I was completely unslung. Disconnected. I was isolated before, sometimes I seemed even to enjoy it. I never understood it. But I knew I was somehow “alone” even in the middle of a loud bunch.
Sometimes I felt nutty. Sometimes just stupid. Like how could I flunk out of school, who had never had any problems in school? I was supposed to be some kind of prodigy (I never understood why). I could read early, they said, and I had some kind of early verbal skills. I even won a spelling bee in grammar school during the summer program and that was in the paper. The news of scholarships in the colored papers. The Gettysburg Address in a boy scout suit, etc.
But now I didn’t know what to think. I’d flunked out of school. All the people I knew were in school. The old Cavaliers and Hillside Placers, where were they? I didn’t even know how I would relate now. I had been shot so full of yellow. Pumped so full of middle-class fakery. That was my partial perception though I certainly hadn’t raised it to the theoretical level. I was going on touch and sound and smell, moving on vague feelings.
I came back home but didn’t go out. I had to do something. I didn’t think I could be walking Newark’s streets when I was supposed to be in school, and I couldn’t even explain it. What had happened or what I felt. I talked to a few people. Maybe if I’d gone back over to New York, something else would’ve happened. But I didn’t think that. That was all too vague for me. I didn’t even have an understandable pattern.
So, for some reason, I joined the air force. I did. It sounded weirder and weirder all the time. But in those few days that all this went down, I justified it. It was something I could grasp at some level. It was escape.
The streets, the thoughts of Howard, pressed me. I didn’t know what my parents thought. My grandmother. My sister. Relatives. I never thought clearly about it, I just acted. That was how I could get away, get off these streets, disappear again, and be somewhere other than being stared at by people who were putting together their own explanations of what had happened to me.
So I went down to Broad Street to the recruitment station. The common (dumb) understanding among the young college-age youth was that the army was shit but the air force was OK. Who started that lie need to be … but maybe it ain’t a lie, or probably the thing should go, the army is shit and the air force is, too.
Going down there and waiting, then standing amid those strange unrelated kids unnerved me too. I had no idea of what that would be. I looked around the room quietly, depressed more than I had ever been because it seemed now suddenly as if I was being swept down the sewer or something. I could see no recognition in any of the other faces. They probably saw none in mine. A practiced observer would have seen pain in mine, though. I could not see pain in the other faces, just reaction to the various subdued stimuli.
We had to take an oath. We were quiet, unconnected, a few kids mumbled. We were taken to a bus; I’d brought a few clothes. When I’s told my immediate family, I didn’t think there was any undue concern I could see. But my grandmother told me to take care of myself. That whatever I did, do it the best way I could. My mother looked sadder than most times I’ve seen her. My father grabbed my arm and said write, let us know how you’re doing and where you are. My sister looked tearful. And I’d gone down to where the swearing-in was.
When the bus pulled out, rolling through grey Newark, I remembered it was the day before my twentieth birthday and the city was quickly behind us.
Sampson Air Force Base was cold, grey, ugly, resembling nothing but empty hopelessness. No one sang “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.” Pat O’Brien did not greet us (or maybe he did). Nor was there any other memorable background music, though later that was taken care of. I was in basic training now. We went through the usual — the haircut, the giving up of our clothes, the issue of fatigues and uniform and other equipment. For weeks we would be trained to be in the air force. I was there from October until just before Christmas.
What was most impressive about the service and especially basic training was how quickly any self-esteem was erased and with what dispatch one was transformed from Mister Whoever to nobody at all. And for me having fallen from the great yellow tower of upward to everything (admittedly a lie, but that was known only partially at that time by me) to the ground of least concern was a rude jolt to my tender sensibilities.
The class and caste shaping that the Capstone gives tells you you’re somebody great even if that caste and class madness is beating your ass with its open and implied exclusion every day. I mean you can know that the little yalla boys and girls or the med and dent students are “igging” you and be igged and conscious (to the degree you are conscious) of it, but still because you are even permitted to let that house slave artifaction pass gas in your face (AS TRAINING, BOY, TO READY YOU FOR THE WHITE FOLKS) you feel like somebody special. Some extra-cool Nigra passing through the streets of yon ghettoes. We were permitted to float a sixteen-millionth of an inch off the ground — of course we thought it was slightly higher — as chosen Negroes of the yalla god. But bam whap mash like Jack Palance as the mad magician fell out of the tower to show he was not God (God was with Paul Newman and them) we were dashed to the hard ground by some social mishap like this. Was that what my grandfather and them felt like, having been thrown out of the nigger bourgeoisie all the way to the lower middle class? I see. It’s rough, as Conrad Lynn would say. Rough!
Because now I found myself in crowds of people going nowhere. Or being rushed to someplace where you then had to wait for hours. For what? Nothing you would like or give a shit for. You were always standing with groups of boys your own age, black and white, not knowing what was going on. Having to do things thought of by what dumb motherfucker? (You might think that if you could raise up enough energy to put such an edge on!) Mostly you just dragged to the next place. Submitted to the next indignity, colorless and dull. You were herded and crowded and pushed and pulled and talked stupidly to and disregarded or harassed.
At first we were just run around and walked around and only a few deadass directions, “instructions,” were given to us. It was definitely a kind of punishment. You got that early, if you were awake. It was a penalty — everything, walking, running, standing, waiting. The only humor provided those first days, except the jokes we began to make after we could feel at least our common lot, was the food. Eating was funny! I mean you sat and were confronted suddenly with this stuff. You would turn and look at some dude you didn’t even know and he would be looking back at you, at first shyly, then after a few of these displays and performances, more casually, and grin. The grin got wider. In a week, there was laughter. Not gay, not grim, but a nervous release. An alternative to the banal pushing and standing and waiting and rushing to nowhere that went on otherwise.
“Like what is this shit?” we would whisper finally. “Have you tasted this shit? Wow!” I think this conversation went on initially among the most sensitive and intelligent. That’s how we could tell each other. Some others would just keep their head down and ladle it in. But that was something else that was at least for me part of the penalty that the “army” is. You can find some motherfuckers in the service dumb as their surroundings, dumber than the chairs and tables. The table could get up and leave some of them there holding the food. Naturally, on the food trip, the blood relation was strongest because the food was also not only bad but the complete opposite of their national cuisine. Tasteless, bland, gravyless. You could pour a ton a salt on some of the shit and it would suck it in like the Blob. So they would grumble and talk shit about it first, rolling their eyes at each other.
After a couple weeks of being walked and run and dragged around we got to recognize a few faces among us (a few had come in together) and we’d venture some exploratory phrases. It is the same general process, I guess, in any structure of society at any level. How the herd gets sectioned off. How friends are made, acquaintances. Sometimes you can only get close to some people in situations like the one you meet them in. In any other situation, you might not have anything to say to that person at all. It was like that for me in Barringer, Central Ward, Howard, and now the process was unfolding again at Sampson Air Force Base, Geneva, New York.
In situations which are ostensibly mixed like the service, you can also see the national character define the various groups that form. And within those national forms, regional forms, the culture pinpointing itself. So for the most part the blacks hang out with the blacks, the whites with the whites, and northern and southern contingents of each larger group also tend to hang together.
In basic I found myself with bloods from South Jersey mostly, for some reason. Dudes from Camden and Trenton, mostly black dudes looking for a way off the streets. Trying to keep out from under the final bust. Seeing in that air force blue some trace of sky that they might get away in.
So the friend, acquaintance, “buddy” it’s called in the service, thing gets hooked up like it always does. Around common experience (which might just be only the one you find yourself in then), common desires or understanding or even common misunderstanding. Certainly, most of us, after just a few weeks, knew we had made a terrible mistake to come in “this shit” and began the drawn-out mumbling and grumbling that goes on in the service as long as most of us are in.
In a couple of weeks whenever we were herded or whenever we would be run somewhere to wait (“Hurry up and wait,” we called it) I would be more and more with a specific group of dudes. I guess another collective formed basically for defense and commiseration. You had to have somebody (if you were at all well) to talk bad about the shit to and to hear them talk bad about the shit. So that you knew you were still alive in the world and not in some hell of your own imagination.
We were not nationalists but we thought white dudes mostly presented a problem. They were the ones in power, in authority, or that wanted to act like they were. They were the ones who would give you the most hassle even if they were just Airman Nostripe, Airman Basic like ourselves. Though some, obviously, were better than that. For the most part the black troops, while not looking for prejudice or racism or bias or any bullshit and not carrying an excessively large chip on their shoulders, would invariably come to face all that bad shit just by being somewhere alive.
The service itself is such bullshit that the white noncoms and officers because they are the face of that authority, the “reasoning” behind that structure, are identified with it and are responsible for its stupidity and ugliness. What mitigates that somewhat is that there are white boys in there, too, catching hell and complaining just like us, and the louder they complained the closer we’d be to them. But the ones who thought the shit was good or correct or to be obeyed to the letter we thought of as simple-minded shitheads and said they better keep their ass over the fuck where they was and away from us.
Roy and Henry were two dudes that I got closest to. Two black dudes with conked heads (which the people made them cut out) straight out of the Camden ghetto. Roy never played nothing, no sports or anything, just cards. He was one of those dudes that wore a chain with his fatigues from his belt into one pocket, looped like he had on a zoot suit. He rolled his fatigue pants tight on the bottom so the knees would droop and take on a draped look. The dude always carried a knife no matter what the activity. He was a nice smiling cat could talk shit with the best, but he was not to be played with.
His man Henry (they had known each other on the streets and agreed to come in together to escape a bust for something) was a tall straight athletic dude with a short fuse. When Roy went off, death was imminent. Henry was always going off and threatening people. Plus thay had a few dudes they walked with, actually we walked with, from down around that neck of the woods. A big fat dark dude who cracked jokes all the time and was always getting into trouble with the training instructors or somebody. I think his name was Humphrey. No, that wasn’t his name. We called him Humphrey cause that was a big fat dude in Joe Palooka comics. Humphrey didn’t like to be called Humphrey. Sometimes we called him Humph when we were in normal relationships; sometimes we called him Humph when we wanted to bruise his gigantic ego (Humphrey thought he was strong); or when we wanted him to go crazy, on anybody but Roy and Henry who he had the good sense not to mess with, we’d call him, very sweetly, Humph rey, Oh, Humph rey! and he would chase us.
But I think I was quieter and silenter than I had been on the outside. That’s my recollection. I would joke and make fun and advance the sardonic perception I’d grown up with to punctuate our collective perception of the joint, but I was quieter, more internal now. I don’t think I was quite as loose-lipped as at HU, though I still had an acid tongue. Maybe because it was a different crowd, with reality mashed down on us like an elephant big as the sky. Our illusions were different — they could not be the hysterical yellow-feather brand the Capstone gave out. They were more cautious, less advertised (by us). I cannot say we were illusion-free, otherwise we would not have been there in the fourth motherfucking place.
