Saturday, July 17, 2010

Junction City, 1971

by Rocky G. Macy

You’d think that two young studs out on their first afternoon away from the base in weeks would be at a bar, right? Or a whorehouse? Not us.

I was spending my free afternoon following John Michael through Junction City pawnshops. I had already killed an hour looking at televisions, and watches, and jewelry, and junk while John Michael huddled with pawnbrokers on some mysterious business. We were in our third pawnshop before he found what he was looking for.

“Hey, nigger, get over here!” (John Michael only calls his friends "nigger." He can get away from that sort of stuff because he is black. Raul is the only one who can call John Michael nigger.)

“Yeah?” I asked.

John Michael brought his hand from behind his back as I approached. He made a motion with an object that he was holding, and a long, sleek blade sprang toward me.

“Goddamn!” I heard myself swear as I jumped from the blade. “What the hell are you doing?”

John Michael didn’t answer; he just smiled. My reaction must have sealed the deal because he turned and paid the man.

As we left and walked out onto the hot Kansas street, I noticed the pawnbroker staring after us. I suppose he was wondering what a black soldier and a white soldier were going to do with a switchblade. The white soldier wasn’t going to do anything with it, that was for damned sure. And he was going to try and make certain that the black soldier didn't use it either.

We were sitting on our bunks that evening just before “lights out” and John Michael was showing me how to operate his new blade when Raul came crashing in. Raul, the Puerto Rican who sleeps above me, is crazy when he’s sober, but this night he wasn’t sober, so he was worse.

“Hey, assholes.” Raul managed to say as he fell on John Michael’s bunk and stretched out across it. He looked like he was planning on remaining there, so John Michael picked up and moved over to my bunk. As we sat there, John Michael pressed the button of his new toy and waved it through the air for Raul’s benefit.

Raul was impressed. “That’s a beautiful blade, man. Let me see it.” Raul made no effort to get up, so John Michael delivered. With great care and precision, he threw the knife into his own pillow, missing Raul’s head by inches. Raul, who was undisturbed, pulled the knife out of the pillow and began examining it in an almost affectionate manner. “Beautiful. What are you going to do with this blade, nigger?”

“I thinking of taking up carving, nigger.” John Michael replied.

“I’ll bet.” Raul smiled the smile of a self-assured, though somewhat drunk, Puerto Rican. “I’ll bet that you’re going to carve your woman. You’ll slice that bitch into little strips and flush her down her own toilet.”

John Michael smiled and reached over to reclaim his knife. “You know it,” he said.

I knew it, too.

Maybe I should stop here and tell you why John Michael was going to slice his woman, and then it will be easier for you to understand how I wound up in the stockade.

John Michael got married the first week that we were here – several weeks ago. That’s when his problem actually started. He married a Junction City whore named Silky. Yeah, Silky. Can you believe it? John Michael isn’t the smartest G.I. to come down the pike. In fact, he’s not even in the top half!

John Michael met Silky at a bar and three days later they were married. I mean, he didn’t even know she was a whore. He just thought that he had an excess amount of charm. John Michael was married on a Saturday afternoon, and that evening he was back in the barracks. Silky said, “I do.” and “Get lost.” Yeah, really. She just needed the marriage license so she could get a military I.D. Now she can get in the PX, commissary, and places like that. Hell, now she can even work the clubs on base. It’s an old game, one of the oldest, but John Michael didn’t know it. He does now.

John Michael, Raul, and me, and a few dozen other guys, had been sent to Ft. Riley to learn how to pull maintenance on the army’s basic mode of transportation, big two-and-a-half ton trucks aptly called deuce-and-a-halfs. Riley is a hellhole of twisting truck and tank trails leading to remote training sites, and the rough terrain guaranteed that we would always have plenty of vehicles to work on.

We worked together in the same motor pool every day, and we bunked together in the same barracks every night. It was impossible not to get involved in each other’s lives.

My problem began when I took John Michael to see the C.O. about Silky. Sure, I was green. (Less than six months before that I had been running track at Jasper High.) But I had a strong sense of what was right, or should have been right, and I thought the Company Commander would be the one to look out for the welfare of his troops. I quickly learned that might be the case some places with some commanders, but it wasn’t how things were going to work in this maintenance company at Ft. Riley, Kansas.

