Some historians and commentators on social and political process use the term legitimacy to discuss aspects of their subject. (Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay; and Timothy J. Lomperis, From People’s War to People’s Rule as examples.) According to Fukuyama, democratic governments need three elements to be effective. They need organizational structure, laws, and a law enforcement entity. The people endow those three elements with legitimacy by agreement at the government’s establishment or when it is altered in structure or law, and by acquiescence when we are born into it.
In 1982 I was the commanding officer of an A-7 squadron, and we were deployed to the Indian Ocean aboard an aircraft carrier. One day I was down on the third deck on some business with our squadron Admin. I finished and started up the ladder to the second deck. I got two steps up when from above feet started coming down. Work shoes and dungaree-clad legs. Enlisted sailor legs. I stopped ascending, and after he had taken another step down, the sailor and I could see each other’s faces. The sailor was Sidney. He stopped too. I remember his last name, but you don’t need to know it. I was his CO. It was his job at that moment to let me ascend the ladder. I saw that realization pass across his face. I was about to step off the ladder. He was farther down than I was up, and I had, and still do, have a great respect for what enlisted sailors endure and contribute. I thought stepping out of his way would show that respect. But as that thought was transmitting from my head to feet, something else crossed onto Sydney’s face. It wasn’t hate. Anger and hostility for sure. And it was focused on the US Navy, its organization, its rules, and at me, the enforcement authority. Sydney was going to show me none of that stuff amounted to a hill of beans. He started down the ladder again. I knew what he was doing. I started up. He kept coming down until we both could go no farther. He glared at me. He wasn’t going to back down. “Sydney,” I said. “Get your ass up the ladder.”
He thought about it a minute, glaring hard attitude all the while, and then he turned and ascended the ladder. When he turned around, I spotted a rip in his dungarees over his right buttock. His underwear showed through. At the top of the ladder, I had Sydney accompany me. I summoned the senior enlisted man in the squadron to first, get Sydney in a proper uniform, and second, to inspect Sydney’s locker to ensure he had no other inappropriate items of military costume. Sydney’s locker passed the inspection. Uniforms above-average squared away, and no other material uncovered, which could have gotten him in more trouble than his holey pants.
Sydney was a bright intelligent kid. You could see that on and in his face. But his face was like one of those highway billboards with scenes fixed to both sides of rotating slats. One scene one instant, then a bit of blur while the rear picture rotates into position. That attitude of his was on the rear scene, and it didn’t take much to swing it front and center.
Sydney was a junior sailor, an E-2, the second rank, one notch above recruit. That day on the ladder, there were twelve ranks between us. But I would have stepped aside for him if he hadn’t flashed his attitude at me. That was not tolerable. He did have enough sense to turn around before the thing got out of hand. No entry was made in his record. If he took the right message away from the encounter, he still could avail himself of many opportunities the Navy would have been happy to offer him. I do know he never got into serious trouble while I was his CO. Otherwise, he would have appeared before me at NJP, non-judicial punishment. He didn’t.
Things were different then than they’d been twenty years earlier when I’d been an E-2. Then, the jobs available to black sailors was a short list. Sydney was black. I didn’t mention it before because the behavior he manifested on the ladder was what mattered. But it needs to be mentioned now for what follows. In 1962, the jobs available to a black E-2 would have been cook, compartment cleaner, ship’s laundry, for the most part, jobs like that. And education opportunities would have been limited to him. Occasionally, a young black sailor worked his way into a field with real upward mobility. Occasionally.
By 1982, things had changed enough that his skin color did not barricade him from any field he was qualified to enter. I don’t know what happened to Sydney. I hope his attitude didn’t continue to rule his life and ruin it. As I said, he was a bright young man. He could have prospered inside the US Navy, or outside as a civilian.
When Sydney and I met on that ladder, when that look flashed across his face, he was in fact telling me the Navy, the Navy’s laws, the Navy’s law enforcement officer had no legitimate authority over him. I might have that authority over others, but I did not have it over him. He thought he could attitude me out of his way. And in doing so, he stole from me the opportunity to be a “good guy,” instead of an organization ass.
Still, there was a good guy inside Sydney. I hope he found a way to get along with the system and let that guy out. I hope he’s okay. I hope he’s doing well. If he is, maybe my two little rock throwers will find a way, too.
Before closing out this segment, I’m going to include a bit from something else I read recently.
A favorite author of mine is James Lee Burke. In Wayfaring Stranger, he is writing about the generation who fought World War II and he said: “We would also be the last generation to believe in the moral solvency of the Republic.”
I think Mr. B. nailed it.
I worry about my two rock throwers. I worry about Sydney.
I worry about the Republic.
I’m going to stop here. In the next installment, we’ll visit 1968.