Lee Suggs

By Latifah and Aayala

Lee Suggs #1

1. Where were you born?
I was born in Water Valley, Mississippi.  Water Valley had rolling hills and fields of watermelon and cotton.  There was a coal yard with huge piles of coal used as fuel for the trains passing through.  I was a boy in June of 1948 when my family moved to Marin City, California.  There was a large oak tree on the edge of our yard when we left Mississippi and I went back in 1979 and it had encompassed the edge of the barbed wire fence by 8”.

2. Tell me about your family.
We worked hard; we had a huge garden for our vegetables.  We would put up fruit and vegetables in mason jars to use throughout the year.  My father raised and killed one pig a year for our meat.  My uncle had a cow for our milk and butter.  A balanced diet.  We chopped our own wood.  We had two stoves, one for cooking and one for heating.  Neither of my parents could read.

3.  What was growing up like for you? 
Growing up was interesting.  I learned to tell it like it is.  It’s just easier to tell the truth; then you can remember what you said.  My parents didn’t find the value of me studying after school.  My parents thought that chores and work were more important than studying in the evenings, so I had to train myself to remember everything in class rather than doing homework after school.  I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but later it came in useful in training my memory.

4. What memories stand out for you about the Great Depression?
I remember the food they gave us—red grapefruits, grits, and margarine that had no color so we had to mix in the color ourselves.  Roosevelt built power lines so rural families would have electricity and I remember lightning playing on the electrical lines near our home during a thunderstorm.  We got our drinking water from a spring a mile away.  It rained a lot and we collected rain water for bathing and washing.  There were crawdads in the spring.  We had an outhouse, of course, and used white lye to keep the odor down.

5. Tell me where you were and what you did during World War II?
I was still in Mississippi.  We worked a lot.  We had to work.  We had a radio, and my cousin across the road had a Victrola that played 78 records.  I was really not that aware of World War II.  But I read a lot about it later in books.  Books by Winston Churchill like Gathering Storm and Their Finest Hour.  I read all six volumes in his Second World War series.  Volume 2, Their Finest Hour spoke of the time when Britain stood alone, before the United States came in to the war.  I also am inspired by Volume 4, The Hinge of Fate.  I used them to help me get through difficult times.  Here is a man with enormous responsibility overcoming great odds.

How did your life change when the war ended?
My father had gone to Marin City, CA, during the war.  He lived in a government owned housing project for workers building ships at the Sausalito Shipyard.  He was a welder on the ships being built for the war.  When the war was over, he came back to Mississippi in 1945.  In California he had gotten used to making decent wages.  He went back to Marin City in 1947 and got work.  In June of 1948, my mother, my sister, younger brother and I came to Marin City on the Greyhound Bus.  I graduated from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, CA.

6. Your most vivid memories of:
• Cold War – I went to Berlin in 1962 during the standoff between Kruschchev and Kennedy.  I saw Checkpoint Charlie (crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War) and I remember the Russian soldiers in their bear caps in wintertime.  I remember seeing the Russian gun emplacements pointed at us.  The swimming pool used for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin was still being used and it was beautiful in my eyes.  I was in Berlin for over 90 days and it was occupied territory, so I received WWII Veteran status which helped me to buy a house in Vallejo in 1968.
• The first moon walk – At the time it didn’t have much significance.  I was working and going to school, and got married that year.  My life was very busy.  I attended Solano Jr. College on the GI Bill and I learned how to buy and sell real estate.
• Assassination of JFK – I felt like it was a great loss to the nation.  I was in Germany at the time, in the military.  I was walking towards the social club and another soldier coming out of the club told me.  I felt the loss that the nation felt.  I felt like Kennedy was one of the greatest presidents we had.  I saw him in the presidential debates and knew right away he would make an outstanding president.
• Vietnam War? – I was in Germany, in the medics, and I had less than 9 months left to serve.  I knew that Johnson had escalated the war and I would have been involved in the Vietnam War had I stayed in the Army.  I wasn’t aware of the demonstrations, marches or protests about the war until I got home.
• Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t relate to the non-violence.  Marching on issues and protesting is a start, but in the long run, you have to do more.  You have to stand up for yourself.  You have to look at practical issues like economics.  Malcolm X, I could relate to and understand him.  After his Haj to Mecca in 1964, he became a “true Muslim” and understood that ethnic background doesn’t matter.  He focused more on practical concerns such as improving economic condition.  I enjoyed reading his autobiography.  Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, used to visit my roommate in our flat on 56th and Grove in Oakland.  This was before the Black Panther Party, when he was starting Cal Berkeley as a student.
• Civil Rights Movement?
What they did was wonderful but marching on issues is only the beginning.  Rosa Parks taking a stand was wonderful.  But they should have focused more on the economic issues, bettering the financial condition, helping people to own more resources of the United States.  What do you own?  How many people can you hire?  That’s “green” power.
• The 50s?
I remember music and learning how to dance.  I was a teenager in Marin City, and my sister was 3 years older than me.  Her boyfriend taught me the first dance I ever learned.  I learned the Chicken, the Hully Gully and others by watching the good dancers.  I learned the Monkey in Germany.  There was a guy in the Army we called “Peeler” and he was very tall, but that guy could really Monkey!  I also learned how to dance the Pony and the Twist, the Fly in the 50s and 60s.  I remember dancing the Charleston, the Mambo, and the Limbo while stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington.
• The 60s?
I got out of the service in 1968, started buying real estate, investing in my future.  I had just bought a new car and I came to the realization that I would have nothing to show for this car in a few years time.  I got in touch with my values and invested in a house on Beverly Drive in Vallejo.  “If I work, I need something to show for it!”  I was working at the county hospital in Martinez, with my medic training from the Army.

7. What do you think has been the most important invention of the last hundred years? Why?
The automobile!  Because it gave just about everyone the ability to move around and travel.  Before the automobile, with trains, with horse and buggy, it was very limited where you could go in the United States.

8. If you could pass on any advice about life to the newest generation of your family, based on your experiences, what would it be?
Become responsible.  If you say you’re gonna do something, do it!  Your word is your bond.  Either do what you say, or have a good explanation why you couldn’t do it.  There is a quote, “What you do speaks so loud, I cannot hear what you say.”

9. What book had a big influence on you?
I really enjoy poems and sayings most of all.  “Invictus”, a poem about taking responsibility for one’s destiny, really inspired me.  I first heard the poem to music at a 4H Club Conference in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was around 12 years old.  Some of the older boys sang it a cappella.  Later on when I was 16-17 years old, I found inspiration in Proverbs from the Bible with such advice as honoring your father and your mother.  And “Psalm 23”, Psalm of David, has given me strength throughout my life.

10.  What major life event did you experience that changed you?
Joining the Army.  I know people talk down about the military sometimes, but for me, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.  I was drafted in 1956 and I enlisted two times in 60 and 63.  I traveled and I saw the world.  I got my medical training there.  The military gave me the mental discipline, physical training and occupation that I needed.  Today I still work in the medical field as a Licensed Vocational Nurse.

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