Wednesday, January 25, 2012

JANIS JOPLIN: (Memphis Meltdown)

I’d been hustling a meager living in the coffee houses and psychedelic joints of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan when word spread of Janis Joplin’s departure from Big Brother & the Holding Company. I can’t say the announcement held the same aura as the Beatles imminent crack-up or Bob Dylan converting electric, but it did reverberate along Bleecker and McDougall streets attracting greater attention among working musicians than buskers. I for one reacted swiftly to rumor.

Word came Janis was assembling a rhythm & blues band much like the high flying Memphis bands, somewhere between Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. It was a sound originating from Soulsville USA Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and reproduced on vinyl by Stax/Volt records.
I popped in a record store on Eight Avenue, one frequented on many occasions for it’s diversity and scanned the jacket cover of Cheap Thrills, Joplin’s most recent recording. I scanned for clues to management with no success before asking a clerk for assistance. He pointed to a recording by the Electric Flag, a contemporary rhythm & blues band who shared the same management. It turned out to be Albert Grossman, noted for successful campaigns in behalf of Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield and others.

I dialed Grossman’s office and was directed to associates Vinnie Fusco and Elliot Mazior who were closely involved in Joplin’s affairs. An audition was arranged at A-1 Studios the original home of Atlantic Records. Before the date, I was summoned to an informal meeting with Albert Grossman.
I waited outside his office clutching the one recorded document of my playing, a b-side instrumental to a single by California soul unit, Kent & The Kandidates whose claim to fame was backing band on the million seller "Gimme A Little Sign", recorded by a local dishwasher named Brenton Wood.

Upon entry I catch a glimpse of Grossman through several towering stacks of papers positioned like a fortress rather than work in progress. Speaking in a near whisper Grossman beckoned me forward. While standing there listening to his take on Joplin’s radical plan I couldn’t help ponder how much he looked like Ben Franklin with flowing white locks tied in a ponytail and small wire-framed glasses. As far as I was concerned he could have been one of the original signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Whatever transpired in conversation landed me both duties of keyboardist and music director.

The first audition was little more than a formality geared to access the compatibility of the players. The second audition involved recording the soulful number " Piece of My Heart" at the Hit Factory. A final mix was sent to Janis for approval.

Drummer Roy Markowitz and I landed jobs. Bassist Stu Woods didn’t suffer the loss instead went on to work as sideman and record with Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Pozo Seco Singers, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Janice Ian and others. In many ways his career faired better.

After coming to a financial agreement a flight was arranged for Roy and I to San Francisco. No accommodation had been met other than a few nights arranged at a studio apartment belonging to the road manager’s mother in North Beach. That was fine with me, I pretty much lived the past couple years out of a suitcase.

We met bassist Brad Campbell of the Last Words, the only Canadian in the group, at the temporary digs. Rolling Stone magazine had announced the hiring of both Brad and Skip Prokop from Lighthouse, but the latter player never materialized. It was probably just as well since the three of us had spent our lives in the shadows beyond the glare of spotlights and this was truly Janis’s show.
Janis invited us to her Noe street apartment for a get-to-know-you session.

After dragging our nightclub-trained bodies up a severe slope to Joplin’s door, we were accosted by a snarling dog that dared entry. Joplin’s live-in mate, ex-wife of blues singer Nick Gravenites, collected the dog then directed us to a small sitting room resplendent in Salvation Army home furnishings. A few somber moments pass when Joplin burst from the hallway like a Texas whirlwind. She laughed and joked about a compact stereo Columbia Records had given her, which she checked as baggage during her flight home from New York. Janis watched its fatal plunge from an economy window seat as it bounced along transporting roller pins between cargo and flatbed eventually crashing to the tarmac below. The story was repeated throughout orientation.

Janis was the perfect host, serving shots of Southern Comfort and reefer sticks. When I passed on refreshments she paused and commented, "What did Albert send me, Christ?" I apologized and assured her I wasn’t one of those bible-thumping southerners sent to protect her from a host of demons. She seemed more than comfortable with my assurances, and invited us back for dinner later that evening. Janis said there were a few friends she wanted us to meet.

When we arrived after nearly succumbing to the tortuous climb it was apparent a party was brewing in a nearby room. The soulful voice of Carla Thomas blared amongst the conversation of a few loitering denim clad men. As we reached the doorway to the dining room Janis charged in, steering us to what from a distance appeared to be a white stalagmite rising near an open window. As I moved closer it became evident it was a polished sculpture of a penis, a gift from a local Haight-Ashbury artist. The coveted centerpiece remained the focal point of conversation throughout the ensuing hour.
With each rap at the door another group of tattooed denim jockeys enters, each grimier than the other. My team looked like choirboys at a prison picnic.

Janis journeyed from lap to lap kissing and hugging each man. Eventually, when the room overflowed she introduced us as her new hand-picked band and the men in denim as the Oakland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels.

I was more than a bit uncomfortable especially when the drugs started flowing, music intensified and the booze spilt. The three of us politely excuse ourselves and inform Janis we’ll meet again at rehearsal.

While we awaited the arrival of two horn players who had just completed service in the Electric Flag, Brad, Roy and myself scoured the pool halls of North Beach playing snooker until past midnight. We’d listen to jazz and trade road stories until our guts nearly cripple from laughter, relive the failed dinner party and speculate about the future. Roy and I never took rock music that seriously. Miles and Coltrane were the most talked-about players in our sphere; Joplin was merely a quirky individualist with a wide following. For the two of us it was a better gig than lounging about Grossingers in the Catskills.

Rehearsals began early December 1968 in the old Fillmore Auditorium. The floor below Carlos Santana was working his band through the final preparations for his Columbia recording debut. A floor below him, It’s A Beautiful Day was putting the finishing touches on material for their first recording.

We shared great rapport with Carlos and company. During breaks each band would filter in and listen to one another restructure tunes. Santana was miles ahead of our newly assembled unit. His band loved playing and did it with precision and commitment. We had barely enough time to acquaint ourselves with unfinished and untried material before pressing ahead.

Day one, the band strolls in just past noon and takes their places. My position as leader was to bring order to the proceedings a role I’d played many times before but never on such a grand scale. Janis eventually slips in, introduces herself, and trades hugs with the horn players before drifting my way. She then slides along the organ bench near me and introduces a modest list of tunes hoping to bridge the raw elements of her persona with the classic sound of rhythm & blues. The marriage arranged in her head had yet to be consummated by the band.

First up was "Summertime" her signature wail. Guitarist Sam Andrews plays a fugue like riff leading to the bands entry. I wrote a counterpoint line meant to fatten the sequence. It became apparent organ didn’t carry the same weight as amplified guitar giving Janis cause to rethink the intro. By the time the complete band enters Joplin all but forgets the odd coloring.

During the rehearsal I crafted horn lines for the Bee Gee’s "To Love Somebody", which Joplin quickly transformed into a blues ballad ripe with guttural cries and evangelical testifying. I would convince her to give the old Eddie Floyd soul hit "Raise Your Hand" a try. It was a crack staple from my days with Kent & The Kandidates. The song had the same fat groove prevalent in Wilson Pickett’s, " Midnight Hour and Mustang Sally" with a memorable gospel style shout chorus. The band reveled in the textures before imploding on "Ball and Chain" another squealing testimonial.

Rehearsals began to lose their luster the following week. Gone were the rock celebrities and energized sessions. Trumpeter Marcus Doubleday began showing up late. He made a heroin connection, which eventually took precedent over scheduled rehearsals. Janis was getting agitated spending more time carousing pool halls and nightspots than rehearsing. She was also drinking more. I could see more welts swell beneath her inset eyes. Acne infected nearly every pore of her scarred face. In fact, I was starting to dread daily meetings with her.

