Before Fame, Cosby Was Navy Corpsman At Quantico
(February 26, 2010)
Entertainer Bill Cosby
| ||MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Bill Cosby's name on the face of popular culture is indelible. His place in the pantheon of great entertainers is secure.|
But before his success as a national celebrity – before his early standup debuts, before the children's TV series “Fat Albert,” before the seminal “Cosby Show,” before his academic endeavors, before the sundry personal and professional accolades – he was here.
Cosby spent part of his enlistment in the Navy at Quantico in the late-1950s, as a hospital corpsman. His experiences here shaped some of his later work as a comedian and entertainer.
His assignment here included many late nights manning the front desk of a medical ward. These third-shift hours afforded him much time to reflect on his life plans and long-term goals with few interruptions.
However, there were always some exceptions to his normally peaceful working hours, noted the 72-year-old Cosby.
“When you had the weekend watch, it wasn't much fun,” said Cosby.
The high volume of Marines and sailors being admitted after traffic accidents off the base was high.
|“Some guys came in to the emergency room not in such great shape,” he said.|
Cosby also was responsible for a ward to which depressed patients were assigned. It was an ironic billet for a man who later became a source of laughter for so many. Despite this, he found humor in brushes with potentially dangerous situations.
“It's nighttime, about 1 a.m., and all of the sudden I feel someone looking at me,” said Cosby. “This was a ward known for guys having mental problems, so I had reason to be a little on edge. I looked up at this huge white guy standing in blue pajamas, and I said to myself, ‘Uh oh.'”
He was able to coax the man back to bed with fake medication.
Something else Cosby remembers is processing candidates at Officer Candidates School. He occasionally assisted other corpsmen with long lines of new joins waiting for medical examinations.
“We were drawing blood – a line of about 90 or 100 [candidates] standing in the hallway,” said Cosby. “These were all college kids, older than I was at the time – I was about 20.”
All the college graduates coming to Quantico to become Marine officers influenced Cosby's commitment to pursue further education after he was discharged from the military.
“I knew I had to get a college education after I was through with the Navy,” he said.
In addition to performing all his duties as a corpsman, Cosby also found an outlet for athletics here. He participated, as a sailor, on the all-Marine track and field team.
“We had the best-looking sweat suits of all the other intramural teams,” he said.
While on the track team, Cosby was formidable in the high jump event, averaging a height of 5 feet, 11 inches every time he cleared the bar.
Some of his exploits on the track found their way into his comedy routines decades later, like on the 1969 album “Sports.”
“There's one about me running indoors – a quarter mile – and another about me jumping at Howard University in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Besides track and field, Cosby was also a trainer for the football team. He continued to participate in athletics after his transfer to
Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he played basketball.
Although he enjoyed all the normal privileges a service member is entitled to in the Navy, Virginia in the 1950s was not the friendliest climate for black people. Cosby can personally attest that, even when in uniform, many times he would be refused to be seated at restaurants and other establishments outside the base.
“What I found was that I was not safe even with my uniform from racism and prejudice once I cleared the base,” said Cosby.
Many of his white acquaintances reacted with outrage when he was refused admission into a restaurant, Cosby said. But he acquiesced to the bigotry inherent in Virginia state law at the time. He didn't want to make trouble for his fellow sailors.
But he even found a way to use the discrimination to his advantage.
“I could get a hamburger from this place if I went around back,” he said. “I was hungry and wanted a hamburger. My friends all went inside to eat. I went around back, and there was a black woman. She said, ‘What do you want, darling?' I said, ‘Ma'am, I want a cheeseburger.' She said, ‘Honey, you want some fries?' This woman came back and said look, ‘I'm going to make you two of them and charge you for one.'”
After that, Cosby's white friends regularly had him get their food
at half price.
“A lot of that stuff was just stupid,” he said.
Cosby's stint at Quantico was followed by a tour of duty at Bethesda, then later another assignment near Naval Station Norfolk, where he honorably ended his obligatory service.
By USMC LCpl. Lucas G. Lowe
Marine Corps Base Quantico
Reprinted from Marine Corps News
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