We were orphans in the storm, come from our various other illusions to this nowheresville way up in the north woods. They called it the Finger Lakes region. The closest big city was Rochester and we couldn’t go there until much later in our basic training. It was very cool when we got there and in a couple of weeks it was cold as hell. Thanksgiving Day 1954 I sat huddled in front of a fake airplane in the middle of a storm, practicing guard duty. As I sat there, completely invisible under the blinding torrents of snow, I thought I had reached the absolute bottom, the nadir, of my life. I thought I was being tortured. In this freezing dismal place I stood freezing for what reason? Why? It was a payback for my stupidity and lack of seriousness. I’ve never felt sorrier for myself.
We were out on bivouac during the storm, so when I was relieved of guard duty to eat I came back into the general bivouac area and hundreds of us squatted in the snowstorm and ate cold turkey under congealed gravy. Happy Thanksgiving, you dumb motherfuckers, everything seemed to be saying!
We lived in open-bay barracks and slept in double-decker bunks with our footlockers, in which we had all our earthly possessions, at either end of the bunks. Henry and I bunked together, Roy right next door and Humphrey on top of him. We had a little ghetto right in the barracks, though there were other bloods sprinkled around as well.
Those first weeks we rose at 03:27 when it was jet black outside and the wind raged. We staggered into the latrines to wash up — some dudes never changed their underwear — then made up our beds and lined up for the first quick inspection. Then marched off toward the mess hall (certainly an accurate name) to grin at the catastrophe of breakfast.
I developed a funny kind of reputation. I’m not sure what it was in toto but among the black troops I hung closest with, since I could always come up with some answer to the strangest phenomena which we encountered, they felt that was positive. I could understand certain terms and relationships, certain procedures, and would in turn translate the bureaucratese into direct black language. And the general obscurity, at a certain level, necessary to disguise the fact that the American Nightmare is what really exists, not no Dream, I could penetrate these dull surfaces because of my lightweight education and brown training up off the common streets. Roy said one day, “It’s like having a goddam dictionary or encyclopedia with you.” And I took that as my greatest compliment.
The other half of that was problematic. I was cordial with most of the white troops around us. Basic was fairly transient, so some of the deeper conflicts I later experienced when I got to where I finally was going did not quite surface. But there was some square-head, bland-faced, sky-blue-eyed white boy from Mississippi who was describing something and said, “Nigger.” His name was Hall. But he apologized and said he was used to talking like that but was sorry. I didn’t even answer and he put out his hand. I walked away. And whenever he saw me he would color, turn red, and try to grin.
One of the dudes who came up with us, a tall husky blond Polish dude, was made an assistant flight commander of our training flight and he took it just the way he was supposed to. He became part of the structure and chugged along calling cadence when the TI’s let him, like he was high up in the shit. We just looked at him and then at each other and grimaced. There was some kind of disorder around something, somebody going in other people’s footlockers or a stinking white boy who was thrown in the shower with all his clothes on and scrubbed with scrub brushes and Octagon soap and Henry figured in it some way. In fact, the white boy, Stenkowski, had probably never liked the way Henry and Roy and I acted in the joint, we were so openly hostile to the system itself. From almost the moment we got in it we were trying to beat it any fucking way we could. And it was very obvious now that Stenkowski liked the shit, even more so now that he had been raised up in it.
So he said something to Henry and Henry told him he would cut his fucking head off and stuff it in the motherfucking toilet! He left Henry alone. He said something to Roy and Roy did not even answer, he cocked his eye up at him and slid his hand very slowly into his pocket. So the dude acted like he hadn’t said shit to Roy neither. He walked away.
But the next day at the morning inspection he comes over to me and I’m standing half asleep as usual and he says to me out in front of everybody, “Jones, why don’t you stand up and be a man?” He goes in my foot-locker next and uncovers from under the regulation bullshit Eliot’s Selected Poetry, Dylan Thomas, some other stuff. He holds the stuff up, the TI and his assistant are walking with him this morning. He says, “You like this stuff?” Holding the books up like his own dirty drawers.
I said simply, “Yes.” The TIs, a long thin-nosed Polish sergeant named Konuz and a short blond drunk whose name I never remembered, stepped over to look, grin, then toss the books back. Stenkowski meant to embarrass me or show the flakiness of one of the hated little trio — maybe disrupting the little defense group we’d hooked up. But those dudes knew I read “way out” shit. That’s all they had to say about it when I was reading it. But it was my business, and how otherwise could you be a dictionary or encyclopedia? Henry balled up his fist and showed it to Stenkowski and Stenkowski tried to let Konuz see it but Henry wasn’t no fool. Stenkowski had to move up into the special part of the barracks where the TI’s had their office. But I set a new base record for KP, pulling it some twenty times before we got out of there.
It was almost twenty-four hours of stinking labor. Report at two in the morning to the mess hall. Work till almost two the next morning. Throwing slop in the trays, washing the trays, moving the garbage cans, cleaning out the grease pit (a particularly nasty task reserved for the troublemakers), mopping and sweeping the floor, stopping only to eat and drink the coffee or Kool-Aid. All the time in that mess hall the jukebox is playing. In those days the country and western tune “I’m in the Jailhouse Now” kept playing; I almost wept. Or what about Patty Paige singing “We’ll Be Together Again”? It was deadly. And at the end of your day, completely covered with foul-smelling grease, dead tired, you’d wander back toward your barracks and fall out completely exhausted.
Before I got out of basic training I caught the crabs and didn’t even know it until I went on the one leave I got, going alone to Rochester and staying in a hotel, and they itched me so bad I took off my clothes and looked closely and was horrified — really my blood ran cold, I’d never been exposed to shit like that. Though most of the troops took it lightly.
I had smuggled a grey flannel suit and red belt and corduroy vest up in basic training. You weren’t supposed to have civilian clothes there. But somebody found my hiding place, I think it was the short, drunken assistant TI, and they got ripped off. I never went to town again because I’d have to wear the uniform. There was nothing in my life before or since like the feeling of hopelessness as I watched Staff Sergeant Konuz turn and step or teach us how to march or salute. In his nasal dead voice and water-blue sightless eyes. His starched pants and cap. His policeman’s coldness and casual racism and ignorance. He was my leader. I had to do what he said, what he ordered. But the days did pass, not fast enough, but they passed, they did pass. And I found myself going back home just before Christmas, with one stripe on my arm, having successfully completed basic training.
I was sent for some reason to Chanute Air Field in Rantoul, Illinois. I was to be enrolled in weather school. Their aptitude tests said I was supposed to be a weatherman. A radiosonde operator or rawinsonde operator to be exact. Which meant I was trained to send helium-filled balloons aloft and, looking through an instrument like the surveyor’s transit, chart the airspeed and direction, air temperature and pressure. I was supposed to work at a weather station or at an airport, going out to check the little white weather shack with its latticed sides and slanted roof. (You can see these little white shacks at airports out near the runway.) I didn’t mind this idea really. Weathermen in the air force had weird kinds of hours. You usually worked three days on, two days off, or something like that, so it was not the normal nine-to-five day. The three days you worked you stayed out at the airport or at the weather station and didn’t go home and sometimes you would be at out of the way places, Greenland or the Azores or somewhere wild. It seemed OK to me. Even the isolation, though I did not want to go to Greenland. Thule, Greenland! But then, that was so legendary that I wouldn’t even have minded that. But that did not happen.
There were only whites in my training squadron now. And some of the others, maybe all of them, had some college. I guess that’s why they’d chosen us for weather school. And I guess that’s why there were no other blacks in that squadron. And in some ways it felt like Barringer again. And, Jim, that part of Illinois is a crime in itself. Flat and hostile, like the real South crept up on you. Southern Illinois: towns like Kankakee, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur. Stuck halfway between Chicago and St. Louis. (When I could I started to go to Chicago every weekend and stay at Kurt’s house and roam around the South Side near the University of Chicago.)
But that was a strange place altogether, and for me especially. The dead of winter, in little wooden barracks heated by coal furnaces. (It turned out later, in a heavy scandal, that the brother of the commanding general owned the coal company, which is why the base heating system had never been converted. Meanwhile they had one of us per barracks each week keeping the coal furnaces stoked, and if we let them go out we’d get court martialed.)
The same disconnection and isolation characterized my stay at Chanute. And the first days were even worse, certainly now that I was just among white dudes again. As isolated and lonely as I might feel among bloods, to be the lone spot in the buttermilk is totally a drag. You have to assume a whole other character, just to communicate! You must speak a different language, adjust culturally, stay at a point of tension in which there can be no real relaxation.
Before our first test I went into the latrine and studied the materials. The next day I got a perfect paper, 100. It was pronounced with such weightiness the entire class looked around at me; I was surprised, but better, it made me feel somewhat restored after my heavy defeat in school. Maybe I was not totally stupid.
After that there were a few white guys who’d come around the bunk to check up on why I’d gotten that perfect paper. A blond jock with a perfect German crew cut, a good-natured All American named Van Allison. Two ex-college dudes, one the hypertypical Ivy specimen, University of Maine, named Kreeger, and a short swarthy guy from the University of Maryland named Voster. (Hey, were all these guys German or something?) Kreeger, Voster, and I did some running close by the base. A few bars. We kept up a more or less steady conversation, though as I said, my conversational form had retreated somewhat. Kreeger had the classic “Princeton cut” and wore plain toes, grey flannel slacks, and blue button-down oxford shirts with the sleeves rolled up. He had a real Maine accent and was really a nice guy. He’d gotten tossed out for something and his obsession seemed to be to get back into the Ivy. Voster was a self-proclaimed intellectual, wanted to be a science major of some kind. I don’t know how he ever got into the air force. (But then I don’t know how I got in either, now!) It was a funny trio when engaged. Kreeger, off-the-top Ivyisms; Voster, deep mock-probing philosophical; and whatever the fuck I was then. That was a college-type intellectual hookup, but bright enough and interesting in that context.
Later, I ran into a guy named Strassbaugh (another German?) who was in another squadron. He was the first hip white boy I met. Strass liked jazz and talked like a blood. He wanted to play saxophone and always talked about it. He was always looking for someplace to practice. And the “squares” and “farmers” that made up a large part of our companions in arms constantly drove Strass to distraction. He was always cussing out some “farmer” or “square” and I was one of the only dudes I ever saw him with. Strass couldn’t stand Voster. “Little square cat!” But Kreeger was all right though Strass was always raising one eyebrow at some of Kreeg’s Ivyisms. Strass and I went into Champaign-Urbana looking for music one night, like trying to ice skate in Death Valley.
There were two bloods I knew fairly well. One, a guy from one of the maintenance squadrons, was in the mold of my running buddies in basic and Hillside Place. But he got further advanced in training and was gone in a minute. The other guy was really out. I met him one time at the University of Illinois library, where I started going from time to time. I even started taking a couple of courses, General Psychology 1 and 2, and got good grades. We walked back to the base talking. He was carrying a thick Dostoyevsky under his arm, The Brothers Karamazov. I never saw him without that.