By December 18 guitarist Mike Bloomfield, noted for his groundbreaking work with the Blues Project, Paul Butterfield and others, unexpectedly appears. Bloomfield’s turf was Greenwich Village, which led me to question his presence in our house. Janis arrives then introduces Bloomfield and asks us to jam a few tunes. We’d already made the Bloomfield connection through a shuffle blues prior to her entry. The piece lasted some twenty minutes. Janis then instructs us to play " Piece of My Heart’. Bloomfield plugs the holes with stinging blues lines, which seem to last an eternity. Once testing had been completed Janis confers in private with Bloomfield then emerges with the verdict. "Mike really likes the band," she declares.

The momentary reprieve was nearly broken when drummer Levon Helms of The Band fame arrives and Janis instructs us to play once again. Levon listens then awards the band another vote of confidence. I could sense uncertainty in Janis’s body language. This was Janis’ call. With it came vulnerability and responsibility. Gone was the comfort of Big Brother’s blasting amps, plodding rhythms and close relationships.

I remember a conversation with producer John Simon who confided to me it cost him six months editing just to give Cheap Thrills a consistent flow. Steady tempos were foreign to the band.
Janis roared at night. Brad and I would pile into the back seat of her psychedelic Porsche and cruise the seedier pool halls around the bay. She knew every oddball and misfit along the tour. Joplin treated them no differently than the band. If you were a friend you remained a friend.

I accompanied her to the Kaleidoscope Club to hear a local San Francisco group not long after she extorted a fur coat from Southern Comfort, ransom for her personal campaign in behalf of the beverage. Throughout the evening the luxury item dusted floors and served as a seat cushion rather than treasured garment. She eventually dragged me backstage to greet a few musicians before departing.

We arrive late evening at the Fillmore when Janis again pulls me back stage this time to meet Rod Stewart and Ron Wood who were performing with the Small Faces. The reserved Englishmen were no matches for her. Janis tried to warm the reticent musicians with her quick wit and undeniable charm with little success. She walked away commenting on what a bunch of tight asses British bands were.

It soon became imperative after receiving an invite to play the second annual Stax/Volt Yuletide Thing at the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum. Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Johnny Taylor, the Bar-Kays, Booker T and the MG’s, Eddie Floyd were just a few of the expected celebrity performers. Janis was eager to introduce the new band in an area rich in folk and blues history. The final rehearsal would have to take place down South.

During the Sunday drive from the airport the limousine driver makes an unusual turn and charts a path towards Jackson, Mississippi. Janis was in severe need of a drink. As the drive gets more confusing the urgency in her voice resonates throughout. A few terse words nearly turn into an explosive confrontation. A deal was eventually struck to let the band off at the hotel while the search continued.

We were booked into the Lorraine Motel the same structure that Martin Luther King was gunned down only months before. In fact, we were booked in adjacent rooms on the same landing.
Little fanfare greeted our arrival leaving Janis to her vices. As we stroll back to our rooms, Mike Bloomfield lumbers past toting a garbage bag full of pot. Roy stops him and asks for a joint. Bloomfield looks on with contempt and says, " I don’t have enough". A startled Roy looks back at me then busts loose with laughter.

A rehearsal was set for mid-afternoon December 20th at Soulsville USA Studios. First sight of the shattered movie marquee made me question if we’d been driven to the wrong location. I would eventually learn the broken panes of glass were fronting an immensely successful, sophisticated operation.

As the doors spring open a cacophony of sounds unleash while several bands put the final touches to performance material. We wait until Booker T & The MGs complete a run through of prepared concert material then take positions behind our respective instruments. It was truly one of the most awkward situations I’d ever been in. First, the studio floor was on a slope due to its previous incarnation as a public cinema. Secondly, the number of certified super stars walking about not only excited but also added a level of intimidation. I mean these were my big heroes.

After a complete run through we drove on to the coliseum for set up. The sound check was a disaster. With an event the magnitude as this you would have assumed the promoters would have spent decent coin to rent adequate amplification. Instead, they propped up a couple column speakers found mostly in rural churches at the time. Enough wattage for a sermon but not reliable enough to carry the power of a raucous singer. Janis was flabbergasted. To compound matters, she spotted a poster of the event with her image and name posted larger than the other participants. The thought of headlining amongst such prestigious talent sent her into an apologetic rant.

All of the goodwill we received jamming at Soulsville USA Studio a day earlier would now be tested as the concert drew near. The many extraordinary people whose music made Stax Records the preeminent rhythm & blues record label of the day and whose hands we shook were relegated to minor status in their own community all because of a power play between booker and manager. In the end, Janis would be the big loser.

The evening crowd, mostly adoring women cheered for their idols, which seemed more like a fashion show for both the wealthy and poor. Rufus and Carla Thomas sang and cajoled the crowd with one-liners and jabs to an approving audience, phrases that seemed memorized from previous concerts. Booker T did the MG thing in a cool almost self-effacing manner. The Bar-Kays stole the night with an upbeat rhythm set dressed in zebra-stripped flannel jumpsuits.

As we took our places I soon discover the organ sound cutting in and out and Janis’s mike distorting. I try in vain to get help but no one seemed particularly interested. The crowd offered minimal support. We were only a distraction, a brief interlude.

Janis tried her best to involve the audience but her music never caught fire. Even with the best soul intention, a bunch of white pretenders in psychedelic gear were no competition for the clean manicured presence of a Johnny Taylor and Eddie Floyd.

The set ended as it began without much consideration.

I felt sorry for Janis. She reviewed the brief time on stage and cool response as an indictment of her vision.

Janis’s spirit was renewed later that evening at a party hosted by Stax/Volt president Jimmy Stewart. The sprawling ranch style house situated amongst lush tree-lined surroundings was the social center for invited guests from both the black and white communities. Behind these doors people could mingle without prejudice.

All of the great Memphis singers and musicians were there.

Stewart had rigged various rooms with monstrous-sized Voice of the Theater speakers. Through the night he played unreleased tapes of Otis Redding, who had perished in a plane crash along with four of the original Bar-Kays December 10, 1967. There were many tears. As much as it was an occasion to celebrate it was nearing Christmas Eve, one in which all knew the great singer would be unable to attend. The music seemed to pierce the hearts of the most reluctant making the night both a somber and tender occasion.

We gathered around the main dining room table and aquatinted ourselves with Booker T, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Isaac Hayes and company. Janis was in an effervescent mood. She joked, laughed, poured drinks and talked music. All of us were swept away by her sincerity. Janis had a great heart, great sense of humor and quick tongue. She could banter with the best or confide on a personal level.

The following morning we meet for a final occasion. It was truly one of the saddest moments for me. Janis and Marcus Doubleday had passed out after returning from the concert. The both had shot up heroin. Janis had landed in Dallas a few days earlier to meet a young band she had befriended and was given a gift box of twelve syringes. Marcus and her would fight over the distribution that night. The thought sickened me.

I returned home for Christmas the winter of 1968 and was immediately detained by the FBI for draft-evasion then given a choice between jail time or the army. Army!

After basic training, I watched the Ed Sullivan show one Sunday evening from the Day Room in my barracks and witnessed my former band-mates and Janis play the arrangement of " Raise Your Hand’ I had scripted only a six weeks earlier and nearly collapse into depression. I dare mention to those around I had anything to do with the band or the sound emanating through the old Sylvania.

A year passes when Janis arrives in Toronto to play the Festival Express June 29, 1970. I had left the army behind and began a new life in Canada. My band Homestead just happened to be opening act that day. I stuck around to see Janis, who was to play late afternoon. The first person I recognize is Brad, then the road manager who eventually escorts Janis over. There were hugs and kisses and genuine feelings exchanged. Janis remarked that she had quit hard liquor and had switched to wine. Heroin was also a memory and there was now a serious love interest in her life. She appeared happier than I’d ever believe possible. Her new ensemble, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, was her best. All of the blues, folk, rock and soul music concealed in her heart found a genuine medium for expression. The band was the perfect conduit.

My time with Janis was brief, only a month in length. During that eventful period much transpired. Her kindness and insecurities will always linger in my mind, but above all the sincerity and joy she brought to the music she loved will never be forgotten.

