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Rant #445
(published July 30, 2009)
Reynolds and Me
by Barry Basden
Reynolds, as black as pure Africa, bunked next to me in Korea circa 1962 and introduced me to Etta James on his cheap record player. At the end of the month, too broke to make it to the enlisted club or out the gate to the village, we drank cheap whiskey in our double-bunked Quonset hut while Etta'a powerful voice made us ache and threatened to destroy his puny speaker.

We put aside obvious differences and eventually became inseparable, able to say anything to each other. "You're a spade," I said one drunken night, "and I'm not. So fucking what?"

Reynolds, a skinny point guard kind of guy, stood between me and the chief of maintenance, a black staff sergeant built like a prison weight lifter. The sarge played the Army's game, a sharp lifer in creased fatigues, with hooded eyes and a hatred of all things white. Reynolds's friendship with me kept him off stride and me off a lot of shit details.

The Army may have been officially integrated, but segregation ruled. Southern crackers had their country-western clubs in the village and their own whores. Blacks hung out somewhere else. Reynolds didn't care. He took me into their dens of pounding rhythms and let it be known that I was with him. He strutted and preened and made the girls laugh while I drank beer at the bar and watched the swirling dancers, careful not to talk to or touch any of the girls.

Not that I cared that much. I was often too enraged at some Army idiocy to be comforted by a yobosayo and missed many curfews just to thwart the green monster.

I complained about everything: the cooks feeding us sorry chow while selling our steaks and fresh fruit in the ville, the command group dumping all the transient soldiers into our crowded hooch, open-locker inspections on Saturdays, and other chickenshit garrison rules that our remote radio sites didn't suffer. Anything that struck me as unfair. I was still too fucking dumb to recognize the world's lack of fairness.

In a few months I found myself the de facto leader of other malcontents. After the club closed one night, we tore down the 50-foot television antenna that brought Armed Forces Network-Seoul into the noncommissioned officers' hut. Rank lost one privilege that night to our perpetual rage, the kind that would lead a few years later to so many fraggings in Nam.

With bad hangovers, I fell out on the company's morning runs, feigning injury. A lieutenant finally sent me to sick call to see if I was malingering, which I freely admitted to the doc, a little Jewish captain with horn-rimmed glasses who'd treated my VD. "Where'd you get that yobosayo I saw you with the other night?" I asked. "That wasn't no village whore."

He shook his head and smiled. "Get out of here and stop being such a fuckup."

But I didn't, and such revolts finally led to an Article 15, less than a court-martial, but bringing extra duty to the lot of us—me, five younger white guys, and Reynolds, the only black among us. Baiting the Army made no sense to most blacks, who knew well the ways of the real world.

One afternoon I blew off my extra duty and went to the club instead. Next day our new first sergeant called me in. "I've looked at your scores," he said. "They're top-notch, so I don't know what's wrong with you and I don't care." His eyes were cold blue steel. "If you don't stop this shit, I'm going to send you to jail. Understood?"


I met Reynolds at the club, dark and smoky in the late afternoon. "We have to cool it," I said. "We're short, fifty-one days and a wake-up, then we're out of here."

"Don't be selling me no wolf tickets," he said, and sipped his seven and seven. "Fifty-one days is forever."

I couldn't reach him. Early in the tour, he may have hung with me just to watch over my crazy ass, but my lack of restraint had finally unleashed his own demons. We both had gotten "Dear John" letters and his still showed in his eyes.

I put my hand on his arm. "They will put you in jail, good buddy. You can't beat them."

He looked at me like he didn't know who I was. "Fuck the Army," he said finally, and disappeared into the village that night.

They put him in the stockade and he missed the boat home. Not me. Something inside me always stood outside, keeping me from final destruction.

Alone at the rail, I watched flying fish leap out of the blue Pacific and planned how I might talk my estranged wife into coming to Fort Lewis with me.

After we set up house off post, a letter came from Reynolds, wanting to get together again. But here, back in the Land of the Big PX, I never replied.

Barry Basden edits the Camroc Press Review.

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