John Karamazov (I’m lying about his last name) saw me coming toward the library a few days later and the maintenance brother was with me, Jerry, in his civvies, which were bright as tomorrow. Karamazov and I, of course, were dressed in less color — in honor of our training. We were headed for the university’s weekly movie showing which some of the base intellectuals would make and John leans over and whispers in my ear, “Who is that person?” referring to Jerry. He was lucky I didn’t tell Jerry or he would’ve found out. But that’s the kind of guy John was. He was slender and stiff, he wore sweaters then but later he was always in a suit.
John became very wealthy later in New York, after an early fling at a respectable bohemianism. I think he married four different white women and was last heard of (by me) living in a penthouse on Park Avenue (he’d made money in advertising, one of the first black advertising agencies), but rumor had it at last hearing that he’d lost his bux. But then he was roaming around in southern Illinois in the error farce too. I never found out why.
The weather squadron I was in had a strange collection of types. But, thinking about it, I’m wondering why so many Germans? Aside from the friendly dudes I mentioned, there was also a straight-out Nazi. Not just philosophically, this guy had been a glider operator in the goddam German army, the goddam Luftwaffe. Now he was becoming an American citizen. I guess, if you can’t beat ’em, etc. His name was Helmut Meisler and he sat on his bed, mostly, shining his boots and writing letters. He came on like he was intelligent, but with no real evidence except what came out of his mouth as assertion. And that was just irritating. Stiff and blond, be looked and sounded like a fucking Nazi, though he never said any out of the way shit, to me.
But he did get people up in arms about some anti-Jewish shit he’d said, in his usual “I can smile it’s so obvious” manner, to this guy named Lewis Felzer, a thin spider-skinny blond Jewish boy. Meisler had said that yes, Jews were inferior, he believed it, and Germans superior. I didn’t hear this directly, but they were all ranged around the barrack when Strassbaugh and John and I come in from somewhere. Meisler had just said this and he’s continuing to polish his fucking boots. People are standing around him, not quite menacing but very very interested in the statement. A Dutch guy, an ex-pilot in the Netherlands air force, is sitting watching, his pipe in his mouth. He wore Dutch pilot’s wings. Meisler wore glider operator’s wings. A wild set. Kreeger and Voster were also there standing. Voster, it turns out, was indeed Jewish, a German Jew. And he’s working himself up, like wringing his hands. And Felzer is wide-legged, agitated around the mouth, his eyes like spinning around in his skull. But Meisler’s talking normally, matter-of-factly. “I told you what I think is the truth. There’s no reason for anyone to have to believe it.”
Voster was trying to agitate, but he really didn’t know how. Kreeger tells me what’s happening. John makes a noise, blowing air out his mouth with his tittering little laughter. (John didn’t really like white people, or I should say white men, though he emulated the shit out of them. But to him it was funny!)
But I sure as hell knew how to agitate, that was my trade, it turns out. “Well, how come if you superior, everybody kicked y’all’s ass?” says I from the back of the almost crowd. The light laughter broke the spell. Meisler turns and looks at me, smiling.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “But how do you know you have?”
“You in the goddam American army. You surrendered and then joined the conquerors.” Felzer hadn’t said anything. He just stared at Meisler like he couldn’t understand what was being said.
“But I was not making a speech.” Meisler still did not look irritated. He was smooth. In wartime I would have killed him immediately. “And certainly I was not talking to you.” That was as aggressive as he wanted to make it. But it was OK with me if he took it even further out, but I knew he wouldn’t.
At this point Strassbaugh says in the loose singsong of the white bebopper, “Say, man, why don’t you carry that square-ass shit back to the Third Reich or whatever that shit was called. We got enough problems over here as it is without no goddam Nazis. Shit!” Strass had said it like he was talking to an annoying security guard who was stopping him from getting into Bop City or something. Squares and farmers were always doing something to Strass.
The crowd had indeed formed, thickened would be the word. Our words had drawn the others together and they stood glaring a little at Meisler, who now returned to polishing his shoes. After a while he said, “I’m not going to say anything else.”
Later we tried to get Felzer to bounce one of those metal bunk legs off Meisler’s head but Louie was still quiet and just generally drugged that the shit had even come up. Voster told us the guy was sick. Kreeger agreed but also agreed Felzer should bounce something off his head. It was discussed briefly that maybe somebody else should. Strass said he’d be glad to but we thought it wasn’t a cool idea. Meisler never said anything else I heard, not even good morning, the whole time we were there.
I would go up to Chicago as often as I could on the weekends. A bus from Rantoul up to Chicago, or the train. The train was better. I might walk up under the El and check out the loud blues life. I went to see T-Bone Walker one night at the Crown Propeller. Kurt a couple times had some people over and he introduced me to some. We talked, the two of us, about Howard. The semester before was his last one and he was trying to figure out what law school to go to. But I also ran a lot by myself as I was wont to. I snaked through the South Side and up to near North.
One time I was drifting around the South Side, near the University of Chicago, feeling alone, as usual, isolated, as usual, my usual emotional stock in trade, and I bumped into this bookstore called the Green Door. It had a green door, and kind of orange plastic in the window so the sun wouldn’t ruin the books. I came to rest staring into the window. There were books there I didn’t recognize, a few I did. Like we’d had Portrait of the Artist my first year at Rutgers and I’d looked at it, but it was a school book and for that reason I didn’t take it seriously. Though parts of it vaguely fascinated me even then. A copy of this was in the window, and next to it Ulysses, the book opened to the first page so you could see the words “Stately plump Buck Mulligan” I stared at the words and tried to read them. I saw other books, Pound, Eliot, Thomas, philosophy books, art books, statistics, and poetry. Something dawned on me, like a big lightbulb over my noggin. The comic strip Idea lit up my mind at that moment as I stared at the books. I suddenly understood that I didn’t know a hell of a lot about anything. What it was that seemed to move me then was that learning was important. I’d never thought that before. The employment agency I’d last gone to college at, the employment agency approach of most schools I guess, does not emphasize the beauties the absolute joy of learning. That is what came to me. Cut off as I was from the artificial concept of education, I suddenly appreciated what real education might be. I vowed, right then, to learn something new everyday. It was a deep revelation, something I felt throughout my whole self. I was going to learn something everyday. That’s what I would do. Not just as a pastime, something to do in the service, but as a life commitment.
I went in and bought some books. Portrait of the Artist and Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. In a couple of weeks I bought Ulysses. But I went home this first time in a daze, having leaped past myself, to myself. All kinds of new connections yammered in my head. My heart beat faster; my skin tingled. I could understand now a little better what was happening. I needed to learn. I wanted to study. But I wanted to learn and study stuff I wanted to learn and study. Serious, uncommon, weird stuff! At that moment my life was changed.
Another month or so and I was leaving Chanute. I was glad, even though I’d met some people, but I did not see myself remaining too long in the flatlands of Middle America. Sometimes I felt like there were witches and devils out there. Plus every morning at about 4:30 the guy in charge of putting on the lights would throw them on and the switch was connected up with his own radio, which brought the “shitkickers,” as Strass called them, at us full burst. At that time of the morning most of the city boys were not interested in country and western.
But I had been elected class leader in weather training school because of the high marks I received consistently and one time Airman of the Month, for the academics, not the soldiering. I even began to look forward to tech school ending and being sent somewhere as a weatherman, with lots of time to myself to pursue my newfound cause of learning, something every day! However, they pulled a trick on me of sorts. As the highest-finishing airman in the class I was given first choice, along with a few others, of where I would be shipped, out of a group of bases that needed weathermen. The choices were right outside D.C., which I seriously considered. If I had done that, no doubt I would’ve gone back to Howard. Bermuda was also mentioned, plus Germany, Okinawa, and Greenland. But the one I wanted was Puerto Rico. Actually it was a tight choice between the D.C. base (Andrews AFB), Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. The enlisted man scam had it that “Puerto Rico was a country club — light duty and good weather, cheap prices and fine women.” Hey, dudes was saying, you need to take Puerto Rico. And that was that, my choice was Puerto Rico. “A country club.” But little did I know.
In choosing Puerto Rico I had then to sign up to go to gunnery school down there and become not just the normal weatherman but a weather gunner. That is, I had volunteered to fly in B-36 bombers as a rawinsonde operator as well as a “right rear gunner.” I hadn’t wanted to fly when I came in, my early romance of flying had slipped by. At a certain point most boys want to soar through the sky, at least in my generation. So even after they dropped this “volunteering” on me (to pay you back for thinking you could actually choose) I was not drugged because I thought, Hey, I’ll be flying after all. Even the gun shit was part of an old romantic image of tail gunners in the Second World War, chewing gum, cracking jokes, and firing at the enemy. But reality, my friends, is always something else again.
Plus, the “country club” that I’d signed for apparently was a country club. Or at least had been a country club until we got there. The gargoyles at Strategic Air Command had also heard the airman scuttlebutt about Ramey AFB and they were determined to do something about it. So they chose to start doing something about it the same time I got sent down there. Talk about some bad luck! (I wrote something about this in a play, A Recent Killing.) The same time I arrived and a few other guys from Chanute, perhaps even the same day, the SAC commander sent his son-in-law (rumor had it) Bertram Harrison, a thirty-eight-year-old “insane” brigadier general, to clean the joint up. It seems that Ramey had the highest venereal disease rate in SAC, the lowest efficiency rating on the mock bombing raids that SAC stages pretending to bomb large cities in the U.S. and other places. So Harrison was sent down to “gung-ho” the base back in line and make us the efficient trained killers we were supposed to be.
Interestingly, since there was no world war when I was in the service, the general aura I encountered might be something found only in “peace” time, but I think not. At least it seems that way to me from other stories I’ve heard about the so-called esprit de corps in wartime. If anything, it’s probably worse during wartime, when dudes think they might be getting killed for some bullshit they didn’t have anything to do with.
I could see, once I got down there, how Ramey could and probably was being run on the casual side. The standard work uniform was white tee shirt and blue jeans and either the regular fatigue hat or, if you were in one of the flying squadrons, a baseball cap in your squadron’s color. I was assigned to the 73rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, which was later changed to the 73rd Bombardment Squadron. We wore blue baseball caps, though I never had one. I always wore my fatigue hat. (Except, strangely, there is a photo of me with the rest of my crew — the first crew I was on, N-45 — standing with the rest of the troops with a baseball cap. But I don’t remember owning one. I always wore my fatigue cap. Maybe it was borrowed for the flick. Or maybe it’s not even really a baseball cap?)
