(The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met by Alex Haley was originally published in the March 1961 issue of Reader’s Digest.)
Alex Haley is widely known as the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that traced his family’s roots back to his African ancestors. Before this novel and its television miniseries made him famous, Haley was best known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which had originated with an interview Haley conducted while he was writing for Playboy. Prior to that, Haley had been a writer for Reader’s Digest. This was Haley’s second career, however. In 1959 he had retired as a chief petty officer after twenty years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Haley had enlisted in 1939, after a couple of years of college. He went through World War II on Coast Guard cutters and other ships as a steward’s mate. But Haley also attempted to write for publication in slack hours. After years of effort, he began to have some success. One day, while stationed in the Third Coast Guard District in New York long after the war, Haley was serving coffee to Admiral, “Iceberg” Smith, an officer exceedingly proud of his literary taste. Smith pointed out an article lying open before him as a captivating piece, one that had been written by “some colored fellow.” Haley hesitated, then replied, “Yes, sir, I wrote it.” At a conference of admirals in Washington a few months later, the Coast Guard established a rating of journalist, and Haley became a journalist first class.
In this 1961 article, Haley recounts the origin of his writing career—his penning love letters for his shipmates while serving on the USS Murzim, a Navy ship manned by Coast Guard personnel. Haley pays special tribute in this piece to an illiterate first class steward’s mate under whom he had served, a man who always attempted to do his best for his fellow black servicemen (including Haley) in whatever way he could.
Haley’s recollection not only vividly portrays the “Unforgettable Character” who is its main subject, but it also glances at the unfortunate situation of black sailors of the era. On the other hand, one notices here the informal power that a leading petty officer often wielded—especially a leading petty officer like this one, who had the ear of the ship’s captain.
The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met
In our quarters on the USS Murzim, I glimpsed on the steward’s bunk an incomplete letter to his wife, and saw my name: “Haley he the steward second-class, suposed to be my asistant. Ben to colege and can tiperite but schur is stoopid. Can’t boil water.”
This was World War II, and the Murzim was a Coast Guard cargo-ammunition ship newly arrived in the South Pacific. Scotty, with twenty-five years’ service, had been a hostile old sea dog from the day I entered his galley. A huge, jowled Negro, his sail-like apron bulging over his washtub belly, he would glare down at me sourly: “Us bein’ the same race ain’t gon’ get you by. Damn civilians done ruint the service!”
Scotty was the darling of the captain, who loved old-timers. He lumbered about the ship, poking into everyone’s business, and the young boots trailed in his wake with open-mouthed awe and admiration. The Seafarer, the ship’s mimeographed newspaper, ran such Scotty quotes as, “I wrung more seawater out of my socks than you ever sailed over.”
My ambition was to be a writer. Nights, off duty, I typed stories in the officers’ wardroom pantry. Scotty, after haranguing me all day, was irresistibly lured to watch me “tiperite.” I’d make the portable rattle, certain it angered him that a subordinate had a skill he hadn’t. I didn’t know Scotty.
One night his deep voice interrupted me. “Looker here, boy, you ever seen the Cap’n talk letters to his yeoman?” I replied that the yeoman took shorthand. “Don’t need all that chicken-scratchin’!” Scotty exclaimed. “Fast as you run that thing, you might make a yeoman. I’ll help you practice, I’ll talk you some letters.” The idea of this ungrammatical clown hijacking my off-time to dictate to me was hilarious, and I laughed in his face. “You real wise, ain’t you?” he rasped. “Opportunity ain’t every night!”
The next morning a messboy shook me awake. “Man, Scotty wants you on the double!” I hurried to the galley. “I meant on the double!” Scotty roared. “This ain’t no cruise ship!” He lobbed a big steel pot into midair. “Scour that!” He flung a sweat-popping succession of more pots and abusive orders. I shined steam kettles, scrubbed garbage cans and bulkheads. Finally I realized that I could revolt—and land in the brig—or I could type Scotty’s letters. “You got the message?” he asked. Choked with rage, I could only nod. “You a smart boy.” Derisive laughter was in his eyes. “Take off—see you tonight!”
After 8 p.m. muster, Scotty, scowling around a new cigar, followed me to the pantry. Angrily I zipped paper into the typewriter as he overflowed an armchair he had swiped from the wardroom.
