UNCLE SAM AND BILL: Bill Downey and I lived in Chicago at about the same time, Bill in a black neighborhood, me in a white neighborhood. Bill was a very funny guy who arrived at the Santa Barbara News-Press with his auto mechanic’s tools, but was equipped with a will to write. During his lunch hour he’d go out to his camper and pound on his portable typewriter.
I can tell you from experience that after tapping away on a keyboard all morning- a computer now, then a manual typewriter- the last thing you want to spend your lunch hour doing is more writing. But Bill managed to publish an amusing book about his World War II experiences called Uncle Sam Must Be Losing the War. It also said a lot, in Bill’s sardonic way, about how African Americans were treated back in those days of segregation, even while we were fighting for democracy everywhere else but at home.
After Chicago, Bill, a big, burly man with a broad sense of humor, moved to Ottumwa, a small town in lily-white Iowa, not far from where my mother grew up. He was a 19-year-old auto mechanic when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Bill was outraged, furious about the sneak attack. He was on fire with patriotism for a country that treated his people like second-class citizens. Bill, dreaming of being a fighter pilot, took flying lessons and passed the Army Air Corps written test. But the Army found reasons to keep him out of a cockpit: “I was quietly told that I was two inches too tall and three pounds too heavy,” he said.
So Bill joined the Marines, which he said had been integrated against the will of Corps generals but by order of the White House. In his book, Bill told of being sent to the South for boot training. He got his first taste of Jim Crow when he changed trains in Washington, D.C., en route to North Carolina. “When a man told me I had to go to the back of the train, I thought he was crazy,” he remembered. On the train, Bill began chatting with a black farmer, who was astounded to learn that the Marines were now accepting blacks. He told Bill, “Uncle Sam must be losing the war.”
In the 1960s, Bill, his wife, and their children arrived in Santa Barbara, along with Bill’s tools. But Bill harbored a secret ambition to write. After the News-Press published his piece about the Black Muslims, we reporters urged that he be hired. And he was.
Bill integrated the newsroom. He not only broke the color line but would tramp into the room wearing jeans, a denim jacket, and tracking manure from his boots. Bill was a horseman. From then on, jackets and ties were no longer de rigueur. After all, it was them ’60s.
Bill was not an angry man. He met prejudice by proving that he was more than worthy of respect. Bill went on to write other books, including Tom Bass: Black Horseman. Bass, born into slavery, went on to become the most acclaimed horseman of his time, breaking down the barriers that had kept African Americans out of the horse show world.
But as talented a writer as Bill was, he was not born to be a newspaper reporter. Books were his forte. So his days at the News-Press were numbered. Bill became an Adult Education writing teacher and staffer with the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Bill had a way about him, gently encouraging young would-be authors and retired folks dreaming of telling their life stories.
Bill loved to josh me about my column. He’d act incredulous, finding it beyond belief that the editors were still paying good money for me to produce my daily drivel. He always got a laugh out of that.
And we’d talk about our days on Chicago’s blue-collar South Side. I’m not sure where he lived in those days, but although our neighborhoods were probably only a couple dozen blocks apart, they might as well have been separated by 10,000 miles.
In my early childhood, my family lived for a time on 100th Street, which was 100 gritty blocks south of the glamour, glitz, and excitement of the downtown Loop. Our neighborhood and elementary school were all-white. But five blocks away, up across 95th Street, the color was black. Neither race crossed that line for any reason. Who made that rule I have no idea; although I’ve never returned to the old neighborhood, I am sure that line was erased long ago.
Bill was a warm, caring man whom I admired. I hope he thought of me as a friend. He died in 1994, a beloved Santa Barbaran who always held his head high. Sabatini’s famous line from Scaramouche fits: “He was born with a gift for laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”