February 25, 2001

Monday, January 23, 2012

Zulu Time (Short Story)

by William King

        Beyond the ground floor window of my new digs nestled somewhere between a hundred rectangular buildings all the same character and size, I count forty horizontal white planks all similar width and distance. At least that’s how they appear through the modest size window angled a few feet above my bunk bed. When possible I prefer sleeping with my head near an open window.  The view harbors escape and breeze tempers my sometimes feverish body.  In fact, I’d rather Arctic wind strike my face than dry suffocating heat.

       Here I toil, day three, week one of basic training seven hundred miles from home and another thousand from where I should be and destined to be molded a ground soldier. At least that’s what they keep preaching to me.

I’ve never really felt any conflict with military in fact every eligible male clinging to the family tree served honorably. My problem with this scenario is Vietnam. (Neither I nor the Pentagon see matters in the same light.) I certainly celebrate those who fought the Nazi occupation of Europe and understand sacrifice made in the name of freedom, but Vietnam?

      From the Claymount Public library I borrow what seems a seventy-pound world atlas. As I skim pages of fading maps detailing the Persian Empire, Belgian Congo, Ceylon - remote areas of the world that conjure images beyond imagination. I thumb across China, Mongolia and Indonesia with little fuss. Damn! These are much more visible countries to call a war with than Vietnam?

Eventually my fingers locate a small country bordered by two other equally obscure nations; Cambodia and Laos near that earnest bastion of communism, China.  First thought? What a great place to take a camera and several rolls of film. The area looks like uncharted territory probably one of those wild adventures where Marlin Perkin’s wrestles a lethal boa or someplace where a goat trades for a two-bedroom bungalow.

 Vietnam, Vietnam, I wondered who the hell lives there? I’d seen Dan Rather’s news reports from the trenches - hip waders up around the neck stuck in five feet of freshly planted rice stalks and deep mud - army grunts slithering on bellies nearby.

     No one seems capable of delivering a clear message, nothing clarifying the purpose of such a costly campaign, other than the politics of slogans; “ I’m proud to be an American.” I guess that’s got to count for something. I was proud to be an American or an Armenian if that’s what it takes to solve this crisis, but in reality, a simplistic catch phrase could never address the complexity of a situation with such fatal consequence.

      Fort Knox, deep in the heartland of Kentucky looks like any other bleak winter retreat except for the massive sea of green uniforms and endless flow of tanks. I thought I’d get a few laughs when I ask the bus driver to drop me off at the mint which by all accounts is just as fortified as the army base. Momentary silence lapses before busman turns and says, “ Get a hair cut asshole.” Get a haircut? Come on,I thought.  Hit me with your best material not one of those weak Lucy Arnez one-liners absent profanity.

As I’m deposited in my assigned company area this runt of corporal begins screaming in my face. Now, to a well-adjusted civilian such nonsense comes unexpected. With mouth sealed I listen while he tries to pound fear in me but daily life on the streets of Los Angeles and Manhattan’s lower east side were much more intimidating than some country punk in a rumpled uniform poking the face. I let it slide.

We’ll call him the man ‘Biscuit’ for now. Why? Well, he had this strange habit of calling all of young recruits –“ Sour dough.’. Don’t even ask why!

It was his lessons in time that most fascinated me. Corporal Biscuit divided all newcomers into two rows then began tossing a few digits around. “You will be up at zero four-hundred, eat at zero four-fifteen and on the training field by zero four-thirty.” At first, I thought he meant I could sleep all day and play soldier late afternoon. Not a chance. I’m used to crashing at five in the morning after a robust night of carousing. I soon realize how different night felt when rising instead of flat lining at such an ungrateful hour.

 “You won’t need a watch or anything clinging to your body ‘cause I have perfect time,” Biscuit says with tiny lips curled upward nearly sticking to his nose. “Military time is perfect time,” he would go on to state. 

Perfect time? Who determines perfect time and what is it based on, I wondered.

“You got to keep perfect time in order for everything flow right. Understand,?” he says while marching a circle around us recruits. I understood that much but still wondered about such a thing as perfect time. Did Vietnam run on perfect time?

      I didn’t take long for life to blossom along this time line. My favorite was twenty-three hundred. Amazing, twenty-three hundred hours in a day I thought. At least that’s how it felt three days into my incarceration.

      I was caged in a barracks with an odd assortment of displaced individuals. There was “Clay County’; sporting a mouthful of decaying teeth, “Private Daly”; two hundred pounds of dangling flesh, head as big as a prized melon. “Penn State”; a college draftee with no life to give. “ Montgomery Alabama”, the singing brother who believed the Four Tops would sound a lot better if they added a fifth on Top and  “Trouble from Motown” - Detroit; other than being the largest fellow in the community and a glare as intense as Gamma ray burst, seemed peaceful enough.

      At first I kept my distance rarely speaking. There were to many clean-shaven heads honking vowels near my ears that might be charter members of the KKK. A young man must watch what he says in these circumstances.

Upstairs and downstairs and throughout the old wood frame barracks grunts were staking territory. I was fortunate to arrive later than the rest. My bunk was waiting. I understood this was to be short-lived at least until basic training officially began - I remained aloof. When someone would ask where I was from I’d just nod and half smile. I figured if trouble where to erupt I’d be between guys who had chose to know each other to soon. Man, would I be wrong.

It took about thirty minutes before the first altercation flared. It started when ‘Trouble in Motown’ decides he needs a change of scenery and moves his duffel bag loaded with personal effects to a bed presently occupied by some poor clucking farm boy.  I hear, “ What chu doin’ nigger”, a pause then “Whack!” Body meets floor. I’m serious; “ Farm boy” ate wood so fast I thought he did a half gainer off an imaginary diving board.

  Most recruits responded by quietly circling the victim and staring. The incident came so fast no words were spoken. ‘Trouble’ flings himself on the bunk then confidently clasps hands back of head while evil - eyeing the rest of us. A couple guys slowly lift farm boy upright then escort to his new digs.

     A surreal hush temporarily penetrates the room until another farm boy plugs in a radio. We were forbidden any convenience, certainly no entertainment during the upcoming weeks of training. I wondered what the hell the guy was thinking. You could hear the frantic sound of someone intent on locating the familiar. Suddenly, up comes the sound of fiddle, steel guitar and the melancholy voice of Eddie Arnold singing, “ Make The World Go Away.” I wasn’t ready for this. Maybe Bob Wills and a little Texas swing but not one of those sobbing middle of the road hillbilly ballads. The thought no more than crossed the brain when I spot ‘Trouble’ rise the size of a tall redwood walk over and rip the cord from the wall. He then absconds with the radio, drags along floor to bedside and plugs in. I assumed ‘Trouble’ was inviting punishment for this.

      ‘Trouble’ fumbles the dial long enough to find this rhythm and blues station out of Louisville. Farm boy two makes a play at retrieving the stolen item when ‘Trouble’ explodes from crouched position and smacks him dead center the face causing farm boy to topple and kiss a half dozen dirt-soiled planks.
While the situation spins out of hand, a crowd gathers and passively watches, mostly whispers until one brave soul declares, “ I’ll get the MPs.”

“ Fuck you whore bring me your sorry ass over here.,” bellows ‘Trouble’

I couldn’t believe I heard the remark, not that I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of trash talk on most basketball courts. “Trouble’ simply didn’t care. I couldn’t figure for the life of me why anyone would put himself in such a tenuous position with what I perceive a genuinely punitive military system. We were just numbers to be memorized no more, no less. Why serve anymore time than necessary was my mantra.

  “No motherfucker ever sending me to Vietnam so fuck all of you,” a voice comes booming off the walls. The ominous declaration freezes activity silencing all conversation. Moments pass before two MPs and a drill Sergeant arrive then work their way into “Trouble’s’ company.

      “Get up soldier and come with us,” the Sergeant commands.