Puerto Rico was the first permanent base I was assigned to. My first permanent assignment (it turned out to be my last). Before I went down I was given a short leave and I went home. I remember going to Steve Korret’s house in the Village. He had a new wife now, Charlene, a beautiful dancer — she’s now a slightly older but still beautiful novelist. We talked and he introduced me to various people, white and black, streaming through his house. (Or maybe this was after I had already gone to Puerto Rico for a time and then come back on leave. I’m not quite clear.) But I remember talking to a white painter named Norman who painted strange unconnected quasi figures that had mystical significance. A tall black woman painter, Virginia. A short dark man, a poet whose name was Karl. At any rate the visit I remember, Steve and his wife had to leave and left me there. I was reading something. I was leaving from his house directly for the airport and thence to Puerto Rico. I was sitting alone reading and musing, then I looked at the time and I had to go, if I was going to catch my plane. I put the book down. My duffelbag, packed full, was standing in the corner. I made ready to leave. I grabbed the bag and went to heave it up onto my shoulder as I had done many times before. But this time I couldn’t move it! The duffelbag would not budge! You’ll say, it was psychological. You didn’t want to leave. Your mind was playing tricks on you. Be that as it may, I couldn’t move the bag. I strained to get it up onto my shoulder and it would not move.
I panicked for a minute, then sat down. My hands were shaking! I said, out loud, I’ve got to pick up this bag. I’ve got to get back to the base or I’ll be AWOL. I went on cajoling myself, pleading with myself, and finally I tried again and the bag came up easily. I hefted it up to my shoulder and went out the door, down the stairs, and got a cab to Idlewild Airport.
Because Ramey was a permanent base and a big SAC base, I met a buncha people. And they were from the various classes and sectors of the base. One thing, if you are at all serious about understanding this country, arrogantly called “this society,” you’ll see after any close investigation how absolutely structured according to class and caste it is in all areas. Nothing, no piece, of U.S. life escapes! It is a class society in every nook and cranny of its total existence. Its material base and its ideas. Its economic foundation and its institutional and ideological superstructure. And this was clearer to me in practice than it ever was in theory until very recently. I always dealt with it as it came up, as I had to or was able to deal with it (just like you!) but I didn’t always call it anything. But as I got older I recognized it more and more clearly for what it was, class and caste divisions. The rich the middle the poor. The white the light the brown the black. Everywhere in you, America!
At Ramey, since I was in a flying squadron, I was again with mostly whites. The flying squadrons were the “high-class” groups on the base. Certainly the service makes all these things more obvious than ever before. There were officers and noncoms then enlisted men. That was the basic class structure, the fundamental hierarchy of the joint. And these were in all the squadrons, but the flying squadrons were tops, the upper class. Then came the maintenance squadrons and within that division there were divisions. Then underneath the maintenance squadrons the air police, then motor pool, then cooks or food service. Most of the blacks and other nonwhites were in food service, the motor pool, or maintenance. Only a few were in the flying squadrons. And this made some of the ones who were in them mad as all outdoors. Like the yellow madness of my childhood grew up and gone to college — now gone and joined the air force! I remember one Negro who never spoke to or was ever seen with any blood the whole time I was on that base. All he did was ride his motorcycle and sometimes ride his motorcycle with some white boys who rode motorcycles. I met the dude and he wasn’t a bad dude, he was just crazy. He even talked like a white boy. But not the pursed lip stiff jaw of the academic white imitator. This guy “towked” like a working-class white boy from the Northeast. It amazed me. And even when the other bloods on the base would say funny things about this dude I would tell them (though I hadn’t penetrated it down to theory level) that the dude was a nice cat, he was just out of his mind! I guess he talked to me because I was in a flying squadron too.
So again the relationships I developed were somewhat complex. I had friends, a lot of them white, in the flying squadron I was in as well as in the 60th Bomb and 301st Bomb. The 73rd, as I said, had blue baseball caps, the 60th red baseball caps, and the 301st yellow baseball caps. Dudes in other bomb squadrons I knew because we would go to gunnery school together or target study (studying Russian cities from aerial photos so you would get familiar with the cities you were going to bomb from high up in the air). We sometimes went to embarrassing harassings like so-called Character Guidance. Where they would march us down to the theater and teach us how to be good airmen and stop getting venereal disease, etc.
So I got to know guys from the different flying squadrons, but especially gunners and other weather gunners. There was a little group of white weather gunners I hung with, and other crew members. They were mostly good guys, young like I was, some younger, naive about life and brash enough not to give a shit too much about our racial and national distinctions. They were the kinda guys who talked about “roaring into town.” They’d go steaming off the base and get staggering, falling-down, singing drunk and not even know where they’d been the next day. That was one group and sometimes I’d be with them puttin’ away watered-down beer like there was no tomorrow and cracking stupid jokes. These were the kinda guys they mighta shown in the war movies but not corny like that. Burke, a French Canadian from up in New England. Reilly, a big redfaced Irish lad from Boston. Goodsen, a freckled-faced all-American Jew. Burset, a short, funny-grinning, perpetually joking and staggering Welsh American who aspired, he said, to the heaven of perpetual drunkenness. We greeted each other with shouts and there was always pushing and patting and horsing around. These guys were all good soldiers, good airmen, but they liked to have a good time and many times that’s not possible playing war.
Another group was formed really around the painter, William White, a black dude from North Carolina. He was a weather gunner in the 301st and always wore the yellow baseball cap. Tall, introspective, and serious, White had a barracks room full of paintings when I first met him. He later went to New York to continue painting after first going to Howard, even though I warned him continually not to go to that sorry joint. Except my protestations must have seemed to him like a simple case of unrequited love. White became one of my best and closest friends in life. He died, still trying to paint, in New York, mixing methadone and whiskey.
But somehow one time I got to White’s room. Oh, yeh, I’d met him in gunnery class not long after I came to Ramey. He’d come a little earlier. And the incident that brought us together was when some dude, a fat young white farm boy from Colorado I had known at Chanute (in fact it was he, Bodey, Clifton Bodey, who was in charge of snapping on the lights and hence the shitkicking sounds there in Illinois), pulled my chair out from under me one day in tech school, apparently thinking to make an impractical joke. I wheeled on his ass and fired right into his face (not a gun but my bony brown fist). He staggered backward, a big question mark on his face. I said, “You didn’t think I could hit that hard, did you?” Really, at a loss for words myself and half expecting him to make a sudden counterattack. For sure he hadn’t gone down and one of the old bits of folk wisdom I remember has always said, if you throw your best and they don’t go down it’s time to get in the wind. But Bodey only pulled himself up straight, other dudes in the class laughed, and White was among them laughing his ass off into his hands.
I guess Bodey was too surprised to do anything. He said some things designed to give battle but since he just didn’t charge and start throwing me on my ass (he must’ve outweighed me by about a hundred pounds) nothing happened and as it turned out Bodey and I never really became enemies, in fact he was closer to me than a lot of people. Because in a few months he had married a Puerto Rican prostitute about ten years older than he was (he was eighteen) and a lot of the dudes made fun of him for it, especially the white Southerners.
After that I would go to White’s room a lot, since I had weird roommates. We bunked three in a room, if you were lucky two, and all of that was considered luxury. The luxury of the flying squadrons since all the other squadrons still lived in open bay barracks. I think my first roommates were Bodey and a white guy looked like Steve McQueen, named Cooper, from somewhere in Tennessee. Cooper was a buck sergeant (three stripes), Bodey and I two stripes (airman second class). Cooper was the classic taciturn Southerner, probably filled with all the prejudice of that particular specimen but with the quiet dignity that made acting nasty about it impossible. Bodey was loud and wrong, naive and corny as the little Colorado farm he’d come from. He was every stereotype you could think up and more. He collected gun magazines and motorcycle magazines and girlie magazines (Cooper read these last ones too on occasion) but had nothing to do with guns, motorcycles, or women. He claimed to know all about cars and eventually he did get one, he got a motorcycle too (so did Cooper), and when Cooper finally shipped out going to another base I left Bodey there with a wife who spoke very little American and no English at all and two kids, one on the runway and one in the hangar (in airman talk), a stranger in a strange land, completely ignorant of reality.
So I had to go to White’s room to hang out when I wasn’t on the drinking bouts with Reilly and Burke and the others. White had collected a weird little group around him. They were mostly black though there was one white dude who hung around us, Vincent, a pudgy almost feminine Italian dude from the Bronx, with skin so white he looked like he never got in the sun even though we were in Puerto Rico. There was also an almost blond-haired Chicano dude named Lopa who looked like a white boy even to the close observer. It was only when he talked that you could hear the lilting syllabics of his accent and it still always amazed me when I thought that Lopa was a Mexican. This got Lopa in trouble before he got off that base too. Once in a bar some “farmers” were talking bad about “spies” and “greasers” in the charming official speech of the white American, and Lopa was leaning against the jukebox staring right into their mouths. I think there were three of these farmers. It was in Aguadilla, the closest town to Ramey, but in a bar frequented by a lot of airmen. Lopa let them know he was Chicano and that he didn’t like what they said and that they were generally and unreconcilably full of shit. One guy went to throw on Lopa and Lopa cut him, across his face, sliced the shit out of him, leaving a scar, hideous and flaming, going from this farmer’s ear down to the point of his chin. Lopa did almost a year in the stockade for this shit and when he got out he still had to do that year again in the regular service since that was looked at as “bad time”! But it was great when we walked across the base together and we would see this little knot of Southerners approach us and we’d see the one Lopa had cut, marked this motherfucker up somethin’ terrible. Lopa would cut his eyes at the dude and smirk with utter contempt and the agitators in our group would cut the fool.
The most way-out dude in this group was Yodo. His real name was something else. And people were always startling us by calling him that name, especially if they said Airman Lambert, because Yodo hadn’t had any stripes (I think he might even have had three one time) in a very long time. Yodo’s full name was Yodofus T. Syllieabla — “the high priest of Swahili, the czar of yap,” he’d add, “and Phersona Figues is my pal.” Phersona Figues was another one of the group whom Yodo had named. He named every one of us, some odd name or another. Some of us he simply turned our names around. Like he would call me Yorel Senoj. White was Mailliw Etihw. Though he always called Vincent, Vincent, and Lopa, Lopa.
Yodo was absolutely committed to jazz, African American improvised music. His whole imaginative and creative life revolved around the music. You never saw Yodo without albums in his hands. Even during work hours. (He worked in the base dispensary.) White uniform and blue “cunt” cap, long striding somewhere. Yodo usually carried a cane, or some stick he’d fastened a plastic top to with a red ball or some such inside the top. He called the stick his “all-purpose” stick and named it too. The stick’s name was Anacronobienoid. He was great for holding dialogues with the stick whenever it suited him. Like he might say, after holding a conversation with one of us about something, “Well, Anacronobienoid, what do you think of that?” Or he might say, if he disagreed with something we’d said, “Anacronobienoid disagrees.” Or something. Once, a white noncom was giving Yodo a hard time about something and Yodo, without blinking, said, “Look, Anacronobienoid is laughing at you! Anacronobienoid thinks you’re a joke.” And he would stretch his eyes and make weird gestures with the stick. The poor noncom, rather than go on with it, just got in the wind.