Captain Perkins looks out strictly for Captain Perkins. He was standing in the orderly room having coffee and shooting the shit with Top (our First Sergeant) and the company clerks when we arrived. The C.O. walked back into his office, sat down behind his desk, and then called us in. I walked in ahead of John Michael and reported, “Sir, Private Eugene Buckholtz reporting, sir.” I saluted and John Michael saluted, too.

Captain Perkins returned our salutes. He smiled, told us to be at ease, and then asked, “Well, men, what’s the problem?”

I told him about John Michael, and the whore, and what she had done to him. Perkins listened, and after I had finished he asked John Michael a few questions about Silky. “Well,” he said after he had the facts, “it sounds like you are married. I’ll inform the Provost Marshall about your wife, but there won’t be much that he can do until she breaks a law or causes trouble. If you divorce her you may have to you may have to pay alimony, and if you don’t divorce her she may come to the army and demand support from you.”

“Shit.” John Michael said.

“There’s more,” Perkins added. “This Silky person is your legal dependent. If she causes any problems on base, Uncle Sam will hold you responsible.” The captain smiled broadly and gave John Michael a parting assessment of his situation. “It looks like you’ve been screwed.”

“Twice,” I added silently, focusing on Captain Perkins’ barely disguised delight in my friend’s rotten situation.

Captain Perkins dismissed John Michael, but told me to stay. “Buckholtz,” he began after John Michael had left, “let me give you some advice. Life is too difficult as it is. Don’t go out of your way to make it worse.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Those people’s problems are their own, not yours.”

“I thought their problems should be yours.” That was a mistake.

Captain Perkins looked at me in a way that told me that I now had a problem. He ended our session with an abrupt, “You’re dismissed, soldier.”

There was a surprise waiting for me when I returned to the barracks that evening. I found that I had suddenly been placed on guard duty for the following Saturday night. Well, so much for fighting social injustice!

But it was going to get worse. I’m one of those guys who, when he finds himself in a hole, tends to keep digging. Mama says that when Gene gets stupid, he stays stupid - and nobody knows a guy better than his mama!

By Saturday night when the dreaded guard duty finally rolled around, I was so down from John Michael’s continuing despair that I decided to use that quiet time to fix things. That evening as I boarded the deuce-and-a-half for the ride to a remote guard shack, I carried two items of non-regulation equipment: a pen and a notebook. As I stood out in the still night air guarding an entrance to a training site that no one could find even if they had a reason to, I penned a short letter to my congressman telling him of John Michael’s problem.

Two weeks passed before the storm broke. It was then that I found myself standing, heels locked, in front of Captain Perkins’ desk as he ranted and roared and waved a sheaf of papers in the air. The papers, at least a solid inch of them, were a Congressional Inquiry plus endorsements. Perkins explained that in very clear terms. When a congressman gets a letter from an unhappy soldier, he sends a note over to the Secretary of the Army asking him to find out about the problem. The Secretary adds a letter to the congressman’s and puts it into military channels. Each lesser dog adds his own note of inquiry until the whole bundle lands on the littlest dog’s desk – Captain Perkins’.

That is where I came in. Captain Perkins was furious, so pissed that I expected to see urine trickling out of his ears. He kept me standing at attention for over thirty minutes as he preached and roared chain-of-command. He told me that I should always go to my squad leader first with problems. (My squad leader is a twenty-two year-old doper named Bartman, who makes a fine living selling Kansas's most valuable illegal crop, but that’s a whole other tale.) If Bartman couldn’t help me I should go to my platoon sergeant or platoon leader, and if they couldn’t fix things I could always come see him or Top. He finally let me go. I had smartened up enough not to mention the fact that I had come to him with the problem before I wrote to my congressman.

I closed his office door and was making my way out of the orderly room when I heard his final verbal explosion: “Fucking gonad!” The company clerk blew coffee out of his nose, and Top did a quick one-eighty in his chair in order to avoid looking at me – but I could still see his shoulders bouncing involuntarily as he silently laughed. “Shit,” I thought. “That’s how nicknames get started!”