“Fuck you motherfuckers! They should send every one of you cracker-ass hillbillies to Vietnam where you belong.” About a thirty - second interval passes when I hear “ Get up soldier!” By this time we’d all left the security of our bunks to witness the stand off.

“I told you corn-husking goat fuckers there ain’t any way you send me to Vietnam. It’s a white boy fight nothing to do with us black folk. I told them when they picked me up and forced me here you weren’t sending me that shit hole.”

‘Trouble’ reclines and stares back at them when suddenly all three lunge forward overpower and cuff him. He offered little resistance.

I watch as they drag him away trying to make sense of the ordeal. You’d never mistake the guy for an anti-war protester or Martin Luther King disciple. The guy reeked of street.

     With only two blacks out of two hundred men in our company a few southern recruits start spouting racial remarks. Guys can really tough talk miles from a private street corner, pool hall or girl friend, absent any threat to themselves. That’s sort of the way the barracks transformed itself in ‘Troubles’ absence.

     Just as calm was about to set in a mouth spoke from behind a bunk.“You should have taken that guy, farm boy. You some kind of coward?” Here it comes friends of John Wayne riding tall in the saddle. I’d heard that line a thousand times before and need not be reminded of my own bringing. I knew it’d be only moments before the taunting would escalate and felt sorry for any man who actually convinced himself he could last a round with Trouble. There wasn’t such a thing.

   “I didn’t see you big pecker head stand up for either one of us so-called farm boys,” says the second victim whose nose by now had swollen the size of a pig’s snout.

“So what it’s your radio, your fight. Punks like that back down when you show some spine,” spouts another.

Right! I thought about those rather naive remarks and the kind of men they facedin rough urban neighborhoods. I know for a fact nine out of ten times none ever back down in fact they’ll crackyou up side the head with any available implement or cut your ass for casting an uninvited glance.

     Three days pass and we’re just getting back from a second day of physicals when I see ‘Trouble’ stretched horizontal on his bunk. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

   “What the fuck you looking at fish-eyed fool?, he says with a menacing tone.”

I quickly drop my head and tend to personal matters before the room fills with trainees each pausing in view of the company bully.
 “I told you motherfuckers, I ain’t going to no Vietnam. That’s a tourist destination for dumb ass white boys. Where’s that boy that sent the police on me? I’ve got to fuck him up good.” Everybody froze in position.

“Where’s the little shit who called the cops?’ No one muttered a sound until one large white boy says,  ‘Nobody holding you here, why don’t you just take off?’

“Trouble” pauses then replies, “ If I leave here they come for me. If I stay I get to fuck you up. Which do you prefer?” (I’ve been around situations where terribly frightening individuals inflict serious physical damage and recognize the negative energy.) ‘Trouble’ was wired to the same current, the one that conducts undue pain.

 “I’ll tell you what - you bring five of your  baddest white boys and I’ll fight you here and now. I swear I‘ll stuff your lungs up in your brains before you land a punch. Any of you pussies ever see Sonny Liston fight before?” The room falls silent. “No, I guess not. You white boys been waiting to see Roy Roger’s slug it out with Tonto haven’t you? I trained with Sonny’s cousins Bryce and Mackie in Detroit. I bet you white boys train with fucking goats and chickens. Don’t you. The hell with all of you pussies.”

Just as I thought, there were no takers. The room froze. ‘Trouble’ then drifts to sleep.

    It was now nineteen hundred and lights out. I’ve never in my life climbed in bed at seven in the evening. Even the thought seemed preposterous.  The same could be said for the rest of the room. Lights were dimmed but sexual fantasies spread mostly about fondling a pair of large orgasmic female breasts and the ever-popular elusive snapping pussy, described in gruesome detail. The description evoked this visual image of a large turtle’s head covered in a thin membrane lurking about in search of piping hot male genitalia.

     Twenty minutes pass when in I hear, “ Fuck this shit I’m getting a beer and something to eat. Which one of you fools going with me to the PX?” At this stage we weren’t allowed to even possess a candy bar let alone leave the barracks in pursuit of sustenance.

“Anyone with me? Come on white boys, I’ll buy a couple of you chicken-humpers a beer. “
 I look up and see ‘Troubles’ immense black silhouette blocking the fire light.

“Yeah, I’ll go”, shouts a voice end of the hall. “Hey, me too just as long as you buy me a cold Budweiser and not any of that ‘Near beer piss’ they try to pass off as German lager.” I liked the cockiness in the room, the disregard for authority.

     As the party leaves the room starts buzzing. “Who’s got the balls to do the same? I’ve got five dollars for anyone who’ll buy me a chocolate bar and a beer. I’ll match that,” yells this grunt they call “Mishap’.” Don’t ask me why.

   A bidding war ensues. I thought about it and made a play. “Over here. I’ll do it.”

Suddenly, I was swamped with orders. “Two Baby Ruths, a bag of salted pretzels. Over here. I’ll have five Clark Bars and some licorice twists.” On and on and on. By the time I was prepared to leave I’d collected over fifty dollars and half was profit. Since we only made fifty-two dollars a month I had myself two weeks pay.

    While everyone kept lookout I slip out the back door then stumble past a few barracks making sure I remember where my tracks lay. Unfortunately, the PX was located in an area a great distance from our quarters out of our designated zone.

 Trembling all over I rehearse a safety line - ready to bluff my way past security.. “Yes sir, I’m just out of basic training and have been awaiting my assignment to my next company. Just dropped in for a night cap and a couple apples.” Fortunately, I never had to deliver the speech.

Once I cracked open the PX doors I couldn’t help notice ‘Trouble’ and the two farm recruits inhaling beers and downing hot dogs.

“Fuck, look who’s here? It’s motherfucking ‘Fish-eyes. Let me buy you a beer before I toss you smelly ass back in the pond.”

 Knowing full well something unexpected could erupt in ‘Trouble’s’presence I pass on the offer and go about the business of collecting samples. While cashing out I notice this MP face up to “Trouble’, then words fly. I quickly secure the goods and slip past conversation. A moment passes when I see the both shoving each other and the MP come falling towards me. I speed through the exit ahead of both.

    Only a small glowing bulb above the doorway cast much light on the darkness outside. The two antagonists resume calling each names when out of nowhere a thunderous blow arrives flattening the MP. Down he falls a flight of uneven stairs onto the wet grass hitting his head on the corner of a patio stone. ‘Trouble’ steps aside and eases his massive frame into darkness. A second MP follows in pursuit. A scuffle soon arises and then Bam! Another body hits the ground. (The scene was almost comical.) I kept thinking about Sonny Liston’s cousins and how many of them ever administered this much any pain on ‘Trouble’.

     Avoiding all conflict with 'Trouble' I decide to take an alternate route back to the barracks. Two blocks out I hear this voice yell from behind, “Trainee, what the hell you doing in my neighborhood?”

I slow down and face this broad rim hat.

 “I asked you, what are you doing in my neighborhood?”

I hesitate then reply. “Sir, I think I’m lost.”  Proper decorum was expected of all soldiers addressing anyone in a creased uniform or superior position.

    “I’ll ask you again soldier. What are you doing on my property?” I quickly straighten then reply.

“Sir! Just waiting for my new assignment.” With a keen eye the man inspects then squeezes his chin. “It looks to me like you haven’t learned much in basic training. I can’t for the life of me see how they’d pass such a pathetic looking goof as you.’ He pauses, looks downward then tilts the brim of his hat. “You know, they’ll take anyone in army. Fucking Westmoreland!”

With heart beating I prayed the sergeant wouldn’t insist on peeking into my laundry bag. The guy stood there massaging a of patch of morning growth before looking up. “I ought to stick a boot right up your get the hell out of here.” I turn towards the path and  hear, “ Hold it!”

“ Tell them when they measure you for your next uniform to fit you with a extra large body bag, he laughs”

I sigh and then quickly sprint past row after row of undistinguished buildings bathed in exactly the same quality of light until I see a familiar face hanging out a side window. “Over here Daniels. You’ve got to climb through the window the sergeant’s awake. You know the MP’s are out looking for that back dude from Detroit.”