Yodo was one of the funniest dudes I’d ever met. By the time I met him he’d been in the service about nine years. And during that time he’d floated around going from one base to another and reenlisting simply because he didn’t know what he’d be doing once he got out. Also, I think at one point he might have thought he could make some kind of career as a medical technician which he didn’t think was possible in New Orleans where he’d come from, and so he thought the service would give him a career then he could retire relatively young and just cool it. But he’d run afoul of the service, gotten into some trouble and had his stripes removed, and this had crushed him, though he never admitted it.
Yodo’s dialogue or sometimes monologue about the music was almost nonstop. He’d talk about Bud and Bird and Brownie and Monk. When he showed up at the door he’d swoop in with albums under his arm. On payday he’d buy whatever was in the BX, which wasn’t much, and immediately come over to White’s after work to play the side. He’d also write away for sides where possible. We’d play the sides and drink whatever was available to drink. Usually rum, since that was the cheapest in Puerto Rico.
Payday was only once a month, so that took on the character of a monthly bash, a big payday party. And much liquor and whatever else got bought. There was much going into town, usually Aguadilla, which was right down the road. Some would go further away to Ponce, Mayagüez, Arecibo, and the most ambitious would go all the way to the other end of the island to San Juan, usually by guagua (bus) unless you were a noncom or officer and had a car.
The music had always been a heavy part of my life, but Yodo raised it up in another way. Cut off as we were, and as he had been for so long, the music was a connection with black life. It was also a refuge, a way out of the agonizingly boring dreary white cracker-oriented service life, especially in Puerto Rico, where one felt even more cut off from the normal channels of American and African American life. One could not shoot up to Chicago on the weekends or Rochester. Airmen piled into the Puerto Rican cities whenever they could and there were places in Puerto Rico full of adventure, beauty, all kinds of pleasure, but despite all this you knew you were away from home, on the real side. And what’s more, stuck in some intolerable madness you now had almost no understanding of how you’d got sucked into.
We talked about that all the time. How silly we were, how dumb, etc., we had been to get hooked up in this bullshit. For one reason or another. Some without other opportunity. Some looking for a way out of a dead end situation. A way into a career. Adventure and excitement. The claim of manhood. There were many reasons, but at this point, none of them were satisfactory.
There were some guys in the air force who did dig it. I have to believe they were a minority. Though there were a good number who’d signed up to do long stretches, some even to do a whole twenty, to retire. But these people were strange to us. They were among the “lames” we identified casually, squares and cornballs, gung-ho freaks and warcats who made us squirm for their simple-minded pleasure. We would always get on Yodo about the fact that he’d re-upped and had been in so long. We called him the oldest airman basic in the service.
So White’s room became a kind of haven. And once Yodo and some of the others started showing occasionally at my room, which would send Bodey and Cooper out right smart, then sometimes we’d all gather in there for our record and booze and nonstop rap sessions. That was our basic life in the air force. We’d drink rum and play music and talk — project our desires or reminisce about what we’d lost or wanted people to think we’d had. And we became a kind of defensive unit for ourselves, a kind of salon.
White, of course, was the most serious painter. And when I first met him he was painting in mainly realistic style but occasionally veering off into surrealism. Later, in New York, under the influence of the abstract expressionists he developed a kind of surreal-abstractionist style that was very much his own. It was, of course, his nationality that slowed him down in his ascent in the world of fine art.
Yodo drew too, and painted some outright surrealistic pieces that revolved around the music. Bird with a duckbill Yodo named “Klacktovedisteen.” Yodo said the duckbill made a sound “klack klack klack,” which is why Bird called his tune “Klacktovedisteen.” He had a painting called In Walked Bud, after Monk’s tune. Yodo would enter the room sometimes, saying, “In Walked Bud,” and then dance in like Thelonious Monk danced next to his piano when the rest of the band was playing.
We met a couple of other guys in the air force who began to hang with us or hang with me. One was Jim Mitchum, from New York City, who walked around even then taking photographs. He was never anyplace without at least one camera. Jim Mitchum was kind of a snob and he talked in an exaggeratedly near “proper” style, which was funny if you thought about it. He’d been in the service a while and his speech was meant to impress you that he was not just your regular airman deuce (two stripes), that he was some kind of intellectual.
Phil Peakes was another photographer with the bunch. He was white, Jewish. Apparently from some pretty heavily endowed suburb of Boston. Phil also was kind of snobbish, though he was still young enough for that not to have completely got the best of him. He was the kind of guy who needed to be an intellectual to pull it off and at the time hadn’t got it all sufficiently together, so he was a mixture of nose up (he had a large one too) and nose regular. Phil and Jim and I would have the most openly arty conversations (according to our standards at the time), though on the real side Yodo and them were actually talking about some deeper questions, even casually.
Jim and Phil always felt slightly perturbed when Yodo was on the scene. And Yodo, sensing this, would pick at them in his not-so-subtle way. Having Anacronobienoid speak haughtily to them or chide them for their lack of knowledge about African American improvised music. Phil could cop by waving his latest acquisition, Glenn Gould playing the Brandenburg Concerto or the Goldberg Variations or some such. But Phil didn’t have such a heavy knowledge about that stuff either, not really. Jim would haltingly try to scoff at what Yodo might be asking, like for instance did he, Jim, like “Glass Enclosure” or “Un Poco Loco” best? Or who was playing drums on “Ornithology”? Or was he a Blakey fan (Yodo called him by his Muslim name, Buhaina) or did he dig Max?
Still, we were an enlarged salon and the contradictions inside that entity brought out all kinds of conversations and conflicts that were usually at least funny. We thought of ourselves as the base cognoscenti, the real hipsters or the base intellectuals, depending on what part of the group would be together. We all were unified by our hatred of the air force. Phil and Jim acted as if they had been kidnapped from their intellectual pursuits and now had been forcibly surrounded by unwashed idiots. Yodo, like Strassbaugh, thought there were too many squares, lames he called them, around the joint. And though he had re-upped before crossing our paths (and him losing his stripes) he confirmed that he would be leaving for good as soon as he could.
We had nothing but contempt for the “old soldiers,” especially those who remained in the service for security, what they called “three hots and a flop.” The sergeants who would counsel us that there was nothing outside for us, no jobs, no future, that we had better stay inside where we knew we had something going.
Something going? What? The fool, Harrison, was fanatical about trying to get all of us soldiering, like his brother-in-law wanted. He’d roam the base and show up without warning. He even came into my room one morning when I should have already been down at the flight line and scared the holy shit outta me. I thought it was my man JWT and I looked up at the one star on this guy’s cap like the one-eyed Cyclops and babbled some shit trying to get outta there.
To check the VD Harrison even started passing out negative awards. To the squadron with the highest venereal disease rate on the base, he would announce this honor at the Saturday parade. (We started having weekly parades, Saturday morning, in full class A uniform!) This squadron then had the honor of marching to work every morning at 07:00, complete with the base band marching in front of them. The band members despised Harrison because before the VD marches, they had it mostly made. An occasional parade or officers’ affair. But now they had to march every morning and play a full parade on Saturdays. We hung around with some of the band members, naturally. And they were death on Harrison.
The 73rd got the VD award one month and I think it really did cause some of the borderline VD cases at least to question the cleanliness of the choche before plunging in. I don’t think it mattered too much to the wilder ones. When they got the little scratch each month they’d go charging off the base and lay down with the first puta they saw. “Hey, GI! Two dollars short time four dollars long time!”
But, God, could that shit make you feel sorry for yourself! Not even light out, line up, atten-hup!, then some jive march music and go poking through the darkness down to the flight line. If you wanted to eat those mornings (that month you had the marches) you had to rise up still earlier. Though the food was so bad I changed my eating habits. A couple Sundays they had chicken in the mess hall and the shit was bleeding. Rare chicken! Sunday evenings they had some thick wet baloney. I gave it up. Found out I could get people’s salads and desserts in exchange for that bleeding chicken. So I became a vegetarian. I was always walking around the base with nuts and raisins in my pockets. The wildest thing about the mess hall was when the maintenance dudes would come in. Some of ’em didn’t want to wash up. You could see it especially on the white dudes (at least that’s what we said) and the sight of somebody eating a slice of white bread with the black greasy fingerprints all over the bread could take your appetite. It helped reinforce the elitist tendency our salon took on.
There were a couple other members of the Ramey Air Force Base Intellectuals Salon. Sid, a guy from Syracuse, who had gone to the University of Rochester, pre-med. He later got out and became a doctor. I guess he was drawn to some of us because we came on like intellectuals and I had gone to college. Jim to CCNY. Phil to Brandeis. Though we’d all dropped out for one reason or another. Sid was the kind of dude who smoked a pipe. He had a job in base supply or some such paper-pushing gig. Jim was in a maintenance squadron, open bay barracks, with the plebeians, and this bugged the hell out of him. “They’re ignorant of everything important,” he’d say. As stiff as an unused hardcover.
Another dude I got close to was a very short shriveled-up Jewish dude named Laffowiss. We called him Laffy, though he had usually a sad and forlorn expression on his face but it didn’t stop him from constantly making jokes. His favorite entrance was bent over pretending to have a cigar in his mouth or fingers like Groucho Marx. Sometimes Laffy would stand like that or slightly modified even in the presence of a noncom or officer. He was from the Lower East Side, old style. The Lower East Side that Mike Gold talked about in Jews without Money. He was the true mensch, son of the Jewish working class. Cynical, full of a crystal-clear sardonic humor that cut through the crass bullshit of the air force with ease. But like the rest of us he was always running into trouble because of it.
Laffy was always complaining about the air force cuisine. He missed the East European specialties that characterized the Lower East Side. He was always loudly wishing for smoked herring, or pickles, or pickled tomatoes, or whitefish. He was a nonstop questioner of everything. Slumped over, either pretending to be Groucho Marx or actually being Louie Laffowiss. He hung with us easily, laughing at us and with us and at himself. And the most common quality he had was an absolute and uncompromising hatred of the service, and the people who thought they were important because they had some kind of rank or status in it. Yodo and Laffy together would make a classic TV sitcom if TV was in the real people’s hands instead of the few gimlet nitwits that run it now.
I guess the salon — I’m calling it the salon now, but actually it was a defensive unit, a sanity-maintaining collective of aspiring intellectuals — taught us all something. We had the jazz foundation mixed with concern for the graphic arts — painting and photography — a couple of academics ensconced among us for laughs, and a few of us interested in literature. Laffy was a nonstop reader, as I had developed into being. The rest of the guys liked to talk about books; Phil and Sid were always talking about what they read. Jim always carried a book along with his camera. White read what he thought was serious and Yodo read Downbeat, Metronome, and any book on the music.
