click here for pt 1
I mentioned that my drill sergeant hated me with a passion. I had challenged his authority that first week and since then he’d taken a personal interest and making me suffer. He couldn’t put his hands on me, though. There’d be all kids of hell to pay if he did. But, he could yell, get all in my face and threaten me all he wanted. He could also make me sweat…run til I collapse, push ups till I was a wobbly shaking mass of embarrassment, sit-ups til I threw up….but no physical contact. And though my body was looking better than it ever had, having discovered muscles in places I didn’t know muscles existed, I was indeed suffering.
And that’s just what Drill Sergeant James (who was black) wanted: to make me suffer. Every chance he got, he insulted me and punished me. Every minor malfeasance was treated like a major infraction. Every misstep was treated like a deliberate attempt to be undermine his authority or to be different. Sergeant James sometimes called me “Brooklyn”. At first, I loved the name. It felt like a title. But soon I began to hate it, for every time I heard it I knew it would be followed not much later by aches and pains. “You think you special, don’t you?! Get yo ass in the dirt, Brooklyn!” was his favorite line.
I couldn’t figure out why James had it in for me so intensely. But, after my little talk with Burns, I understood why. I spat in the face of everything he represented. Basically, James was Burns’ future. The Drill Sergeant was from L.A. too. But, he’d dug in and risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant (while still in his late 20s) drove a late model caddy, had a house, a wife, and a couple of rugrats off post in lovely Columbus, SC, and considered himself admirable; A role model for the soldiers under his command. Keep your shit wired tight at all times and you could be like me one day. I didn’t exactly scoff at his lifestyle. I mean he was doing a lot better than many of the people I grew up with. But I wasn’t impressed, either. And, now that I knew what it was about me that was rubbing black folks the wrong way, I was on a mission to do something about it.
I was a changed man.
At least I was trying to be.
I started spending more time with the “brothers.” And, damn if every swinging dick didn’t notice, and find it remarkable.
We’d be playing Spades and somebody would say something like, “So, you is black, after all!”
“I’m not as black as yo’ mama, but I can pass!” I’d say.
“What gave it away? Cuz I know it wasn’t your dick size!”
“Ha-ha very funny! Now, stop stalling, motherfucker, and go ahead and renege like you was about to do.”
Even Burns would laugh at my jokes. In fact, most of the animosity between us had vanished after our little talk. We’d found common ground, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
Frick, who had gotten accustomed to my hanging with him, would come looking for me sometimes and, finding me all huddled up with my race playing dice, would hang around for a few minutes then cut out. He’d gotten the message I was unintentionally sending. I mean, now that I was in the process of letting go all of that self-hatred I’d brought with me, I was really just getting to know these guys. And most of them were pretty cool…for bumpkins. I’d spent most of my pre-teen years as a poster child for the Pan-African movement, and most of my teens among the Ghetto Intelligentsia discussing such high-minded themes as the origin of the Devil and the experimentation of high explosives which result in earthquakes. But, somewhere in there I’d also learned how to play Cee-lo, Craps and Spades- the official card game of the black community.
One night, a couple of weeks before graduation, things came to a head.
We were finally starting to congeal as a Platoon. We could run for miles without panting, march in admirable uniformity singing original cadences with gusto, we could shoot the shit outta silhouettes football fields away, our barracks had a gleam they were so clean, our boots glowed every where we went…I mean, we were a beautiful sight! A Drill Sergeant’s wet dream.
But, if Drill Sergeant James woke up with sticky OD Green pajamas over me, he hid it well. He still had it in for me.
We were in the barracks getting ready for bed when Frick shouted out, “Loco, don’t forget you gotta pull guard duty tonight!”
Guard duty is on the duty roster and in rotation everyone has to pull it. Basically, in two hour intervals, you’re a human ADT Alarm System, on patrol of the barracks (armed with a flashlight) to make sure everyone is in bed, no one is stealing shit, and no fires break out. But I had pulled it a couple of nights ago.
“You better check that list again, man! I was on the other night!”
“Why the fuck is it always a mistake when niggers gotta do what they’s supposed to…”
Burns had jumped up and snuffed Frick flush in the face and sent his little ass flying across the room into a wall, cracking it!
Drill Sergeant James rushed into the barracks just as Frick was getting to his feet with a little blood on his nose and a look on his face like this was just what he’d been waiting for: a chance to get his shit off! He rushed at Burns quick as a flash, catching Burns, unaccustomed to challenges and surprised at Frick’s quick recovery, a little off-guard. Burns fell to the floor with the force of the hit and Frick was on top of him, pounding away. Burns couldn’t get a handle on him he was so fast!
I felt kinda responsible. I ran over and grabbed Frick, catching his arm just as he was about to bring his fist down on Burns for the fourth or fifth time.