I climb through with all the goods and am greeted like a butcher in a lion’s den.

While savoring the catch the barracks door flies open and two MP’s bust through. “Have any of you seen Robert James?” No one recognized the name Robert James until one of the farm boys stands forward and asks, “ You mean that black troublemaker from Detroit?”

“That’s right. Where is he? “

“Sorry sir none of us seen him all night we’ve been sleeping.”

The reply was unacceptable. “My ass you haven’t been sleeping. Look at all those candy wrappers around
your bed and chocolate smeared about your nose?” The time of reckoning had arrived.

“You know I could pop your ass for all that contraband. I could search everyone of you piss ants and lock your queer ass behind bars.” That's when insanity begins.

“Every one of you could do five years in Leavenworth for disobeying a company
ordinance. Do I smell beer farts?”

Five years in Leavenworth, I thought. You’ve got to kill another soldier, steal a tank or drown someone in the kitchen grease pit to earn that severe amount of time. As things were about to get more heated two additional MP’s bust in the room and order the other two upstairs. The next moment I see 'Trouble' being drug away in cuffs. It was spooky, totally disturbing. I was anticipating another tirade about black men in Vietnam but not a sound. ‘Trouble’ went gently like someone who’d been injected with morphine or clubbed over the head.

      The next two weeks were spent sloshing about in snow with rifle and pack. My hands were numb from mud and sleet. My brain, numb with instruction and ridicule.

“Trainee, if your girlfriend saw you now she’d think you was a circus clown.” At first the words were a bit demoralizing but once you got a feel for the game you put your life on remote and count the days and forget the nonsense.

      Rumors flourished about 'Trouble'. He was accused of beating a half dozen MP’s, a couple drill sergeants, and a full bird colonel. I suspected they had packed him a way in a solitary dingy cell hoping he pleads for mercy.

      It was the third week of February and we were returning from a day on scouting patrol I marched my squad into an area where two tree lines converged forming this V like shape. All hell broke loose. Machine gun fire and tanks blasted rounds of tracer shells over our heads. It sounded like the end of civilization. There were seven of us on patrol. All we could do was lay horizontal until the crisis subsided. Eventually, this second lieutenant comes stomping forward screaming obscenities. All I could hear was a muffled voice and roar of a nearby tank splitting a small hill. My clothing, from heavy overcoat to wool pants was soaked in ground water. I envisioned a hot shower and warm barracks waiting in the not to distant future.

During the march back seven of us were heckled about the embarrassing incident. We’d been instructed to avoid such geometrical patterns but who sees that well in the woods I wondered. I’ve always lived in large cities. I know the layout and what to expect. Hell, I’ve never even seen a fucking ground hog. This might has well been Vietnam as far as I was concerned.

    It’s ‘sixteen hundred’ when we safely arrive back in the barracks. I notice a tight group of about fifteen soldiers huddled in conversation. One soldier spots me then gestures me over.

“Did you hear? Detroit’s coming back to our unit tomorrow.” I thought to myself someone’s got to be bullshitting.

“They want him to finish up so they can dump his black ass in Vietnam,” one of the farm boys proudly states. “Aw…the shits gonna get wild.”

      Farm boy was on the money. ‘O Eight hundred Robert James strolls in a free man.

     “Fuck all of you white motherfuckers. Nobody can keep me down a hole for long.” That moment I sensed things were going to get even more unpredictable. I could read fearsome anger in his eyes leading all the way to his heart. 'Trouble', I surmised, had no recourse but commit a major act of defiance or worse to save his ass from Vietnam.

      This tall jerk from Arkansas makes some remark about cowardly blacks hiding in caves during combat earning him a surprise night visit from News.

It was nearing ‘O Three hundred’ when I hear this loud smack, blood curdling scream then crashing sound. I spring to the edge of the bed and spy someone fleeing the room. I could hear the shrill voice pleas for help - cries of agonizing pain the length of the building. Someone then switches the overhead light on and I recognize Arkansas spurting blood through cupped fingers while trying to protect eyes and nose. At first I thought he’d been cut but on close inspection I could see it was mostly flowing from the nose. It became obvious Arkansas had fallen from top bunk to ground floor.  Boot to the face is a popular army scheme for settling scores. Catch a guy napping and whack dead center the nose with the heel then it’s a quick trip to the post emergency room. Vision doesn’t return twenty minutes or more and the nose swells the size of a ripe pear. Scores get settled this way. No charges were ever laid.

'Trouble' hung around the barracks like a foul odor refusing to participate in any formal instruction. Orders were leave him alone and let war comfort him. Every time we return from training grounds he’d be yelling,

“Look at the white boys, gonna kill some yellow boys while I’ll be here fucking their white girlfriends. Now ain’t that a bitch.” Those weren’t exactly the most encouraging words but we’d gotten used to his profanity and daily pronouncements.

      Week five began with me submerged in a foxhole firing my M1 locked on a target a hundred or so yards away. They could have pasted a fifty-foot bull’s-eye on a nearby building and I’d still have planted more slugs in a nearby tree.  I have no talent for marksmanship. Every time I’d hoist the clumsy firearm near my head condensation would swiftly cloud my glasses. I try clearing with the cloth part of a glove but it only made matters worse. I can’t seem to get my concentration focused so I fire at a couple targets three rows over for the hell of it.

By now, I still hadn’t made up my mind about Vietnam or the army other than cracking up at these buffed drill sergeants swaggering around like five star generals. The army was the army, war was a different matter.

I thought a lot about what 'Trouble' was testifying about and watched a lot of nightly news reporting all those casualties we’d been suffering and those fucked up hippies out there acting like we could win the war with a pot of daffodils and two hits of acid. I couldn’t make up my mind. Some days I think I might have a career here, others I think my brain may be too large.

     We were just returning to the barracks when I spot an ambulance and several military policemen rushing about. The area had to be cordoned off leaving us spectators. A few minutes pass when I see the big frame of 'Trouble' being pulled through the doorway. He was screaming fuck you this, fuck you that at everyone. One MP shouted loud enough for all of us to hear “ Where you’re going nobody will ever care to see you again so go ahead and curse the world. You think Vietnam will kill you? You’re going to die in Leavenworth without a fight.”

    They wouldn’t let us near the barracks even with 'Trouble' caged. Some fifteen minutes pass before I see this stretcher come out with six men in white holding bottles and tubing all around. I see what looks like a tourniquet around this soldier’s neck, all passed out. There was blood spilt all over. Everyone was frantically trying to maneuver the wounded soldier back of the ambulance. I had this morbid sense that death had already spoken.
My intuition was right. There was too much blood shed inside to recoup the young man’s life. It was a sickening moment, one forever etched in the soul. It was a prelude to war and possibly my future.

I guess he realized it would take nothing short of murder to save him from Vietnam. I couldn’t for the life of me get a handle on his reasoning. Why he cut this young man’s throat, no one knew for sure. The two were alone together while the rest of us were on the firing range. One sick with flu the other nearly insane. For that matter he could have just slipped off the post and disappear for a couple years. The memory will always haunt me.

Graduation day the army awarded one of the farm boys a medal for assisting the wounded soldier and we paused a moment in silence. Later, we heard that 'Trouble' was being shipped out of Leavenworth into a  facility for dangerous offenders. He received a life sentence with no chance of parole for twenty-five years.

I just got my new assignment to Fort Benning, Georgia. I get two weeks leave before I have to report. I’m thinking about visiting a cousin of mine who says he’s got a way to get me a good job with this division in Stuttgart, Germany. It’s o eight hundred and the bus is on time. Vietnam? Haven’t made up my mind. From what I hear we’re making a piecemeal commitment guided by a bankrupt strategy. There’s the good soldier in me - the other - hopefully - a smart soldier. I sure hope I don’t have to choose. Perhaps the good lord will end this thing before they dial my name up.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Whipping Boy (Short Story)

by William King

“Young people aren’t meant to suffer the vengeful hand of those who deliver them to this world,” was the message pastor Butler delivered in his Sunday sermon the morning brother Henry was born.

