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Biloxi Days: Bailing Sergeant Jones

When I was stationed in at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi in the early 70s, my primary duty was squadron commander of the 3380th Field Maintenance Squadron. My responsibilities included management of the shop-based maintenance operations and the 400-man (and woman) squadron’s military administration, a catch-all job description that included the occasional retrieval and/or discipline of wayward airmen. At that time, as a passable keyboard musician, I also moonlighted as an organist and pianist at various area restaurants, bars, veteran’s halls, and beer dives. These show biz glories also saw me serving as a bar-soloist and in various musical group combinations, including the area’s only big band. 

One of those short-lived musical moonlit gigs was as bar organist and pianist for the Keesler AFB officers club where it soon became known to my boss’s boss’s wife that she might be able to rope me into playing the organ for the annual officers wives club fashion show. Much as I wanted to avoid it, Colonel Taylor’s wife was not a woman to be turned down. She offered to rent me a tuxedo for her gala Friday evening event. 

At the same time, I had a standing agreement with the Field Maintenance Squadron’s First Sergeant, Sergeant Johnson, that because of the prevalent racism in southern Mississippi at the time, any time a black airman was arrested in downtown Biloxi we would immediately go down and sign for their bail, unless the arrest was for a felony. 

At the time, the Biloxi police department had a well-deserved reputation for arresting black airmen in or out of uniform for the slightest offense, or no offense at all, which would never happen to white airmen much less white civilians. The Squadron Commander (me) or First Sergeant could sign for up to $500 bail, which covered most infractions and misdemeanor arrests. 

Toward the end of the officers wives club fashion show, I got an urgent call that a black maintenance Staff Sergeant from the hydraulic systems maintenance shop, who I knew personally and who had an otherwise unblemished record, had been arrested in downtown Biloxi. He was being held in the drunk tank in the Biloxi city jail. 

Unfortunately for me, it fell to me to hurry downtown and bail out my Staff Sergeant. I apologized to Mrs. Taylor that I would have to leave. She was understanding despite being married to a stone racist. I drove down to the Biloxi city jail in my tuxedo, introduced myself to the desk sergeant and said I wanted to sign for Sergeant Jones. 

The cop wasn't sure who Sergeant Jones was so he walked me down into the main jail’s drunk tank to identify him. I quickly recognized Sergeant Jones and said I wanted to sign his bail. Standing there in my tux, I inspired a chorus of catcalls, wolf whistles and random insults. Sergeant Jones was very appreciative, adding that he had no idea why he’d been arrested, which was par for the Biloxi course. The charge sheet said he had created a disturbance. 

In my two years as Squadron Commander at Biloxi, there were probably two or three dozen bogus arrests of black airmen in downtown Biloxi, but as best I recall I only had to sign for three or four. Fortunately, those other visits to the jail were not in a tuxedo.

5 Comments

  1. Jeff Costello January 25, 2019

    I traveled across the south from L.A. to Miami Beach on Interstate 10 as a member of the backing band for the Platters, who in 1970 were already a “nostalgia” act. The black singers and piano player rode in one car, the rest of the musicians – all white – rode in another. Across the “deep south,” racism was there in all its glory. Unless we ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken, we white guys would get food-to-go for the black singers. Highway restaurants were generally segregated. In Louisiana, as a born New Yorker raised in New England, I was shocked to see my first segregated rest room at a gas station. It had three choices: Men, Women, and Colored. I was naive enough to think that stuff was from a bygone era.

    • George Hollister January 27, 2019

      I went to 2nd grade in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1960. Interesting times. Knoxville was dry, so there were bootleggers running around. And there was racism. There was an incident of a Molotov cocktail being placed on our from porch. Interesting story.

      The bigotry was very similar to what we have in Mendocino County today. Nothing has changed, and yes we are just as human as those bigots in the South.

  2. chuck dunbar January 23, 2019

    A fine story, Mark S. I love the visual of you as a young man, in your rented tux for the fashion show, going to the jail to get that poor black sergeant out of there. Though the jail residents razzed you mercilessly for your fine outfit, I’ll bet it made their day to see you there. And perhaps some of them, all these years later, still remember that sight. Thanks for telling us this tale.

    • Mark Scaramella Post author | January 23, 2019

      Don’t encourage him. Getting The Major started on his USAF war stories can lead to nearly endless old-fart recollections.

    • George Hollister January 27, 2019

      The Penguin.

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