“This here letter’s to Pop Robinson. He’s a first-class cook on the Pamlico.” I smacked out the heading, and Scotty smiled approvingly. “Hello—it is a long time since we was in touch. . . .” I typed that. I typed one garbled, ungrammatical cliché after another for half a page. Abruptly Scotty ended: “Forever always your ex-shipmate.” I added, in caps, “PERCIVAL L. SCOTT, STEWARD FIRST-CLASS, USCG,” and thrust the page and my fountain pen at Scotty. He signed as though it were the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the galley next morning, Scotty assembled the five messboys. “You better wish you had some brains! Don’t never forget, Haley give orders, it’s the same as me!” All morning he excluded me from any real work. After dinner he growled, “Chow’s in the stove. See you tonight.” Again, I got the message. That night I typed half-pages to three former shipmates of his.
After a week of fifteen stilted letters, Scotty began to relax. Fat elbows on aproned knees, jowled chin in hands, he paced his sentences to the moving typewriter at about thirty words a minute, and his letters lengthened with “good old days” reminiscings: “Never will forget the time I hired that civilian to come busting in that woman’s place and scared you half to death.” “Remember when I raffled champagne and let you win and we drunk it?” The stories portrayed a hard-drinking, hard-loving Scotty, always exploiting the gullible.
As the Murzim shuttled between islands, Scotty happily showed me replies to his letters. The laborious scrawlings expressed joy at hearing from him and incredulity that he had learned to type. Meanwhile, U.S. magazine editors rejected my love stories. “You help me with my mail,” Scotty gruffed, “maybe I can help you with them stories.”
The stories obviously impressed him. Nightly, after dictating, Scotty would leaf through my dictionary. Soon new words cropped up in his talk. “Can’t tribulate no ninety-day ensigns,” I heard him tell a chief. “They ain’t got no significance.”
Scotty demonstrated my significance by letting me spend whole afternoons with the friendly signalmen on the bridge, who were teaching me to read flags and blinker lights. “Signalin’ takes brains,” Scotty approved. When I could read blinker, Scotty, while dictating, kept alert to hear any clicking of the bridge signal light. I would dash on deck, read the message, and then Scotty would go forward and “predict” news sometimes hours before it was broadcast on the public address system. His fo’c’sle followers soon whispered that Scotty had second sight.
Every night, after dictating and studying new words, Scotty left me to write stories while he made his circuit of the ship. One night he returned towing a big, rawboned youngster from Ohio, who was red-eyed and upset. “Go ‘head, show him!” Scotty barked. Nervously, the seaman handed me a pink envelope. The first few lines revealed a “Dear John” letter. Appalled at Scotty’s indelicacy, I handed it back.
“I’m gon’ set her straight!” Scotty exploded.
“Scotty, you can’t do that!”
But wild horses couldn’t have stopped him. Scowling over the letter, he dictated: “It’s a cryin’ shame you think bein’ out here is some good time. Here I set on a ship full of five-hundred-pound bombs in a ocean full of subs and sharks. You don’t even wait to see if I get back. I bet you grabbed some disanimated 4-F. It ought to be him out here doin’ your fightin’ and dyin’. . . .” While the shaken seaman signed, Scotty raked me with a black look.
When the Murzim put into Brisbane, mail call was held. Scotty and I were shelling peas when his “Dean John” client burst into the galley. We read an astounding reply from the boy’s girl, begging forgiveness. “See, dammit, you wouldn’t of wrote!” Scotty trumpeted.
This triumph made Scotty a strutting Cupid among the admiring kids in the fo’c’sle. Back at sea, he confronted me: “Looker here, few kids want me to cor’spond to some Brisbane gals they just met.” His face struggled with delight, but his voice conveyed menace if I balked.
Each night now, Scotty brought two to four young clients into the pantry. “I’ll dictate later—dictatin’ oughter be private,” he instructed me. “I’ll just ask stuff I need—you keep notes.”
Seating a youngster in his appropriated officer’s chair, he would ask, “Anything special you want to say?” “What’s her hair and eyes like?” “How’d she act?” When a client was reticent, Scotty blazed, “You ain’t got nothin’ to write about!”
