during those past times. His parents of course have been gone for years and he is the last remaining sibling of his five sisters and brothers. He has gone through the loss of nearly all of friends, many nieces and nephews, his oldest son, and just last year, his wife of 64 years. As we, primarily, his daughters, visit with him, he tells us stories, many times the same, about his past.
We know he lived his early childhood in a two-room house, most would call a shack. As a child he rarely wore shoes. Not just because this country was in its infancy of picking itself up from the Depression, but also because his family was poor, county, negro and three generations from slavery. He and his brothers spent most of the day wandering the woods, walking dirt roads and returning home. He speaks of a brother who, as a child, did not listen to their father, could not stay on tasks, and because of that, often was beat with a stick for his lack of focus and concentration. This same behavior followed that brother all his life and I suspect now that he suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder and some sort of learning disability. This brother’s behavior also impacted my father as back in that day, in that and probably many rural negro schools, younger siblings were not allowed to pass older siblings in school, thus, my father, who was extremely intelligent, was held back two years once he reached high school because his older brother kept failing. My father recounts a time, at the beginning of one of his high school years, he looked at the information next to his name in the teacher’s grade book. It reflected a “U” for every class for the entire year when school had not even started! The “U” stood for unsatisfactory and allowed administrators to fail him year after year. As you can imagine, this situation led to great discouragement and a feeling of futility about continuing with school. At one point, due to his age, he was the bus driver, bussing kids to school who were in his same class. Thankfully, the situation also led to my father meeting my mother who was a year younger than he was. It also led to the greatest adventure of his life, joining the United States Air Force.
As a youth, his father instilled in him the virtues of hard work and discipline. My grandfather was by trade, a fisherman and my grandmother, a cook. In his teens, my father, in addition to working the fields, also worked as a fisherman. The work was backbreaking, the hours were long, the job dangerous, and the benefits negligible. He knew he was capable of much more. He also knew the world offered much more. So, after finally graduating, he, in 1951, joined the United States Air Force and set off to see the world. He found a segregated air force and an assignment to one of the most dangerous jobs given to an enlisted man, that of ammunition handler. During those four years, he traveled to places and in ways he never had before. A train trip took him to Sampson Air Force Base in Ithaca, New York for basic training. And later to the frigid cold of Denver, Colorado, for ammunition school training, where he learned about the markings on bullets, bombs, dynamite and other explosives. Later, he traveled by train to San Francisco and boarded an aircraft carrier to Yokohama, Japan, with island stops by plane to exotic Guam. He recalls excelling in training, being put in charge of a squad, in charge of a barracks – being the only black, of being resented by fellow servicemen when he enforced rules, being lured to a service club where an attempt was made to have him take the fall for some incident that involved a white women, of seeing men drink, fight, and fail. In detail, he recalls the time when he was given 42 days leave from training in Denver to return home. He opted to take the bus home and had to learn to read signs for directions as he had no previous need to know anything about bus travel living in the county. This decision landed him in the midst of Jim Crow South. The trip through Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas went smoothly for this soldier in uniform. However, as the bus traveled through Alabama, he started to get strange looks. Boarding whites would never pass him to take the empty seats behind him and ever so often, the bus driver would look in the rearview mirror and shake his head. At a stop in Mississippi, the driver directed his glaze to my father and said, “Solider, would you mind moving to the back of the bus.” White people all around begin muttering, “He should have been done that!” “Who does he think he is?” It was then that my father remembered where he was and more importantly, who he was in the eyes of his fellow passengers. Jim Crow South has stripped him of his uniform and any respect due to a serviceman. Jim Crow in 1952, had reminded him that he was a black man. After a beat, he rose, and in those seconds, thought of home. Of parents who were there waiting for him. Of a woman, who he had dreamed of as a child, who was waiting for him at home. In those seconds, he made the decision to move as asked. He made the decision as odds were stacked against him to do anything else. I am thankful that my father made that decision that day. He realized that he had a destination far grandeur than being put off the bus, risking a fight, the potential of jail, or worse. His days in the military would come to an end a few short years later due to the epileptic seizures he experienced as a result of what we believe to be the absorption of the chemical residue on the ammunition. Once honorably discharged from the military, the seizures stopped. He went on to drive dump trucks which helped build parts of Interstate 95 in and around the Washington, D.C. area. He went on to become a foreman at a textile plant. He went on to become the first black man to own a service station in his hometown. Most importantly, he fathered seven children and set the example of what love, self-respect, perseverance, and dedication to God, can do.
His memories often take him back to those days in the military. He fondly remembers Guam for its beauty and warmth. In listening to him, I have learned there are depths of my father that I will never know but count myself blessed for the experiences he shares. These experiences made him who he is today and in part, who I am as well.