Only In America
One man's journey from Hot Coffee to Scrambled Eggs
I was born in a small town called Hot Coffee, Miss. My father had five children by five different women; some of these children were older than my mother. My father, a hustler, was abusive. My mother would escape my father's abuse by visiting my grandparents' house to do laundry. One day, she decided to stay permanently.
After living with my grandparents for a while, my mother was offered a place to stay with my aunt in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest district in the poorest state in America. It was during this time that my mother remarried. WJ, my step father, provided a source of financial stability for us. Soon after, my other two siblings were born. WJ now had a wife and five children to care for on a salary of $150/week. We were extremely poor. We did not own a car. I wore my sister's shoes to school, and WJ walked five miles to work every day. Because we were so poor, I was often bullied at school. Food was scarce at times because we depended, almost solely, on government assistance to eat.
Being on the honor roll at school was my only source of comfort and enjoyment. This made me feel important, as my report card became a source of pride for my mother, aunts, cousins, and sisters. I was in seventh grade when my grandfather became ill, and my family moved from the Mississippi Delta back to Hot Coffee. This move happened at a critical point in my life. I was beginning to get into trouble by hanging around the wrong crowd in the Mississippi Delta. Most of my friends and relatives, who I viewed to be role models in the Mississippi Delta, would later be sent to prison for drugs or murder. I am certain that if we had not moved back to Hot Coffee, this would have been my destiny as well. Though I later found Hot Coffee to be boring in comparison to my life in the Delta, at this juncture, I was glad to be moving. This move essentially saved my life.
After the Mississippi Delta, life back in Hot Coffee wasn't much easier. It was during this time that I met one of the most important leadership figures in my adolescent life. Uncle JC Fairley, who we affectionately refer to as Uncle J, was 65 years old and possessed a fourth grade education. Uncle J was my community's employer, banker, protector, spiritual advisor, and unequivocal leader. He was an entrepreneur and displayed compassion by hiring me to work in his watermelon field.
Uncle J and I drove two hours to New Orleans to sell the watermelons. Once in New Orleans, Uncle J had a two-pronged operation. We parked the one-ton truck at a busy intersection and sliced open a display watermelon. This enticed many people to stop and buy them. We then drove the pickup truck through the residential areas of New Orleans, and as my uncle would honk the horn, my cousins and I would be on the back of the truck screaming at the top of our lungs in our southern Mississippi dialect, "WE GOT YO MISSISSIPPI WAATAMELOONS! RED TO DA RHYME!" Folks would come to the truck and ask, "How much dose watermelons?" and I would say, "Two dollas apiece," and they would say, "Nooo . . . too high" and I would reply, "Tell you wat, I'll give you two for fo dollas," and they would say, "We'll take 'em!"
I prided myself on being Uncle J's best salesman and his favorite yeller in getting prospective customers out of the house. Uncle J frequently motivated me by saying, "Boy, you know you can holla!" and "Keep bringing them out of the house, Bob!" I learned so much from Uncle J as he often taught about standards of conduct in a raised tone and in his wonderful, southern Mississippi dialect: "White folk'll help you if ya wuk hard!" and "You may as well like'em (white folk) cuz ya godda wuk for 'em." I will never forget when he said, "Boy, if you go to jail for fightin, I'll gitchu out cause I fought! If you go for jail for drankin, I'll gitchu out cause I drank! But if you go to jail for stealin' or messing wit dat dope, you gon rot there!"
I didn't realize it at the time, but Uncle J was shaping my work ethic, teaching the value of relationships, and explaining a zero tolerance policy for stealing and illegal drug use. His experience base was formed while growing up under the Jim Crow laws of the South but his declarations set a precedent in my heart.
In the fall of my senior year of high school, I received a phone call from my girlfriend, informing me that I was going to be a father. I was only seventeen and the thought of raising a child was overwhelming. After a bit, I told my Spanish teacher, Mrs. Mayfield, and she asked her husband, the city Alderman, if I could work in their yard after school to help with the baby's expense. They took the time to develop a relationship with me and allowed me the opportunity to work for $3.35/hr (min. wage) to support my son. Mrs. Mayfield understood my immediate family issues and included me as part of their extended family. The Mayfield's were considered affluent, their children were educated, and they taught me responsibility, character, and the importance of education. I am still very close to this family today.
When my son, Robert Rashad Crosby, was born, I was determined to be a good father and a good provider, so I enlisted in the Navy in January of my senior year in high school. The first time I left Mississippi was when I left for Boot Camp in San Diego. My recruiter had informed me that if I performed well, I could be promoted to E-2 when I left boot camp. I focused on this promise. Upon arrival, the Company Commanders gathered the hundred or so recruits and instructed each of us to sound off. Most of the recruits were shy and timid when called upon, but when it was my turn, I inhaled a healthy dose of God's fresh air and shouted at the top of my lungs, in my full southern Mississippi dialect: "My name is Robert Crosby! Fo-two-seven- xx-xxxx! I'm from Hot Coffee, Mississippi! Favorite food is pinto beans and cornbread, Sur!"
After my "sounding off" an eerie silence came over the group. The Company Commanders called me to the front and after quietly inquiring to ensure that I was in the right branch of service (Navy versus Marines) they gave me a spot promotion to Recruit Chief Petty Officer. They were compassionate leaders and I earned E-2 out of Boot Camp. I was very excited about becoming a Navy cook.
I reported to the USS Thorn in the winter of 1994 and was immediately assigned to the general mess to cook for a crew of about 350 people. I was very motivated. I even memorized the entire crews' first names so I could greet them by name as they came through my chow line. My chief noticed my initiative and persuaded me to go to the wardroom to cook for the officers. My shipmates sneered at that position and stated, "Rob, you are going to be a slave up there!" My buddies understood that in addition to cooking, the wardroom cook made the officers' beds, vacuumed their staterooms, washed their clothes, and cleaned their toilets. I forced myself to love it because I viewed it as my only alternative and I wanted to be a squared away sailor. Also, I truly believed that the officers could not make good decisions if their stomachs were empty and if their accommodations were not properly maintained. In my mind, I was contributing to the mission of the ship by keeping them comfortable and well fed.
One day, while vacuuming my Captain's stateroom closet, I saw his Service Dress Blues. After peeking out of the entrance to ensure no one was around, I tried on his jacket and cover. They both fit perfectly. I stared in the mirror for a couple of minutes and thought, "Maybe I can be a Naval officer?" I quickly replaced the uniform to its original position. A few days later, in the ship's library, I found a book entitled Nimitz. Reading about how Admiral Chester Nimitz, a poor boy from Fredrick, Texas, overcame challenges early in his career was very inspirational and gave me hope. I fell in love with this book. One day while reading, one of my shipmates snatched the book from me, looked at the cover with Admiral Nimitz's white face on the front, and said, "N(word) who do you think you are? You are a cook like us!" I laughed, but inside I felt like the little kid back in the Mississippi Delta all over again. The teasing by my shipmates intensified. I was labeled a kiss up and an "Uncle Tom." The isolation was horrible but my mind was freed in the evenings, as I would get lost in the book. Imagining that I was Admiral Nimitz became motivation for me to become an officer so I could lead my own ship someday.