The high point of our salon structure came when I took a part-time job evenings in the library. The money was negligible, but I spent quite a bit of time in there. And when this big WAF, a sister from Texas, who was the day clerk, let me know there was a part-time job at night, I leaped at it. Joyce was about six foot two and I guess had some kind of undefined crush on me, but she was a good friend and earnest sister who’d gotten in the WAF to try to see the world. And she’d been to Europe and was now in Puerto Rico suffering under the shit like the rest of us.
The librarian was a little plump middle-aged career service librarian who saw that I not only knew how to run the library in the evening quickly enough but enjoyed being around the books, so she gave me the run of the place. In a month or so she actually let me order the books and see to the stocking of the entire library. We had a hurricane in ’55 and it blew every wooden structure on Ramey down and destroyed the town of Aguadilla. The rebuilt library was modern and even had a brand-new hi-fi set in it. The music library was mostly European concert music, but we were into that too. And for me it was really a learning period about this music and I was buying Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, trying to fill in my knowledge, so that between our own collections and the library collection we were giving ourselves a collective education.
So that was smooth. In the evenings, a group of us from the salon would go into the library. This was after hours and we had the whole building to ourselves. And we would read and bullshit and drink and listen to music turned all the way up. It was the closest thing to paradise we ever encountered down there. Years later I met a guy who had also gone through Ramey and he said he’d seen my name in a bunch of the books there, A/2C E. L. Jones.
But in every way, like it or not, pleasant or not, the service was my graduate school or maybe it was undergraduate school. For one thing, I began to keep a journal, a diary, of what was going on. I can’t find the thing now, though I guess it’s still around somewhere. But it was the pain and frustration of this enforced isolation that began to make me scrawl my suffering, to seek some audience for my effusive self-pity. As the journal went on it became more and more a listing of the various books I was reading. Because now, so completely cut off, I read constantly, almost every waking hour I wasn’t actively soldiering or bullshitting with the fellas. I began reading the New York Times — you could only get it Sundays — and at the time 75 cents was an exorbitant fee, but I paid it. And that in itself was an adventure because I had never had much knowledge of the Times and its presumptions.
The best-seller list became a kind of bible for me. I tried to read everything on it. I ordered through either the library or a book club, one of the “serious” ones, the Readers’ Subscription, which offered Joyce and Melville and James, etc. But I was in a very conscious and very agitated search for information, and it was focused more and more directly on literature. Later, I could see even how my handwriting changed in the journal. How it took on new shape and spoke of further comprehension and consideration of questions which before I could not have formed. I wanted to become an intellectual. It seemed, for some reason, that for me it was the only thing left.
The world of Howard University and its brown and yellow fantasy promise had faded, leaving a terrible frustration and sense of deprivation. That I had, through my own irresponsible acts, deprived myself of something valuable. I thought the sharp and relentless striving to become intellectual was the answer to this void. At some point I wanted to be back at Howard, at another point, and more and more consistently now, I was almost contemptuous of it and the people there, children. Though the constant self-pity I felt being there “among heathens” was an endless rebuke.
And then, on top of all this, I would actually, every once in a while, see some Howard people. Officers now. We were completely removed and separated from each other now. And the class realization I got from that, the class consciousness, was stunning to me. I could see that we were in different spheres. Of course I could not verbalize it as class, etc., but my perception of it as class, as a separation upheld by the society itself, was keen and staggering. Most of those Howard dudes who were officers in the air force simply avoided me. One I did meet at a base in the South and we talked in his room, and it was cold and frustrating. Our speech had been separated by reality. We no longer linked up. Our interests were different. I could hear the simplistic careerism. The prepared sheepdom of the readied-for-the-slaughter Negro pursuing his “good job” into hell itself. And “Who was I?” was going though my head. Who was I? Where did I fit in? Standing now on the side of the road as the select browns and yellows marched by heroically, triumphantly, toward that shaft of gold leaned out the sky to call them home to yalla jesus. Some calendar shit! I mean it reminded me of the somber glories of the calendars one got in funeral parlors right across the street from the yalla folks’ church.
There were a few black officers at Ramey. One was even on the same crew with me. N-45 “Not ready” was what the N meant. It meant we were a bunch of trainees, or ne’er-do-wells, or misfits. Gadsen, the Negro officer on that crew, was classic, I guess, though I never knew many of them well. He was dark brown but absolutely yellow in his aspirations and kind of brownish despite it all. He was a link with the past, in some sense, for me. I think he’d gone to Lincoln. He had a big blue car with a plaid top, a convertible, and was considered, by whomever, the most eligible black bachelor on the base. He was young, not much older than me, a second lieutenant, so he fit into the power structure in a commendable way, plus he was single and independent and could fly back and forth up the island pursuing what limited pleasures the island might offer to someone in the service. Though, for sure, we all surmised that those pleasures were much more than we would ever be exposed to. It was rumored that Gadsen always had one woman leaving the room as one was entering. And he enjoyed a kind of prestige among some of the base’s blacks, a mixed love-and-hate thing emotionally. But the white boys, ever cognizant of the caste-class structure of the real America, constantly made Gadsen the butt of their jokes, so he could not be too uppity, at least in their heads.
That was probably a weird position to be in, like the yellow/brown situation generally in the context of working for white America and somehow relating in some way to the rest of it, including black America. One fat first lieutenant, a yellow Negro straight out, got caught up in some weird stuff that socked it home to me, the sheepish quality expected of the careerist Negro. A fat white master sergeant got into a “game” being played by some of the younger officers near the flight line. They were tossing each other’s hats around, which was questionable in the first place, what with the Articles of War, the so-called RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges, the motto in the service that spells out the class structure of that society and U.S. society in general clearer than I’ve ever seen it elsewhere). But they’re tossing hats and fat Sergeant Mullarcy gets in it. Catches this black lieutenant’s hat and tosses it, but too far for one of the other officers to catch. The black officer tells him to pick up the hat and the fat sergeant refuses!
A guy stood me up in front of the barracks one day, a white first looie, and made me salute over and over because he didn’t dig the black salute (though Laffy saluted the same way). Black troops had a tendency to bend their heads sideways down to their hand when saluting rather than bringing the hand all the way up military style. This guy made me salute maybe twenty-five times until he was satisfied. I was determined in my sly way not to understand what he was talking about and went on saluting in the hot goddam sun and he stood there over me, the gung-ho sonafabitch! And it went on and on.
I knew what would have happened if I had just nutted out and refused to go through the saluting game. And at the end, I don’t think I’d really changed my salute, but he was satisfied that he got me some extra duty or extra harassment for taking such liberties. But the fat sergeant refused to pick up the hat. I was squatting in the corner with some other airmen watching. And there finally was some compromise, like somebody else picked up the hat. But why? Why hadn’t the officer just given the fat master an Article 15 or got one of his stripes? The fat sergeant was an old soldier, the yellow lieutenant, a short-timer, and probably in transition to his dentist’s office in a few years. But still, to me and the others that watched and heard of this, this was a clear display of the dickless stance such yellow status predicted.
But I never felt really part of all that. In it, I was, for sure, and it pained me like the great tragedies of my reading. And I began to scrawl my agonies into my journal regularly. My findings. The ideas that came out of the books. Proust and Auntie Mame. Hemingway and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. And Joyce, Faulkner, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Flaubert, Cummings, Lawrence, Pound, Patchen, Hardy, James, Balzac, Stendhal. I would read Bonjour Tristesse and Robert Graves in the same day. A book on Buddhism and The Communist Manifesto in the same afternoon. I enjoyed plunging into long books that I’d read were difficult to get through. The Proust and Dostoyevsky were glad tasks for me. I’d find an author and read everything of his or hers I’d find. Puerto Rico made that difficult, but being the night librarian aided this quest. And when I was given guard duty, which was always, I would squat out in the hot sun twelve hours trying to read clandestinely, because reading was not permitted during guard duty. Plus Harrison said we were to have nothing on display on our dressers or windowsills, so that after a while the books I began to amass had to be put inside my closet or otherwise stashed, though at times I got sloppy and put them on the dresser with a bookend like normal people.
I also began writing poetry more regularly. I’d written some light verse and some Elizabethan doggerel during my HU days, mostly hooked up with the doctor’s lady, Liz. But now I was more serious (though still not altogether) with what I was doing. I was at least trying to put down what I knew or everything I thought I felt. Straining for big words and deep emotional registration, as abstract as my understanding of my life.
At the Green Door, I’d also stumbled into the literary magazine. Accent, a small magazine from somewhere in Illinois, impressed me most. With the strange abstruseness of doctrinaire modernism heretofore unknown to me. “Pity Poor Axel the Spinhead” was the name of one story, author now unknown. I tried to penetrate its murky symbolism. The poetry also swept past me. I had since been getting the Partisan, Hudson, Kenyon Reviews, even Sewanee from time to time. I was getting beat over the head with the New Criticism and didn’t know it. I strained to understand, to find something for myself in those words. I read Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and plowed into all the fashionable literary McCarthyism coming out then, as my entrance and baptism into the world of serious letters. All the time a radio would be screaming in hillbilly at the top of its voice and drunken airmen would be clattering through the hall goosing each other in memory of the most recent puta they’d banged.
I’d say the irony of all this is what someone far removed might think of as “delicious.” The reality of my day-to-day air force life fairly terrified me — despite the collective resistance of our salon elitism. The daily grind of guard duty, or fortnightly “alerts,” fake missions announced by the screaming of hellish sirens which sent us scrambling down to the flight line and up into the very wild black yonder, were driving me up the wall, or at least to drink. Yet the reality from which I wanted to escape was replaced by my reading, which often was the most backward forces in American literature, teaching me the world upside down and backwards. But despite the New Criticism and the word freaks and the Southern Agrarians and Fugitive propaganda that I imbibed as often as I could as a supposed antidote to the air force, it gave me enough solid reflection on real life so that it had to change me. That and the service.
I began to send poetry out to these magazines. And unerringly in a few days, rejection slips would come in. I wish I had saved these. For a time I did, but they disappeared somehow. I got rejection slips from all the quality magazines and Accent and some others I dug up. The Saturday Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. They all showed the good taste and consistency to turn me down flat and very quickly. And these rejections only served to fuel the deep sense of despair, so ultimate and irreversible with a twenty-two-year-old. None had any use for my deathless immortal words but I kept trying.
One afternoon I had gone to San Juan by myself. I had found some places in Old San Juan I could walk around. They had a tourist section, fairly arty. There was a painter there named Juan Botello (a funny name) and I would go in his shop and walk around that area trying to get close to some professional art. I had the New York Times under my arm. I was in civilian clothes and I remember I was reading The New Yorker. I’d stopped at a bench and sat down near a square. It was quiet and I could see a long way off toward the newer, more Americanized part of the city, the Condado Beach section, where I could only go if in uniform, so they would know I was an Americano and not a native. I had been reading one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorkerpublishes constantly as high poetic art, and gradually I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was crying, quietly, softly but like it was the end of the world. I had been moved by the writer’s words, but in another, very personal way. A way that should have taught me even more than it did. Perhaps it would have saved me many more painful scenes and conflicts. But I was crying because I realized that I could never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to, but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry.