I was already three years old when Henry arrived. I‘d been around long enough to sense all was not right within the walls of the Gladstone house. Initially, it was the tone of language piercing the wooden slats of my small crib . It wasn’t something a boy could fully grasp as threatening but a synthesis of vocal agitation and unpredictable movement as if preparations for a grander conflict was being formulated by someone or something living within our home. Henry arrived just when the source of all the tension was about to shed its skin.

Year one passed, mostly uneventful. There was the usual shouting, broken plates and slammed doors all a careful distance from Henry’s room. Then one afternoon father, “Mr. Eugene,” as neighbors would address returned with a newly purchased antique smoking centerpiece cut from plate glass with a bronze statue of an angel rising up the middle. A small brass ashtray placed above the glass surface next to an open pack of Winstons served purpose.

  Eugene proudly showcased the recent acquisition to members of the Chester Avenue Methodist Church of which he had recently been appointed deacon. Rarely, would mother, Olene or Eugene invite visitors without advantage. Neither were bred for small talk - speaking mostly to folks who could advance their ideals or those privy to wealth.

Eugene was a proud man short on compassion and long on punishment for those who crossed him. He saw the world in strict black and white, no grey areas or regions of compromise. Money served purpose not the idle whims of frivolous play. Retribution came swift without investigation or  judicious hearing. There would be no defense no pleas for mercy or lesser discipline. Eugene sanctioned whippings usually with a hand-me-down razor strap like the one his father administered to appropriate punishment for less than obedient children.

Brother Henry’s first year was spent mostly in the protective company of mother Olene who at times could be affectionate at others unusually distant. Olene’s disagreements with Eugene stemmed mostly from her mother’s dissatisfaction with her conversion to Protestant teaching over Catholicism, understood as a crime against her ancestors. Eugene would never physically abuse her,but his presence brought an unfair level of tension to her life.

  Olene’s mother Velma despised Eugene and never forgave him for moving her first born hundreds of miles west of her birthplace. I had a special bond with grandma unlike that between mother and I. Grandma would always be bragging,” Daniel can do this, Daniel can do that.” Mother never knew much what I could do other than clean things and wait on dad and plea for Henry.

One morning Eugene sprung from bed in a rare cheerful mood and called for two-year old Henry. He lifted brother, kissed about the forehead leaving him fly upward, release, then catch him as he falls within quick grasp. Their laughter would dissolve into joyful celebration a magic union between father and son.

  Eugene backslid down the worn red brocade couch with Henry bundled in his arms. The moment so thrilled brother he broke caution then lovingly hugged father about the neck. Eugene began tickling Henry’s feet all the way up under the armpits. Suddenly, Henry’s right leg makes an involuntary swing downward through the middle of father’s prized centerpiece shattering the delicate surface into a thousand charred bits of glass. As if summoned from the bowels of Hades, Eugene lungs exhale the most terrifying cry of anguish. Father springs to his feet and declares an unconscionable act has been wrought against his prized possession. He quickly tosses Henry aside, gathers two large sheets of broken glass, walks determinedly to a back porch receptacle and heaves the fragments inside the aluminum container. With dust pail in hand, Eugene collects every sliver until the area is clean of all evidence. Henry quietly observes wishing father would return and embrace him as before. But Eugene had other plans. While ridding the floor of shard fragments he secretly plots a degree of punishment. Father determines, after all it was Henry’s careless leg kick that destroyed his angelic centerpiece, not the actions of a somewhat careless parent, someone should accept the consequences.

Eugene coldly lifts young Henry and carries him to his bedroom then tosses on the mattress as if discarding an unwanted article. Eugene searches for the underside hook of his buckle, unsnaps then slowly pulls the thick leather belt through the shredded loops of his work pants. While clutching the belt ends in his fist he reaches down and rolls the young boy on his stomach then lashes his backside with ten unsparing strokes. Henry unfurls an agonizing scream - one mixed with terror and few muted words then begs father to cease and  explain why such pain be declared upon him. Eugene breaks silence.

  “ This will teach you to be careful, you clumsy shit. The angel was here no more than a week and you destroyed it. You know how much that cost me don’t you? Don’t leave this room until you hear from me.”

Witnessing such a horrific encounter sickened me. For most the next week I spoke few words. Father tried to lighten conversation with me but I refused to oblige him. He’d never laid a hand on me but I saw a different hand strike at Henry.

Time would advance and Henry quickly learned not trespass father’s mecurical temperament. Instead, he designed a system of lanes well below chairs and tables, along walls behind the living room couch transporting him dafely beyond the old man’s inspecting eye.

Eugene was an enormous man just past six feet seven in height and weighing less than two hundred pounds. Everywhere he walked he cast a long shadow. To Henry he resembled an imaginary creature dwelling at night below the floorboards of the bed who’d unexpectedly enter his dreams.

There would be the usual bouts of temperament, explosive fits of anger between Eugene and Olene but nothing too serious until Henry began regular schooling.

  Eugene found himself locked in battle with the plant labor union. He was vehemently opposed to any organised intrusion into the workplace even if it meant wage guarantee and job benefits. Father was not a man of vision. He was an arrogant, petty backstabbing opportunist who engaged in race mongering and pontifical self-righteous exhortation. I never understood that when I was a kid but who knows what parents are truly made of until experience and wisdom clear your field vision.

“Why we need this scum from Washington all they want is our money. We do the workin’ - they do the takin”, he’d say.

  Father would repeat the mantra person to person like a fire breathing Pentecostal minister. He was like a one man wrecking crew out to to rid the world of so-called “Big government”. His actions would only alienate fellow co-workers who already harbored a less than complimentary opinion of the “ Screamin’ ass “ as they would privately address him.

Father was a security guard whose duty was either turn lights on or flip them off - lock and unlock doors or chase “Thieving Negroes, “off the company dump. He excelled in the latter. Why he picked a fight with an organization who’s objective could only benefit a lowly “Watch boy”, no one rightly understood. Everybody swore the big farm boy had been kicked in the head by a less than domestic jackass.

Poor Henry never had a friend until elementary school. We lived an oppressive existence detached from relatives and neighbors preferring to insulate him from outside influence staying mostly indoors.

  Sundays, Henry and I would slide are small frames down the front porch steps out of Eugene’s view but the old man never let us out of the cross-hairs.

“ Son, get your skinny ass back up here where I can see you. Daniel where you think your going? I know the both of you are up to something.”

Henry and I watched the other children race by pedaling their bright red bicycles or hike to the dime store as a group. I was always curious what I’d be like to walk the walk. Olene would be there to scold - the perfect watchdog for commander Gladstone.

“I know what you thinking Henry. You think we’re being special hard on Daniel and you because you two are our only children but that ain’t so. You gotta grow up right like your father and mother. We ain’t gonna have any hoodlums in this family."

Henry would listen then turn his attention back to the street. What he really desired were a few kind words of encouragement, some act of affection that would assure him he was truly a worthy boy.

Olene insisted on sending Henry to Catholic school causing a fierce confrontation with Eugene.

They knew better than send me there. Every time those witches in black came around grandma I’d cry hysterically.That gave father reason enough to send me to public school. No such luck for Henry.

“ Catholics just poison the boy’s mind with all them alcoholic priests and pedophiles Olene,” father would say. “ I’d just have to straighten him out all that much more. They'll turn that boy queer, I'm telling you." This would be one of the uncommon arguments he’d loose to mother.

 "You can rest assured mother hates you for taking me away from the church and I promised her Henry would be baptized Catholic and he will always be Catholic, you hearing me good Eugene Gladstone?” Olene had the last word on that subject.