I hit every duty roster that was posted for the next few weeks. Weekends were especially bad. A typical weekend found me pulling K.P. on Friday and guard duty on Saturday. By the time I got off on Sunday morning I was too tired to do anything but crash. It was during that time that John Michael and I did manage to get one free afternoon to go into Junction City, but I’ve already explained how we wasted that opportunity.

We needed a weekend off, needed it bad. John Michael needed a weekend to find Silky and kill her. Raul and I need a weekend to get laid. Not just laid, but laid, and laid, and laid. Raul liked to entertain us with stories of what he was going to do to the females of Junction City. He would lay on his bunk in the evenings and start up a conversation with something like, “Hey, niggers. Let me tell you what I’m going to do to the first…” and he would go on and on. Sometimes Raul would describe, in great detail, how he was going to do his first eight or ten women. Raul has a good imagination. He never repeated a plot.

Payday fell two weeks after John Michael bought his blade. Pay call was Friday morning, and that same afternoon we found out that the three of us, Raul, John Michael, and me, each had weekend passes. Time and money is a dangerous combination, at least it turned out to be dangerous as far as I was concerned.

I can hold my liquor. Well, I could until that Friday night in Junction City. At five that evening we stepped into our first bar. There are, I should point out, more that just a few bars in Junction City. Fungus towns like Junction City grow up around most military bases. They thrive on money spent in bars, pawnshops, used car lots, tattoo parlors, motels that don’t ask questions, and police court. Junction City and all of the other military towns are great places for thirsty and horny soldiers to spend a month’s pay in just a few hours. It was our kind of town!

We had started at one end of the main drag with every intention of working our way through to the other. The first saloon didn’t take long to cross off the list. A couple of skags at the bar watched us down our first round. One had short, greasy hair, buck teen, and smelled bad. The other was obviously her grandmother from the ugly side of the family. It would be impossible to get drunk enough to take them on. We finished our beer and left.

It took several more stops before the women got to looking better. John Michael asked about Silky at every bar, but he was having no luck in finding her. Raul and I concentrated on the women who were there. For the price of a beer you could have a dance and some friendly conversation.

We were at a place called “The Sultan’s Palace” at about eleven o’clock when I developed my first strong craving of the evening. I was leaning on the jukebox looking for a song whose title I couldn’t remember when a voice behind me asked, “Buy a girl a drink, soldier?” I turned around and saw a beautiful oriental creature smiling at me. True, she was probably closer to Mama’s age than to mine, but I wanted her anyway. I wanted her bad!

“Sure,” I stammered. “I’ll get you a drink.”

“Good.” She motioned to a waitress and two beers were delivered to the closest table. The Oriental lady took my hand and led me to the table. “Been here long?” She asked, after we were seated.

“A couple of months.” I stared at her beautiful face which was set off by a beautiful smile. She was intoxicating! “But I’m getting ready to leave for Nam.” I added, hoping to make myself seem more important.

“Nam?” She laughed. “You’d better hurry. The war is almost over.”

Well, I guess that there are times when listening to the evening news would be beneficial. But I think quickly when I’d drinking, so I didn’t let the conversation lag. “Yeah, I know it looks that way, but I’m involved in something very hush-hush, and we’re fixing to drive those commie bastards right out of your homeland and into the ocean!”

“I’m Thai. I’ve never even been to Vietnam.” She laughed again, but she wasn’t making fun of me. It just meant that she was enjoying my story. I laughed too.

Raul found a girl at this place who offered to take him upstairs and show him her aquarium for forty dollars. Susie Wong hit me for her third beer when Raul and his friend left, and Susie hadn’t even mentioned her aquarium yet. These girls work for the bar and themselves. Beers at these places are a buck or a buck-fifty for a little seven ounce bottle. A good bar girl will get you to buy her several and try not to take a drink out of any of them. I had my eye on Susie. She was at least drinking her beer.