The verse spoke of lawns and trees and dew and birds and some subtlety of feeling amidst the jingling rhymes that spoke of a world almost completely alien to me. Except in magazines or walking across some campus or in some house and neighborhood I hadn’t been in. What was so terrifying to me was that when I looked through the magazine, I liked the clothes, the objects, the general ambience of the place — of the life being lived by the supposed readers and creators of the New Yorker world. But that verse threw me off, it had no feeling I could really use. I might carry the magazine as a tool of my own desired upward social mobility, such as I understood it. I might like some of the jokes, and absolutely dig the soft-curving button-down collars and well-tailored suits I saw. The restaurants and theater advertisements. The rich elegance and savoir faire of all I could see and touch. But the poem, the inside, of that life chilled me, repelled me, was impenetrable. And I hated myself because of it, yet at the same time knew somehow that it was correct that I be myself, whatever that meant. And myself could not deal with the real meanings of the life spelled out by those tidy words.
I made no dazzling proclamations as a result of this crying into the New Yorker experience. I still felt sad as I took a publico back. I still wrote the same kinds of deadly abstractions about love, death, tragic isolation. I still went on reading whatever I could get or find out about. Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, anthologies of poetry. I learned about Apollinaire and Rimbaud. I read every novel of Evelyn Waugh’s I could find and wondered often how to pronounce his name. I thought Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisitedwas marvelous! I still got the reviews and stiff magazines. I even subscribed to Partisan Review. And I went on scribbling nightly or whenever, but regularly, in my journal. Writing haughty reviews and deep analyses of what I read. I was aware of an intellectual world — it had existed all this time — people were walking around knowing about it, knowing these various ideas, books, phrases, histories, relationships, and I didn’t. Why hadn’t I caught on in school? That there was an intellectual life that could be pursued. A life of ideas and, above all, Art.
I brought no great selectivity to my reading, though I began to understand after a while that some literature was more serious, more probing and thought-provoking than other, lighter stuff I might mash on myself as a result of reading The New York Times Book Review. But I found signposts and guides, references and printed directions. I might see a certain reference in a book or magazine — for instance, I saw the word “Kafka” in Esquire. What was a Kafka? I looked in dictionaries, no Kafka. Finally I stumbled on an article in some literary review about his work. The stiff abstruse language of the article only bade me rush harder after its sense. And all the sub- and counterreferences, the foreign words and jargon of the New Critics, I tracked down like Basil Rathbone, but it was not elementary.
During this period I also went home over another Christmas break. Again, I went to the Village and visited Steve Korret and his beautiful golden brown dancer wife. Their apartment on Bedford Street was stark white, except for the kitchen, which was orange. The books that ranged up and down one wall now pulled me to them and held me there. Steve laughed at me standing by his bookcase hungrily gobbling up titles. A lot of them Eastern and Buddhist. Steve had become a Zen Buddhist. I did not know how fashionable this was becoming in the Village and its counterparts elsewhere. It was still the middle ’50s (’56) and the tremendous popularity of the East in bohemian circles had not yet reached its full peak. Steve was an early acolyte. He even worked in an Eastern bookshop called Orientalia, around 12th Street. I came to the bookstore before I went back to Puerto Rico and I was transported by the hundreds of scholarly books on various schools of Buddhism and Eastern thought in general. I bought two of R. H. Blythe’s books on Zen, analyzing Western art for parallels with Zen consciousness. I was swept up.
Dylan Thomas was also very heavy in those days downtown. People passing through Korret’s house talked of “Dylan.” One black poet there lilted some of Thomas’ verses and then some of his own which were amazingly similar.
Korret was a writer! The idea of this made me drunk with wonder. A writer! What a thing to be — so weird — so outside of the ordinary parade of grey hellos and goodbyes I could begin to measure my life with. A writer. In the mysterious jumble of Greenwich Village.
Steve and his friends treated me like a little boy, which I guess I was. A little boy off in the goofy hopeless world of the army? No, the air force. How comic. How tragic. How odd. How romantic. How petty. I thought the last myself. These painters, dancers, writers, thinkers, witty makers of brilliant statements, and here I am on the fringe again. Unconnected and without note once again, just like at Howard.
I think it was now that the duffelbag incident occurred. Yes, it was now, at the end of this leave.
But I did get back to Ramey on time. Even sadder and more hopeless. I still had almost two years to go on my four-year enlistment. And my new intellectual life made soldiering harder and harder.
I had been moved to another crew, R-32, a “Ready” crew, which meant we were among the actual strike force of any bombing mission. It meant I had to go regularly to gunnery schools on base and in Tampa, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Shreveport, Louisiana. In Tampa I met the Howard officer. In Mobile I shot down the drone aircraft during the gunnery sessions, because an old gunner told me in Puerto Rico that the shit was fixed and that the sight was rigged so you couldn’t hit the drone cause the drones cost $10,000 apiece. So you had to use “Kentucky windage” — just shoot a little ahead of the thing, like deer hunting. And I brought it down, which meant I was supposed to go to a “Select” crew or at least a “Lead,” but I didn’t.
In Shreveport, Reilly, Burke, and I tried to go off the base together, but the locals discouraged it. I ended up two days AWOL. I had gotten lost and laid up with a sister down in the Bottom (one black community of Shreveport — see The System of Dante’s Hell) and finally came back rumpled and hung over and absolutely broke.
Once we got downtown, Reilly got on the same bus. At first neither of us recognized the other. I couldn’t recognize him because his face had been beaten till it was puffy and distorted. He couldn’t recognize me because his eyes were all but closed. He’d run into some little guy with a cowboy hat and they’d had some words about the jukebox. Cowboy hat, it turned out, was a professional boxer.
The new crew I was put on had an AC (aircraft commander) named Major Smart — no shit. He was from Mississippi and had gone to the eighth grade. He’d been a master sergeant when the war started (World War Two), got made a temporary captain and most recently a temporary major. He had a broad supernasal accent and looked at me with wicked twinkling eyes. I guess I was his cross — integration and all that shit.
He used to get to me by telling racist jokes over the intercom once we were upstairs. When he found out I would shut off the intercom, he’d put it on “command” so as to override all cutoffs and be heard simultaneously throughout the whole ship.
He would ask me how far in school I’d gone — it peeved him — and he would mock me, again on “command.” Jones is ed-ucated. He told a joke about a white man got on an airplane with a colored woman and the hostess brings them black coffee. The man says, “I didn’t want my coffee like this.”
The hostess says, “I thought you liked your coffee like you like your women, strong and dark!” I cursed in the isolation of my lower right rear gunner’s position but that was all. When the flight was over, Smart, with his narrow hooked nose and grey shit colored hair would stride past me, eyes twinkling.
At least once a month we’d have an “alert.” The sirens would rage and we’d have to get up in the middle of the night and dress and fly off to “bomb” some city, usually American, and then return. It was a recurring nightmare to me. The siren, after midnight, was like hell’s actual voice. You’d throw on your flight suit, the grey slick coveralls, check out a parachute, get your weapon, load your cannon, wait for orders, and take off. Sometimes we took off and came right back. Sometimes we’d go and land somewhere else and stay a few days. Sometimes we’d go right back to the barracks. And I was the only guy on my crew with the big awkward .45 automatic and a shoulder holster. Putting a parachute on over that getup was painful and dangerous. The rest of the crew had .38s, small and compact and buckled on at the waist. I was the only one that looked like Smilin’ Jack. And try as I might to get a .38, I never did.
When we weren’t flying we had to guard the plane. I was low man (stripewise and castewise), so I spent the most time. Like twelve hours a day. Everyday, except when we were flying. The sun breaking your head, white and scorching. Trying to read and having to keep something covering the book for fear of detection. And unerringly, whenever I flew, I’d catch cold! Those planes (B-36s) were not comfortable like commercial airliners. They were cold and drafty. Colder than air conditioning! An hour or so out, my nose would start running. I’d have on my flight jacket, but the whole flight I’d be freezing to death. My feet felt like ice cubes.
The K-rations we’d have to eat were always cold though there was some johnson in the plane that was supposed to heat up the food like a hot plate. But it wasn’t near my station so I forgot it. We’d have, like, cold canned spaghetti that would slide out of the can in a single solid blob. Or canned pound cake, or how about the hard tack, the round cement crackers, also canned, which were your bread? I couldn’t use any of it.
When we came back from flying, I’d feel like I’d been tortured. But, even then, I’d try to get on with my reading — being bothered by the AC’s instructions, the crackling radio, the racist jokes, the freezing airplane. But the next day we’d have off and I’d lay in bed and read or wander down to the BX and buy something if I had the dough or go to the library.
I’d have to wait most times till after duty hours to hook up with the salon, except those who were off or “sick.” But you had to notify the first sergeant the day before you went on “sick call,” i.e., the day before you got sick. So that put a crimp in that malingerer’s device. Sometimes when we got together to bullshit we’d have to have “music wars” to quiet out the hillbillies across the hall. They’d be playing something like “I’m in the Jailhouse Now,” which was standard, but if they got aggressive and turned it up to drown us out, we’d counter, turn up Diz or Bird or else we’d blow ’em off the map with Beethoven’s Seventh or Ninth!
One time a guy named Muck — no shit, a big thick terrible white mechanic from Chicago who was always covered with grease — came roaring down the hall cursing. He shouted he was gonna kill these nigger bastards and came rushing down toward my room. The room had one louvered wall, so you could hear clearly. I got my .45 and climbed up into the top bunk. Muck slammed open the door, slamming it against the bed, and rushed in. I was crouched on the top bunk and shoved the big gun down in his face as he turned. His eyes rolled up under the grease. He was drunk and sure enough he had a .38 like the crewmen had, snapped on his belt. But I had the .45 in his face and started cussing him, “You fat ugly stupid motherfucker, I’ll blow your fuckin’ brains out!”
He gasped. He stood still, his head wobbling from side to side in a circle of dead drunkenness. He took a step back, turned, and split.
Muck was sufficiently pacified, but a couple days later a friend of his, a guy from upper New York State, exhilarated by the open displays of racism he must have seen on the base, wakes me up and he’s standing over me, a fist cocked, daring me to rise up. I said nothing. There was nothing to say. He spat out his threats, though none were specifically racial. He hated me, he said, for playing that fuckin’ classical music when I had CQ (change of quarters, like a nighttime security guard) in the hallway and we had clashed on this before. I looked warily up at his face as he kept talking and daring me to get up. I relaxed a little hoping some of my friends would come in. I wondered did this slob have a piece. But it was only his nasty fist. After a while he got tired and turned and left. I jumped up and got my .45 and stood by the door listening. Then I went out in the hall. No one there. Then I heard the motorcycle racing out by my window. Muck and this guy Martin were standing near it laughing. I rolled the louvered window open and stuck the big gun through the slats. “Hey Martin, Martin,” I called. “Come here, you bastard!” He laughed and threw me a finger. He got on the back of Muck’s cycle and they jetted. I never got revenge!