Henry proved to be a reluctant student distracted by the simplest things. Children would contort their faces, stretch lips, causing Henry to laugh aloud. “Sisters of No Mercy” would order him extend palms then whack about the soft lines with a twelve inch ruler. The poor boy would nearly cry then quickly suppress the urge. For Henry this stuff was child’s play. Eventually, he became a disruptive presence forcing school officials to send for our parents. Eugene was appalled by his brother’s behavior while Olene swore up and down Henry would never commit such ungodly acts against the church. During the drive home a deaf silence stilled the car. I sensed major consequence. “ Nasty people those old nuns, I hate them,” Henry mumbled.

“ Shut up Henry, we’ll talk when I get you home, “ responded father. “ But dad! Shut up Henry, I’ll take care of you when I get home.”

Poor Henry’s mind replayed past infractions, errant bursts of laughter, gum chewing, a few naughty words, but somehow they didn’t add up to the impending discipline. Besides, the nuns had already strapped and humiliated .

“ Come with me boy, “ elder Gladstone commands, then grabs Henry’s arm lifting him half distance above ground. His knees bounce side to side off the wooden steps as father carries him up the stairs . Eugene reaches inside an old storage trunk extracts a tattered strip of leather.

“ I told you boy someday you’d get a whipping like the one’s my old man gave me.”

 Father commences beating Henry about the legs , along the back, anywhere there were patches of exposed skin, by-passing the face. Exhausted and drained by anger Eugene abandons a screaming Henry who’s now fallen into a near state of shock.

 “There will be no next time, I’m taking you out of Catholic school. I’ll find you a place where you better behave.”

Eugene then retreats from the room. Henry can barely unfold his stricken legs. We both watch these red/blue welts rise above the discolored surface of his tender skin surrounded by few smooth areas . Suddenly, the crying stops and Henry into this trance like state. This would be the last moment I ever saw him carry one grain of love for father.

Olene never entered the room until morning. Her only words, “ I warned you.”

In general, things would improve in public school. Eugene was spending months convalescing in VA hospitals where it was determined injuries he suffered in World War ll were improperly treated not to mention the special counseling they were giving him. Father had absorbed a large hit of shrapnel in the abdomen sending him stateside for long term convalescence during the early stages of the war. After six months he was declared fit for duty then parachuted behind enemy lines. A barrage of artillery shells exploded in the vicinity of his fox hole killing several fellow infantrymen somehow sparing him . This would further empty his heart. Eventually, he would receive a medical discharge after evidence of an impending nervous breakdown. After returning home father chose to heal himself rather than seek proper help.

Henry was an average student better suited to social sciences than math. Eugene followed brother’s progress with a keen sense of responsibility. When his math scores began to sag he decided to “ Put some knowledge in the boy’s head.”

Class began one evening after dinner when Olene placed a freshly baked pumpkin pie next to the fried okra. Eugene gripped the long bread knife  then began carving equal portions and asked.

  “ What are you studying in math that you find so hard?

“ Fractions sir," a confused Henry responds.

“ What do you find hard about fractions?, father inquires.

  “ It’s all new to us dad we just started learning about them last week.”

  “Come here son and have a seat. Watch me. I’m going to slice this pie in four sections. Now , if it’s whole without me cutting anything what fraction represents one slice.

 “ Henry hesitates , then responds. “ One.”

  “ What? I thought you were learning something in school. If this pie equals one and I slice it into four pieces  what’ll you call one slice? “ Henry thinks but can’t draw a clear thought after hearing the ominous tone of Eugene’s exasperated voice. Instead, he says nothing. “ I haven’t heard you answer boy?

 “ Aaaa__two.” Eugene whips the bone knuckle of his broad fist across the table smacking the boy across the cheek.

”I said, if the pie is whole and I take one slice how many is left.” Henry says, “ Three.”

“ See there son you ain’t as dumb as you make me think, eat your pie then go to you room and do some math.”

  Olene would appear like an inspecting guard in the doorway of Henry’s bedroom.

“ Your dad said you can turn your light out now and go to sleep.”

Henry never questioned Olene’s lack of empathy. She was cold, for the most part indifferent to Eugene’s cruelty. She had a rigid moral code one short on compassion for her son yet concerned for the well being of less fortunate church sponsored orphans. Although Henry suffered in private mother’s cruel detachment and the occasional beating from Eugene  she accepted things as the were. We had no point of reference or clue how other families lived. It would be our high school friends who’d shed light on this precarious situation.

Several of Henry’s friends played a game of sandlot baseball after school hours. Henry was invited to participate. Baseball fascinated him. In fact, he collected the most impossible cards using shrewd trades with other like minded boys. Mickey Mantle was his idol. Amongst his rare collection, Mantle’s rookie card. At night he’d place the card next to his bed climb into an imaginary batter’s box and with his bat strike a pose like the once great Yankee hitter.

 He’d level the heavy wood , heave a few test strokes then swing at full speed splitting stilled air across the bed’s midsection . More than anything he wanted to try his swing against real pitching. I had no idol only Henry . Up to now father ran the house like military boot camp, no room for sport or art.

Henry approached mother requesting to play organized baseball. At first she deferred the request to Eugene. After realizing he’d departed for a two day hunting trip with army pal Bud Norman she gave the ok.

Boys, baseball, sweltering afternoons is about a perfect combination ever realized. Henry wasn’t much at handling fly balls most sailed over his head but at the plate he could make fair contact. At fourteen he was a growing boy almost six feet tall and hundred forty pounds. He could take your head off if you got near of one of his speed pitches. Henry threw straight up heat. His buddies wanted a piece of the overhand fast ball but none could catch the velocity. Henry soon became legend. Word got out around school he had a couple pitches as challenging as Dodger ace Sandy Koufax.

Mother witnessed change in Henry's overall morale. Brother was still a C student but their was a spirit to him that would linger long after returning from nine innings of baseball. She begged Eugene to let the him play more sports after school.

“ He’s fourteen, well versed in good and bad,” she would argue. Eugene thought about it, then said;

“ I’ll let the boy play but he better not screw up on the diamond like he does in school.”

When Olene delivered the good news, Henry though thankful was more than suspicious of the old man’s appeasing behavior.

The living room of the our house was converted into a war memorial/gun rack for all visitors to see. Father displayed his purple heart, citations, rifle pin, division patches and letter of accommodation from World Wat II. Next to them a mahogany case armed with rare French and Italian shotguns, rifles , pistols all smuggled in a body bag by Eugene and his friends out of France after liberation. The detailed silver work carved along the gun stalks was evidence of breathtaking artistry. Father knew exactly what he had stolen and took every opportunity to exhibit them to like minded hunting pals. He also kept a loaded Winchester rifle ready just in case ”One of those thieving Negroes choose to commit harm on him.”

Whatever possessed father to force Henry and me along for a duck hunting trip is near unexplainable. He knew the both of us detested firearms, the killing of innocent beings. Henry concerned himself more with repairing the broken limbs of fallen bird. I never fully comprehended why men blast seemingly defenseless mammals senseless.

Eugene marched through high weeds and marsh like a man intent on revenge. As the ducks scattered and took flight he’d blast wildly leaving pot marks about the soil and trees occasionally maiming a bird or two. Eventually it came time for Henry to step up. Eugene handed him his favorite pump action rifle. At first brother reluctantly held the weapon down his side. Father scolded him for not paying closer attention to the rules of safety. Henry assumed he could outwit the old man firing at an imaginary target , shrug it off then walk away. But something unexpected occurred. A young buck showed himself in a thicket of trees no more than fifty yards in front of his weapon. Father was ecstatic.

“Be quiet boy don’t let him see your motion just move real slow.”

Suddenly, Henry’s knee’s weaken. He then lowers the barrel.

“ What the hell you doing, shoot the bastard, “ the old man whispers.

“ Dad, I can’t do it.”

“ What you mean you can’t do it, hell he’s standing there waiting for you.”

“I won't do it.”

“ Boy if you don’t shoot this buck, I’m going to kick your ass all up and down Main Street until everyone laughs in your face.”

Henry lowers his head and stoically faces the ground. Father grabs the rifle points in the direction of the deer, assumes a shooter’s position then quickly discovers the buck has disappeared from sight. He spins around fires two shots killing a chipmunk fleeing this side an old spruce tree.

