(Photo courtesy of stock.xchng)
They say you’ll never forget your boot camp bunk-mate, and I can attest that a true statement. Her name was Sheila. Though we never stayed in touch, she taught me many lessons during the longest nine weeks of my life.
She was the first African-American I’d ever met. Sure, I’d seen black people before on TV and when we’d drive down to The Cities. I wasn’t racist because I had no reason to be. I never had to fight the white/black wars. If anything, Sheila was a novelty. I marveled at her gorgeous cocoa-colored skin. I wanted to touch it- to feel if it really was different.
We became good friends during those transforming nine weeks. We depended on each other, and looked out for each other, and I did eventually touch her skin. I held her ankles during sit-ups, helping her up from the ground. It really didn’t feel any different, and after a while I didn’t even notice that it was a different color.
However, there was another difference. I never realized how different African-American hair was from mine. I had no idea that many of those long, beautiful braids people had were often fake hair. Not until the day our RDC broke Sheila.
She had beautiful, classy-looking braids in her hair that ended up growing just a little bit below collar. Collar-length was our limit. One day, the RDC came by and said she had better have them pinned up at all times. Most times she did, but after marching in the heat all day long, a few would slip out.
Catching them like that one day, the RDC ordered her to remove them all.
Reluctantly doing as she was instructed, Sheila began struggling to unbraid these perfect strands of shiny, coal-colored hair. She began to cry. One by one they began to fall into a pile on the floor, leaving just about 2 inches of untamed, frizzy hair. At first I was shocked and panicked, wondering why her hair was falling out. Soon, two other black girls came by to help her begin the tedious task of unbraiding them all. I quickly joined, learning as I watched.
Tears continued to stream down Sheila’s face and she watched her beautiful strands fall. It was plain heart wrenching. Her beauty, and femininity was being slowly stripped away. I guess that was the point. There was no pride here- not unless it was Navy pride.
I wiped away her tears, promising that when this was all over, we’d get it fixed together. When we finished, her hair was coarse and unmanageable. It stuck up in every direction and was completely unruly.
And she was beautiful.
The previous is a piece from "What They Don't Teach You in Deer River" and was written in response to Write On Edge's prompt: "write about a time when something was irrecoverably broken and the ensuing scramble."