Going into town meant you were going to drink or go whoring. Laffy and I once bought two putas and screwed them in the same bed. Him pumping away at one end and me on the other. Afterwards, his woman tried to raise her price and we fled off into Mundango, the red light district, with these unfortunate creatures screaming at our heels.
But mostly, I didn’t go off the base too much. I read. I read. I read. I sulked. I bullshitted with the salon members. I played music. I read.
Dudes would tease me about not going off the base. They said I was going to whack my doodle off. I don’t think I was ever in danger of that, but what did I know? What changed my life and brought my air force days to a close was an anonymous letter. A letter was sent to my commanding officer saying I was a Communist. No shit! Why I, who at this time thought I was an aspiring Buddhist — I guess — was singled out as a Communist, I’ll never be completely sure. Except years later, Sid the Doctor met Amina and me at some party and he said he’s always remembered how rebellious (and, he said, “courageous”) I was in the face of various officers and noncoms. I’d never thought that. I always thought of myself as very quiet, retiring, reserved, painfully shy. But his description of me to me surprised me. “Whatta you mean?” I said.
“Well, you were always challenging those guys, disputing them. Putting them on. Dropping not-too-veiled insults on them. Defying them. Your hat pulled down over your eyes like a bandit. The dark glasses [I’d forgotten], the little illegal wispy hairs on the chin, the constant book under the arm or in the pocket. It was inspiring to me. The way you attacked those guys and never compromised!”
Shit. I had no idea at all who he was talking about. My whole life was worse than a compromise, to me. I remembered maybe a few exchanges and encounters. Like Lt. Col. Jones (he had become our squadron commander) and I bumping heads in the laundry. I was shoving my nasty fatigues in the washer and in comes a little beady-eyed baldheaded guy with powder blue pistol pocket pants. The pistol pockets were in dark blue. He also had on one of those manic Hawaiian shirts. I glanced up to see who it was and then continued my washing. He cleared his throat. “Airman, don’t you salute an officer?”
“I didn’t know sir you didn’t look like uhh I mean I didn’t recognize ” and saluted. He scowled and turned and walked out. I stood there holding the dirty fatigues and grimacing until one of the dudes walked in and asked me if I’d seen Colonel Jones.
I wonder if Sid was talking about shit like that? Accidental, inadvertent shit. The warnings for books and albums on the dresser. The Article 15s for cutting out on parades. Being late to work. Reading on the flight line. Needing a shave. Outta uniform. Playing music late. Back to the base after hours. Having to paint the whole barracks for fighting on CQ (Martin). Being weird in the plane (being out of position when given the order to “fire”). Reading. Being an elitist, a member of a khaki and fatigue salon of crying young boys.
But I was trying to become an intellectual. I was becoming haughtier and more silent. More critical in a more general way. More specialized in my concerns. More abstract and distant. I was being drawn, had been drawn, into a world that Howard prepared me for on one level — blunt elitism. Though the deeper resolves of intellectualism I knew mostly nothing about, even though I’d been prodded to hook up self-consciously with the profoundest art of the African American, black music, by one man, titillated by another, I knew nothing consciously when I got out and went into the death organization — error farce.
Yet my reading was, in the main, white people. Europeans, Anglo Americans. So that my ascent toward some ideal intellectual pose was at the same time a trip toward a white-out I couldn’t even understand. I was learning and, at the same time, unlearning. The fasteners to black life unloosed. I was taking words, cramming my face with them. White people’s words. Profound, beautiful, some even correct and important. But that is a tangle of nonself in that for all that. A nonself creation where you become other than you as you. Where the harnesses of black life are loosened and you free-float, you think, in the great sunkissed intellectual waygonesphere. Imbibing, gobbling, stuffing yourself with reflections of the other.
Finally, I am an internationalist and it is clear to me now that all people have contributed to the wealth of common world culture — and I thought that then, if only on the surface! But I had given myself, in my quest for intellectualism, a steady diet of European thought, though altered somewhat by the Eastern Buddhist reading. That was what intellectualism meant! To me. It was certainly not conscious. But I had never been warned. (An old man in the South one time had said to me, “Some folks speaks too clear,” talking about my clipped northern speech. But, hey, that never registered.) Be careful in giving up the “provincial” that you do not include the fundamental and the profound.
I was being drafted into the world of quattrocento, vers libre, avant-garde, surrealism and dada, New Criticism, cubism, art nouveau, objectivism, “Prufrock,” ambiguity, art music, rococo, shoe and non-shoe, highbrow vs. middlebrow (I’d read the article), and I didn’t realize the deeper significance of it. I reacted to some of it, emotionally, like the New Yorker crying incident, but even that, the realization it brought, didn’t reach deep enough.
I was going down a road. Positive in the overall, but just now I was taking a twist and I’d answer for it, you bet.
The letter said I was a Communist. One day I got a message to report to the first sergeant and the adjutant and they said I had been removed from my crew, taken off “flying status,” and my “secret” clearance rescinded. I knew what was happening, I’d known from the giddy-up. In a week or so I had to go back again and they told me I was being transferred out of the 73rd Bomb to Air Base Group.
In group I was put on a gardening detail with other troops, who had mostly been busted down for various infractions. We were supposed to be planting flowers to beautify the base. One ex-tech sergeant I met, his arms bare except for the traces of his removed five stripes, was planting collards next to the flowers. So all over the base he had collards growing he’d pick and cook or sell. He’d gotten busted for sleeping with some warrant officer’s wife. When they were walked in on, she screamed “Rape.” Now the sergeant was on his way to Leavenworth to do nine to twelve.
I was a gardener for a month or so and the salon regulars thought it amusing, but I didn’t, in the hot sun digging holes for flowers. At least on flying status I got to sit in the hot sun guarding and reading.
I was then moved to another job, in the registration office at the visiting officers’ quarters. I also had been moved to an open bay in the Air Base Group barracks, which was like the torture of Chanute and Sampson. But with the move to the visiting officers’ quarters, I was moved into a room there, in the back of the joint. This was really the best job I had except for the library. I slept in a small room and came out to the front office to work my eight hours. Giving out blankets and pillows, making up beds, then going back in my room to read and drink.
The guy in charge of us (three of us) was an Italian dude, short, plump, perpetually smiling, named Cosi. That wasn’t his real name, but it’s OK. Cosi is an Italian word which means “like,” used like the blood use of “like,” like, you understand? Like this and like that. Cosi had an accent and had been born in Italy. He’d come over and after a few years of seeking opportunity had finally settled for the air force.
He was a sweet guy, a nonstop talker, always laughing and making jokes and saying “cosi.” We sat up talking on his shift or mine. He went out occasionally, but almost as seldom as I. He marveled constantly at my reading. He’d come in and whistle, “Hey, reading again? Maron’ a mia!” And start kidding me. Once he came in and I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. I was at the part where the hero, Roberto, is killed by the fascists and I was weeping like a baby. Cosi said, “A goddam book can make you cry? Maron’ a mia!”
I was in limbo for months and heard nothing from anyone about my case. Then suddenly, one day, I was brought in and questioned. I was shown a sheet which listed organizations and they asked me had I ever belonged to any. I put down the Civil Rights Congress because I had once gone to a meeting where a guy had talked about this organization. I wrote about this meeting in the space provided on the form. I was shown a copy of the accusatory letter, which had been sent anonymously. I got a chance to glance at a sheet which said that among the artifacts the air force was amassing as to my offense were copies of the Partisan Review!
I was asked if I belonged to an organization called the Congress of Cultural Freedom. (According to Lillian Hellman, a liberal defense mechanism to outdenounce the McCarthyites, thereby clearing themselves!) I said, “No,” and was shown the magazine which they’d gotten from my room. I hadn’t known the publishers. I had letters in my drawers with rejection notes and that address. It was lucky my ass wasn’t on the line. Shit, I wanted to get kicked out of the service.
The thing dragged on and I began writing letters home about headaches I was having. (The biggest one was the fuckin’ air force!) I had received a couple letters from Steve Korret, one in particular made reference to Zen and quoted Thomas. Korret said in answer to one letter I’d written him that I “was always crying. Cry, Poet!” And that was the first time I’d ever been called that. Poet. It dug into me. I had a photo he’d given me on my last leave. Taken at a party, with various of Steve’s friends, in particular a slim-faced white girl with a long ponytail and heavy eye pencil sending her eyes around the corners of her head. This flick fascinated me! Not just the wild-looking woman in black stockings, but the whole scene. A Village party with all the hair let down, all the cultivated wildness on display. This was the Village. Weird! Something else was happening other than what I knew about. Wild stuff. Free open shit. Look at that weird looking woman. I bet she’d fuck. I bet she knows about all kinds of heavy shit. And I bet she’d fuck. Not like them stuck-up bitches at the Capstone. Wow!
The shit dragged on for months with me still in limbo, still making beds at the visiting officers’ quarters, and at last I got orders to leave. We were sitting where we could see the flight line, drinking vodka ($1 a fifth) and cackling about the commander of all Strategic Air Command (Curtis LeMay) driving face down on a go-cart back and forth, back and forth, on the flight line like a juvenile delinquent!
We kept saying, screaming really, “This is the motherfucker in charge of us?” It made us hysterical!
Cosi brought me the orders. In the multicopied ditto those things come in. He was breathing hard and grinning, like he knew it was important. It was just that Special Orders were an event for any airman. You didn’t know what the hell was happening.
I had been discharged. Undesirably! What? UNDESIRABLY! I was to be discharged in thirty days. Being shipped to South Carolina in about two weeks, then undergoing two weeks’ processing.
The guys there whooped and hollered. What the fuck, Undesirable or up your ass and gone, getting out was what was happening. That news shot around to the salon members and other folks. The hip folks were happy for me. I was getting the fuck out. The squares were sorry I’d gotten a funny discharge. UNDESIRABLE!
Hey, I wanted to get out. It didn’t matter, long as I was sane and healthy. I wanted out. Out! Undesirable or not, here I come.
And in a few weeks I was on my way to South Carolina. While I was being processed I got a chance to go up to Columbia to see my relatives. My aunts and uncles and grandmother. I spent most of the time talking to my tall, thin, dark, fast-talking aunt.
I was happy to see everybody else, including my tall, light brown, light eyed, slender aunt everybody agreed was beautiful. But to the tall dark aunt I poured out my heart, such as I could muster. I had been kicked out. My parents wouldn’t like it. Would they understand? I wanted help and she gave me that by listening, commenting on the obvious, and reserving comment on the abstruse. I stayed there talking a week or so and then got discharged formally and got a bus to ride twenty some hours back to Newark.
My air force career was over.