John Michael was sitting across the room in a booth talking to Bro Somebody trying to get a lead on Silky. I figured that finding Silky in this town was going to be more complicated than finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

I had just finished annihilating the Viet Cong for the third or fourth time when Susie brought up the subject of her fifty dollar aquarium. She put my arm around her shoulder and we headed for the stairs. I remember looking up that endless flight of stairs and wondering if her aquarium was worth the climb. I never found out.

John Michael was up and racing for the door. “That bitch! That bitch! I’ll kill that bitch!” The next thing I knew I was running like hell chasing him and Bro Somebody through the alleys and side streets of Junction City. John Michael thought that he had seen Silky being driven by the bar. We never did catch the car to find out if it was her or not.

It’s dangerous to go in and out of too many bars in Junction City. The police have a squeeze play that they are famous for, and they are usually out practicing it in full force on payday. It’s a simple scam. As a guy leaves a bar he is arrested – before he can get to his car, before he can get to the bus stop, before he can even call for a cop. He’s charged with being drunk in public and escorted to the city jail. This usually goes on until the jail is full, and by full I mean standing-room-only. The next morning each offender is found guilty by the Police Judge and sentenced to pay fine of fifty dollars (more if he complains) or spend three days in jail (and a week for complainers). A soldier can't spend three days in jail or he will be AWOL, so he has to cough up the fifty dollars. Each victim of this scam returns to base poorer, yet wiser. I’ve heard that property taxes are obscenely low in Junction City!

We weren’t caught in the squeeze play, but we should have been. We hit several more places where the notorious Silky, John Michael’s blushing bride, was supposed to be. Fortunately for her and us she was unavailable that night. I found a woman later that I wished would have been unavailable, too.

I was asleep sitting up. I mean, I knew that I was sleeping and I knew that I was sitting up. My face was on something cold and hard, and someone was pulling at my arm urging me to wake up.

“Wake up, honey,” the voice urged. “Come on now. The man is trying to close.”

My head hurt. Goddamn did my head hurt! I slowly pulled my face from the cold bar and began to look around the nearly empty barroom. The first thing I saw was my own face staring back at me from the long mirror behind the bar. There were happier looking mugs in the morgue – lots of them! The large Coors clock above the mirror told me that it was one-thirty. I assumed that it was Saturday a.m. In fact, I had to assume that I was still in Junction City, but I sure as hell didn’t have any way to know that for a fact.

“Honey, are you all right?”

I turned and saw a beautiful black woman sitting on the stool next to me. It took a few seconds to focus, but the events of the last couple of stops started coming back to me.

“Cleopatra.” I said.

“That’s right, honey. You’ve been out for a long time.”

I looked at the rest of the bar. We were alone except for the man who was busy closing up. He was leaning down placing bottles under the bar, but even from that view of him I could tell that he was very tall, even for a black man. He stood and walked toward us. The neon blue pants that he was wearing made him look even taller.

“Is he all right, Cleo?”

“Yeah, Eddie, he’s fine. How about a couple for the road?”

Eddie opened two bottles of Coors and sat them on the counter. He reached in his pocket and fished out something small that he handed to Cleopatra. She took the two beers, the item that Eddie had given her, and me, and headed for the door.

Once outside, the cool night air hit me and I began to stagger. Cleopatra quickly directed me off of the street and into an alley. The reason for that, I figured out later, was that I was a prize catch and she sure as hell wasn’t going to share me with the cops.

“Where are we going?” I’m not sure why I asked, because I really didn’t think it was important at the time.

“My place, honey.”

“Where did my buddies go?

“The good looking one went home with my cousin, and the fool with the knife probably got lost in the men’s room.”

We rounded a corner and then she led me up an old fashioned fire escape to an apartment. “Is this Eddie’s place?” I asked as she let me in.

“No, honey, it’s mine. Put your bones over on the couch while I fix our drinks.” She left and went into what I supposed was the kitchen, and I put myself down where she had pointed.

“Kick your shoes off, honey.” I heard her call from the kitchen.