Frick was berserk, though.
“Get the fuck off of me!” He yelled and with incredible strength almost threw me off of him. Which gave Burns the opening he needed. He landed a semi-panicky kick right in Frick’s solar plexus.
It was like Frick hadn’t felt it at all.
He turned on me, with evil in his eyes, just as the Drill Sergeant arrived between us.
“What the fuck is going on here!? He yelled as he pinned Frick against the wall with some slick maneuver that shook him out of his frenzy. It was common knowledge that James was a Ranger before becoming a Drill Sergeant, and wasn’t to be fucked with…period. Rangers are the Army equivalent of SEALs, toughest bastards in the Army. “Private Frick, you at-ease, right the fuck now! Loco, get the fuck away from me!”
I backed off but kept my eyes on Frick, who had the good sense not to challenge the Drill Sergeant. He wasn’t totally outta his mind.
Sergeant James let Frick go. “You gonna chill out? Or do I have to chill you out?”
Frick fumed a little but he didn’t budge.
“Answer me!” Drill Sergeant snapped.
“I’m gonna chill out!” Frick replied, almost fully back to his senses.
“Good for you, son! Cuz I’d hate to have to put a good trooper like you through that fucking wall!”
Then he turned on Burns.
“Burns, what happened!?”
Burns was hesitant to answer…
“What the fuck happened here?” He asked the room. Everyone looked for holes in their socks.
The silence was broken by a white guy. I think his name was Van Wie or something like that.
“Loco didn’t want to pull guard duty, and when Frick told him he’ had to he got all upset. Then, suddenly, Burns jumps up and punches Frick…that’s when you walked in, Drill Sergeant.”
“That’s some bullshit!” Burns yelled, finally finding his tongue, his lips a little puffy.
James looked at me, hatred in his eyes.
“You got something against following orders, Brooklyn? Still think your shit don’t stink, don’t you? It’s good-for-shit Weekend Warriors like you that…”
“That’s not what happened, Drill Sergeant,” Frick jumped in.
James wheeled on Frick. “Well, what the fuck happened, then? Somebody gonna tell me the truth or do I have to Article 15 all uh y’all asses?”
“I…I made a mistake on the duty roster. I thought it was Loco’s turn to pull guard duty, but it wasn’t.”
“And?” James snarled. “Why the fuck do I have cracked walls and blood on the floor in my barracks ?”
Frick looked at Burns, whose eyes had begun to swell from the blows he’d received. Then he looked at me.
“I called them niggers!” he spat out like it was a confession he couldn’t hold back anymore. “I didn’t mean anything by it…you know I ain’t got nothing against niggers…shit, some of my best friends is niggers!”
Drill Sergeant James said, without skipping a beat, like he’d been prepared for this, “you use that word again in my Platoon, for any motherfucking reason, and I mean any of y’all, black, white or what have you, and I guarantee your asses will be on the next bus back to whatever holes you ignorant motherfuckers crawled out of…y’all hear me?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!” Everyone bellowed.
“One thing y’all got to learn…and it looks like you ignorant fucks gonna have to learn it the hard way: when y’all find your asses in some godforsaken jungle or desert, and the only thing between you and the fucking Jihad is one of these crackers, or one of these spics, or one of these niggers, then you gonna remember: Ain’t no color in the Army but Green. OD motherfucking Green! Y’all got me?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“This ain’t America, you stupid motherfuckers…we ain’t got no race problems here. None! Only one race here: US! When you go back to America, you’re free to go back to being petty racist pukes if you want to. With your nigger friends and your cracker friends,but here we ain’t friends and we ain’t never gonna be friends: We’re Brothers, goddammit! I hope you assholes understand what I’m saying. Cuz, before you know it, one day, you gonna be knee deep in shit and believe me you won’t be thinking about the color of that cavalry coming to save your ass!”
He gave everyone a meaningful look, full of all the experiences he’d accrued in the uniform, and everyone…yep I think I can safely speak for everyone…everyone felt the truth of his words.
“Now, police up all this blood and shit before I get a case of the ass!”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
He strutted out of the barracks and left us all standing there in stunned silence.
I watched him leave then turned around to see Frick and Burns’ eyes were locked. They both looked pained.
“I was out of line…” Frick said.
Burns, looking the worst for wear, said, “don’t worry about it.”
But, from that day until the end of Basic Training I never heard Frick or anyone else (not black, anyway) use the “N” word again. Black guys, well…we’re just a tougher nut to crack when it comes to the use of the “N” word. I guess it has too firm a hold in our cultural lexicon.
Then, the door opened again and Drill Sergeant James re-entered.
“Brooklyn! Come with me to my office. Now, soldier!”
…to be continued