“ You know something, I think you're queer. A queer would get all weak in the woods like one of those tree huggers. Get the hell out of here.”

The ride back was a moribund affair. Father revived the immortal instant the young buck belonged to Henry and his refusal to do proper work on the animal. Henry looked away far beyond the ash pine and blacken ridge of Hope mountain. In his heart he knew he hadn’t reach the point of full blown hatred for  father but was increasingly incensed with the belittling comments.

As soon as Henry stepped inside the doorway Eugene sucker punched brother in the face. The blow sent Henry coiling to the floor.

“ Get up and fight like a man. Take your punishment like a real man not like your queer friends.”

Henry refused to stand up. Eugene reached down then grabs him under the right armpit yanks him lengthwise upright. Smack! Another blow to the nose and face. Blood sprays all directions staining the woven circular carpet. Mother dashes from the kitchen and intervenes all the while I’m screaming in terror.

“ Get away from him Eugene. Don’t hit the boy again,” mother orders.

Meanwhile, Henry’s tear-drenched face is smeared in blood . Father breaks Olene’s grip drags the boy by the collar to a large utility closet then shoves him inside and locks the door then leaves the room. I run to mother begging her to rescue Henry from this nightmare. She just stands nearby like a pillar of salt. Again I plead with her to take Henry to the hospital, call an ambulance, police, just do something. She calmly pushes me aside and walks out the kitchen door to a rusted swing set in the backyard. I watch her sit down then kick  forward, rock back in forth as if to disassociate herself from all that has happened.

For the better part of four hours Henry profusely wept. I’d hear his weakened voice plead,

 “ Where are you mother? Why do you allow him do such horrible things to me?”

 Once again I ran to mother hoping she’d change her mind to know avail . Olene did eventually return, unlock the door then walk away leaving the brother free to exit on his own.

From that day Henry’s anger never wavered. He decided in time the old man would pay dearly. He hadn’t decided how or when but was certain it would be a grand display.

Baseball and sociology would consume Henry’s waking hours. When he wasn’t volunteering in the community center or working weekends at St. Joe’s, he honed his skills on the ball diamond.

 Eugene rarely spoke to brother. Something had snapped in the man. He no longer attempted to control every movement in the young man’s life. Besides, brother was making above average grades.

It was fall, the eighteenth year of Henry’s life. He’d won twelve games as starting pitcher for the Campellville Jayhawks leading the team to the sectional. Around the plate he still wasn’t much a threat with his bat but his fast ball clocked in at over ninety miles an hour. He would be the subject of conversation throughout Putnam County and scouts as far east as Boston.

The Jayhawks were facing their old nemesis the Providence Blue Devils under coach Dan Berryman who always found a unique way to steal victory from the best of teams.

Henry realized the significance of the game and prepared like a prizefighter battling for a rare world championship belt. Father never attended brother’s games but decided to make the trip out of town .

Henry was the talk of Larcott Products the plant where Eugene worked for more than twenty-two years. Eugene’s boss, Haplern Ashcroft would recite all brother’s statistics, the speed of every pitch in his arsenal. Eugene acted like he was more than proud of brother’s achievements going so far as to take credit for his pitching style.

“ You know I always taught the boy to throw over the top and follow through. I’d never let him throw that sidearm stuff. That’ll destroy your elbow quicker than a motorcycle fall, “ he’d say.

Over a thousand folks showed for Henry’s big game, most to witness the blazing fast ball.

The Jayhawk’s batted first getting two men on with a walk and single. A force out at third, pop up above second and strikeout would stymie any chance of scoring. It was Henry’s turn. Before he unleashed the first pitch his eyes scanned the sizable crowd. A trace of stage fright rippled through his veins but Henry was to pumped to acknowledge it.

First pitch, “ strike!”, a smokin’ fast ball somewhere near eighty-seven miles at the knees. Second pitch, inside sinker that just grazes the batter’s elbow. “Hit batter, take first,” yells the ump. Henry looks away unfazed. The next batter would level an outside curve beyond the centre fielder’s reach all the way to the back fence. A run would score. Again Henry’s pitches, nips a batter; runners first and third. Whack! the ball sails past the first baseman down the line. Two runs in.

A dejected Henry turns to wipe his brow and clear his eyes. As he turns he spots Eugene clinging to wire mesh along first base, face red spouting obscenities.

  “ The damn boy is queer I tell you he couldn’t plug a big ass buck at ten yards let alone throw a fast ball over the plate.”

Henry coldly shoots the old man a menacing look. Eugene turns towards the stands then yells.

“Hey everybody I’m telling right now he ain’t got the guts to finish the job. Don’t bet no money on the wimp.”

With that remark, Henry pulls himself from the game exits back of the clubhouse. I catch him running out the back gate. Brother was in no mood for conversation. I keep asking him what’s he going to do but he ignores me. Henry then speeds the ten mile distance home walks to Eugene’s prized gun rack, grabs the Winchester, a few shells and lifts another item barely visible from a wooden basket.

Henry bled with anger, an anger no man should carry.

 I grab him by the jacket, swing  around and beg him to answer me.

“ What have I done to him? Why does he hate and humiliate me?” he asks, then turns for the door.

When we return  Henry watches both teams exchange positions with Campellville coming to bat. With the rifle near his side he walks behind a high row of bleachers to first base side spots Eugene laughing near the fence. Without hesitation he raises the Winchester  jabs into the crevice of Eugene’s neck and orders him to walk ahead. Father laughs then threatens to beat brother worse than he’d ever been beaten intent on playing for the crowd’s sympathy. Henry in no mood for back talk cocks the rifle then speaks.

“ Move your stinken ass around the other side of the fence. Now!”

 A stunned silence hits the field leaving everyone focused on Henry. Eugene emits a nervous giggle.

“ Put the gun down Henry before I whip your ass.”

Henry thumbs the trigger jabs the barrel deeper into his neck then repeats the order.

“ Move ‘round to home plate you evil shit!” Eugene glances beyond the back stop at a somber row of faces staring from above.

No one flinches. Slowly he steps around the curved spine of fencing onto the playing field.

“ To the back fence Eugene.” Father obliges.

“ Turn around face the crowd, “ Henry demands.

  As he begins the reversal Henry reaches in a cloth sack pulls from it the worn leather strap the one Eugene’s dad had whipped his less than obedient son with. Out of view Henry delivers a blistering stroke across the old man’s back. Then one back the neck.

“ How does it feel you rotten bastard? Remember how you enjoy whipping baby boys or have you forgotten.”

Henry pauses then slings two more long strokes dead center of Eugene’s back.

“I hope you feel every slash of leather, the bloody welts, the broken patches of skin, my tears left to dry on the floor. You’ll never ever lay a hand on me again or will you ever humiliate me in front of my friends.”

The rifle falls drops beneath a half foot of soil in the batters box . Henry then places the leather strap on top the small wooden butt, turns and walks away. Eugene collapses, his long fingers cover the head and eyes. He then discharges an eerie tone not unlike the plea of a wounded animal .

Throughout the hushed playground, few speak choosing instead to stare like distant relatives attending the funeral of an all but forgotten uncle. No one dared consider punishing the boy knowing to well the pain that he endured most his childhood.

 There was no reason to resume the game the night belonged to Henry. Olene cried out for Henry, even begged forgiveness but Henry brushed her aside and left the park alone. I tried catching up but he was in no mood for comfort. Eventually, he turned and hugged me.

“ You can go back home brother he’ll never hit another child. If he does you just call me, I assure it will be his last act of cowardliness.”

With that remark, Henry went home and packed a few things then left. It was months before I hear from him. He’d taken a full scholarship offer to play baseball down in Georgia. A year after the birth of his first child Henry hung a plague in the living room with a passage someone mailed anonymously from church, “Young people aren’t meant to suffer the vengeful hand of those who deliver them to this world.” * * * * *