I did kick one shoe off and I started to do the other one, but a wild thought raced into my head and stopped me. It seemed like I had bragged to Cleopatra earlier that evening about hiding most of my pay in my sock so that I wouldn’t lose it if I got rolled. “No,” I thought. “Shit, I couldn’t get drunk enough to do something that stupid!” But still I could hear myself telling her that, and I could hear her laughing and saying, “You’re a smart one all right, honey.” I bent over and put both shoes back on. I tied them with double square knots. Better safe than sorry, I thought.

Cleopatra came back into the room carrying the two beers in glasses on a tray. Her blouse was unbuttoned far enough to invite a view while she stood, but as she leaned over to sit the tray on the table in front of me, it commanded a view. I was had.

Cleopatra sat next to me and handed me one of the long, cool glasses. I took a sip and began to look around her apartment nervously. It was decorated in an erotic mixture of reds, purples, and glitter. There were several paintings on the walls, and they all made me think of sex. But the gaudy surroundings could not hold my attention. Cleopatra had her right arm draped over my shoulders allowing her hand to play across my shaved head. Her left hand was finding its way down the buttons of my shirt. I turned to look at her.

“Do you like my place, honey?”

“It looks like…” I stopped as I felt her hand slide into my shirt and around my waist.

“Yes?” she prompted. Cleopatra laughed a little, probably because she could tell that I was nervous.

“It looks like a whorehouse.” I blurted. “I mean it looks like a whorehouse should look. I mean, but…it’s an apartment so it isn’t a whorehouse. Shit, I don’t know what I mean.”

She laughed until, I swear, I could see real, honest-to-God tears running down the sides of her face. When she quit, she squeezed me hard and said, “You simple, honey. Think of this as a whore apartment, okay?”

“Okay.” I smiled. She really could make a guy feel at ease.

“Now drink your beer, honey, and I’ll show you my big, soft bed.

I finished my brew in a couple of long swallows. Cleopatra smiled, gave me a long kiss, and stood up and led me to her bedroom, a room that looked even more like a room in a whorehouse should look – not that I’ve seen that many, or any for that matter. The walls were covered with silhouettes of couples doing all sorts of contortions. A thick red carpet covered the floor, and a full-length mirror decorated the ceiling above the huge bed.

“I guess this isn’t Eddie’s place.” I said as Cleopatra threw my shirt in a corner and began to work on my pants.

“What made you think that it was? She asked, dropping to her knees to free my legs from the legs of my pants. She was having trouble getting the pants over the shoes which wouldn’t come off because of the double square knots.

“I thought I saw him give you a key at the bar.”

Down went the shorts.

“No, honey, that was no key. Now lay down over here.”

I leaned backward and fell onto the plush bed. I was naked except for the shoes and socks that still clung defiantly to my feet. Cleopatra had removed her blouse and I was watching her round, beautiful globes sway in the soft light of the bedroom.

Cleopatra was naked now, too. She was standing at the foot of the bed, and I suddenly realized that she was holding a knife. I thought about trying to cover my manhood with my hands. In fact, that was all I could think about, but my hands wouldn’t work. “Oh God,” I stammered, “Don’t cut it off! I’ve never even got to use it yet!”

Cleopatra was laughing hysterically as she used her knife to make quick work of the big knots in my shoe laces. She was just after my money, and my dick could rest to rise another day! Who would have thought that being robbed could be such a relief?

When my heart quit racing and Cleopatra had claimed to the remainder of my pay, I refocused on what Eddie had passed to her. “What did Eddie give to you then, if it wasn’t a key?”

Cleopatra sat on the bed next to me. “It was just some medicine to help your head.”

“I don’t need any medicine.”

“You’ve already had it, honey. It was in your beer.”

And then the lights went out. I vaguely remember being carried down a flight of stairs, upside down, and throwing up on some neon blue pants. The next thing I remember for sure was some hellacious thunder and two young M.P.’s, a tall one and a short one, smiling down at me under the midday sun. I was naked and folded into a garbage can with my bare feet sticking out. The thunder was one of them beating on the can with his nightstick.

“You must be Gonad,” the tall one said. “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“Captain Perkins has a suite reserved for you at the stockade,” the short one laughed. “Nothing but the best for his troops!”

It looked like my weekend pass was over. That was just as well - I was broke anyway!

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The names have been changed to protect the author from law suit.

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