I knew that society would not be a good place for me to exhibit the values that seem to mean so much behind prison walls. Institutional syndrome bourne from long periods of time served in prison is very much a reality. I started considering these things while I was still on the inside. I had something to care about now.
In October 2003, I was released. My mother came to the prison and took me home. I would have to serve three years on parole, then I could apply for my merchant mariner credentials. I would find myself a job and bide my time on parole.
Two months later, my mother passed away in her sleep. She was 57. She had often said, “I pray that I will live long enough to see Gregory come home from prison.” And she did. My mother must have put every grain of her spirit into that prayer.
* * *
One by one, I overcame the barriers of being an ex-con with minimal life skills and work experience. The first couple of years were not easy at all.
I worked long hours doing menial labor such as washing dishes, construction, painting, landscaping and ditch-digging. I earned very little money. I remember buying my first car for $240 in cash, and then I had to teach myself how to drive it.
I struggled with relationships. I labored with my bills. Painstakingly, I made effort after effort just to make it day to day. But I adopted a single motion: forward.
Occasionally, Professor Bolster would come to Washington on business and we would meet for lunch.
Finally, in October 2006, I was discharged from parole. I was now eligible to apply for a U.S. Merchant Mariners Document. However, no matter how hard I worked, I just could not accumulate the money necessary for the application fees. Months passed.
Professor Bolster suggested that his brother, Peter Bolster, fleet captain for the Living Classrooms Foundation — Shipboard Department in Baltimore, may need a crew member on an educational vessel. The vessels — the Lady Maryland, the Sigsbee, and the Mildred Belle — were essentially classrooms that took students, age 6 thru 17, for short voyages into the Baltimore Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay to learn about the environment.
I called Pete Bolster and we set up a meeting.
In September 2007 I was hired as mate/educator (unlicensed) to work aboard the Mildred Belle. It was done! I had succeeded! And I would work on the waters of the Baltimore Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay as a sailor!
I was 47. A long and tumultuous 30 years had passed since I had first walked across the quarterdeck of the USS Moosbrugger as a sailor. And 10 years had passed since the publication of “Black Jacks.”
I have since become a documented U.S. Merchant Mariner. I have worked at sea in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. I have traveled from Boston to Barbados, and from Trinidad to Texas. Prospective work and travel looms in Mexico and Panama and Norway. Improving my mariner credentials with professional training and endorsements will strengthen my career. The future seems bright with opportunity.
The power of the written word is truly remarkable. Who would have thought that a book review could touch someone in such a dynamic manner? Without exaggeration, “Black Jacks: African American Seaman in the Age of Sail” inspired me to alter the course of my life.