An Inauspicious Birth

An Inauspicious Birth

Until late 1944, my father had been a Navy pilot headquartered in Key West where he patrolled the Florida Straits for German submarines. After the war, as a new law school graduate, he reported for duty to the military court at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as ordered.

Two of my sisters and I were born in the Naval Academy Hospital. On the day I was born, my father was in the middle of a complicated trial. All my life I’d heard that my father asked for a pause in the trial to visit my mother and me in the hospital. My birth was announced in the newspaper as part of the daily coverage of the court proceedings. When I was old enough to ask, I heard from my mother and him that he defended Navy personnel for stealing food from the Officers’ Mess. It sounded admirable. I fabricated stories about men he defended—petty officers sending necessities home to their poor families— and bragged about him to my friends.

In my fifties I went to Annapolis to search the archives for the article announcing my birth. Before I started rolling through microfiche, I called my father and asked for some common names and dates to look for besides my birth date.

“I can’t remember,” he said. “Call me when you get home.”

Newspaper articles from 1946 report details of my father’s part in the trial. In the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), he worked not as a defender of the disadvantaged but as a prosecutor.

The day my arrival interrupted the trial, June 13, 1946, my father was about to call an important witness to testify against former Chief Steward Walter W. Rollins. Rollins, “a Negro”, was accused of throwing an all-night party in his basement quarters of the Officers’ Mess with five white people. The day after my birth, the witness would testify they played penny-ante poker from 1:30 am until 9:30 am, but no money changed hands. The charges against Rollins included adultery with a white woman, a morals offense, gambling, embezzlement, misconduct and theft. He apparently took a jug of whiskey from the Officers’ Mess. Rollins was sentenced to two years in federal prison. After twenty-seven years of service to the Navy, he was demoted to First Mate and received a bad conduct discharge.

No wonder my father evaded his history at Annapolis. He had just been commissioned a Lieutenant Commander, had flown the prestigious Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers in the elite Air Corps. He’d been a scholarship student at Georgetown University and Law School. And yet, for years, he secretly funded all extracurriculars with money he earned at all-night high-stakes bridge games. He’d been arrested for drunken brawls and flown illegal rum and cigars home from Cuba. A much worse law-breaker than Rollins, my father tried to blot out his part in the Rollins’ trial.

He never served as a trial lawyer again.

And I never told him what I knew.