To my astonishment, he had marked lyric passages from my rejected love stories. “Ready-made stuff! Take right here—’the enchantin’ moon studdin’ the night ocean with diamon’s as he think about her . . .’ ” We began to produce love letters. Scotty gave me a ream of the captain’s bond and a box of carbon paper which the captain’s yeoman had traded for a surreptitious steak. “Make a copy of every letter,” he directed. “No reason we can’t use the same ones over.”
Soon mail calls brought gushing responses from Brisbane girls and Scotty’s young clients exulted. But I began to grow concerned: clearly the girls would now expect Scotty’s distinctive letters. “Scotty,” I said, “what happens when some of these kids get transferred? What will they do without your letters?”
All morning he worried. In the afternoon he asked, “Them copies you been makin’—how many you got now?”
“About three hundred.”
“Tell you what. Bind up different copies in folders. Them kids can pick stuff they like and write in they own hands.”
It worked fine. Nightly, clients clustered about mess-hall tables, shuffling through twelve binders. Selecting passages they liked, they wrote furiously. Scotty steamed around inspecting them as he once had my typing. “Han’ writin’s more better!” he sang out, encouraging independence. “Stick in some of your own words—twis’ stuff around!”
Finally orders came for our second stop in Brisbane. In the wee hours of the first night, one after another of Scotty’s clients wobbled back, describing fabulous romantic triumphs. Scotty, painfully incapacitated with varicose veins, presided in the fo’c’sle. Three cheers for the old sea dog rang out regularly. Scotty was fit to split with bliss.
The next afternoon, a messboy telephoned me on the bridge where I spent all my spare time with the signalmen. “Scotty wants you in the pantry—on the double!” It was my first “On the double!” in a year. I rushed below, wondering. Scotty and the messboys stood around a white-frosted cake. On it, chocolate-chip Morse code spelled “HALEY.” Scotty, shuffling his feet, spoke gruffly. “I tol’ the Cap’n you could stand watch as signalman. He say go ‘head.” Suddenly glowering, he whirled on the messboys. “Looker here, don’t it rate a hand when one of our race can better hisself?”
They clapped as my tears blurred them all. And it was in that humbling instant that the massive old sailor spun into brilliant focus. I saw with crystal clarity the enormous soul and heart seasoned through a quarter-century of fo’c’sles into barnacled wisdom. He cultivated being rough to mask even from himself his benevolent, patriarchal affection for shipmates. I had resented his vicarious attachment to the education I had been luckier than he to have—and now he had helped me to leave him behind.
Scotty often visited me on the signal bridge. Once he came when we had anchored off an island and “Mail Call!” was being piped. Naming two men, he said, “Watch ’em down there and see what you see.”
We looked down on the forward main deck as yeomen barked names and passed thousands of letters from a dozen bulging mail sacks to the jubilant sailors. But the two men we were watching got nothing. “Poor guys don’t never get no mail,” Scotty said. “Looker here-fix up this thing.” He gave me a Pen Pal Club ad, torn from a magazine. I filled in the two men’s names, and in time the two astounded men received their first letters.
The poignant “Mail-Call” scene kept bothering me. One night in the pantry, I wrote it as I felt it, and it was printed in The Seafarer, which many men enclosed in letters home. Someone’s home-town newspaper reprinted my story. A press wire service picked it up; [my article] “Mail Call” was printed widely over the United States. From across America, letters came addressed: “Lonely Sailors, c/o The Seafarer, U.S.S. Murzim.” Before long, a message was relayed to me, too—from U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters. Ordered back to the States, I wound up assigned in Third (New York) District public relations. There, in 1950, I was named the U.S. Coast Guard’s first chief journalist, and my stories, too, began to click.
But my letters to Scotty went unanswered. Then, in 1954, some reader mail resulting from a Reader’s Digest article included an envelope addressed in a wavering, unruly script that I joyously recognized. Scotty told me that he had made chief steward on the Murzim. But in 1945 his varicose veins forced him to retire and he had settled in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was a night watchman at the Brook Avenue Navy Men’s Y.M.C.A. “Reeding your name folowed by story a grate thril,” Scotty ended his letter. “Knowed you’d make good was how come I help you out.”
(The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the March 1961 issue of Reader’s Digest. © 1961 The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)