Monthly Archives: February 2014

Small town gossip in paradise

did you hear?

photo by Stacey Warde

Did you hear
about the girl who gave a blow job,

a one-night hookup, in the restaurant bathroom
downtown, and now the guy’s girlfriend

refuses to enter the coffee shop next door,
or even look that way,

where the little whore works
on the weekends?

Did you hear
about the cute waitress who did a porno,

which would have been ok
(because everyone does it now)

if she hadn’t done it
with that slacker

who sits in front of the liquor store
and smokes cigarettes all day?

Did you hear
about the lonely single mom, a “nooner,”

who likes to go
home and fuck for lunch?

(If you’re not doing
anything around noon time

you might get lucky.)

Did you hear
about that loser who got high on marijuana

and cough syrup and killed his grandmother
(accidentally, he said)

stuffed her body
into a suitcase and threw her

off a cliff in Big Sur?

Did you hear that
before they arrested him he got on

the school bus
to pass out flyers to the children

to help him find his missing grandma?

Did you hear
about that crazy old joe

who answered the door
with stick pretzels hanging from his nose

when the cops came knocking?

Did you hear about the clown,
loose in the head they say,

who got his revenge
by rubbing his manhood, balls and all,

over the glass door of the corner
wine bistro on its busiest night?

He gave quite a show
“swabbin’ it real good,” they say.

Did you hear about the martial
arts world champion

who got pummeled by
a bunch of drunk cowboys?

How his girlfriend got whacked
on the head with a cowgirl’s purse?

Did you hear
about the guy who hung himself from the pier?

At the crack of dawn there
he was hanging from a rope

dangling between the
pile ons like a shadow

above the ocean where
the pigeons leave their droppings.

Did you hear the lady
from Fresno who, after

several drinks shouted,
“You guys are so lucky; you live in paradise!”?

—Ibrahim Ahmed

LIFE IN THE CAGE: Another day, another hustle

Hillbilly Bob had a 'clean' hustle at the California Mens Colony. Illustration by Gene Ellis

Hillbilly Bob had a ‘clean’ hustle at the California Mens Colony. Illustration by Gene Ellis

by Tito David Valdez Jr.

California Mens’ Colony, Medium Security, 1999

I started off my day, just like any other morning, with hundreds of hungry men walking anxiously up a flight of stairs, single file in our prison blues, to enter the large chow hall. At the end of the cafeteria-style line, plastic trays slid out of a rectangular hole, simmering with the day’s slop.

I sat down at an unoccupied table to eat my entrée, which consisted of bland powdered eggs, oatmeal, two thin flour tortillas, pinto beans, and mystery meat, which was supposed to be sausage links. Two miniature packets were provided as condiments: a taco sauce and state-issued coffee.

“Hey dog, can I get that taco sauce?” Jamie, a white lanky inmate in his late forties with a tattooed bald head, hollered at me from his position in line nearby. He was known for his dragon breath from drinking too much coffee and chewing tobacco at the same time. “You know I’m poor, dog,” he added in an effort to make me feel sorry for him.

“Nah man, I’m going to use it on my eggs, give it some flavor,” I replied.

“Can I get your coffee, dog?” he asked, sounding like a transient trying to bum a dollar.

“Sure.” I tossed the packet of state coffee to him in hopes he would just leave me alone. He caught it. I could hear him begging other inmates at the next table as he worked his way up the line. “Hey dog, can I get your coffee…?”

One of the three empty seats at my table was soon filled by Sleepy, a youthful Chicano with tattoos all over his body—symbols of criminality and rebellion. His prison blues were freshly pressed; he smelled of Mennen aftershave lotion. His prison boots glimmered with a spit-shine polish.

“Hey homey,” Sleepy said, “that vato Jamie, he sells those coffees. He doesn’t drink them. Gets a dollar for thirty packets.”

“Really? I always see him with a coffee tumbler in his hand, I assumed he drank coffee.”

“Nah, he drinks nothing but jailhouse pruno. That’s one of his hustles to pay for his alcohol habit. He is a beggar without a conscience. Man, he never brushes his teeth. Have you ever gotten close to him?”

“I already know, man. Just look inside his tumbler, the stains…looks like the bottom of a riverbed, full of algae.”

“Yeah holmes, he is on biker status,” Sleepy chuckled.

A kitchen worker named Spanky approached us from the back of the serving line and handed Sleepy two items.

“Here homey, for the spread tomorrow night on the yard. Two onions. Just get me a mackerel at the cantina on first draw,” said Spanky, an overweight bald-headed young Chicano wearing a kitchen apron.

Horale. Can you get me some tortillas?” asked Sleepy.

“Yeah homey, but you know I got to charge you. Dollar for twenty. I don’t have a pay number, and this is my hustle.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Sleepy put the onions in his pocket.

“That’s a good deal — twenty for a dollar. The canteen sells them ten for a dollar-fifty,” I said.

“Yeah homey, I always deal with Spanky. If you ever need onions, tomatoes, cheese, bell peppers, oranges or ketchup, you know, for making pruno, he is the man.”

After our meal, we walked out of the chow hall together and noticed three guards talking with a black inmate inside a holding cage, stripping him out. He was on his way to the hole.

“Sleepy, can you see who it is?”

“Yeah, that one mayate…they call him Pookey. He’s the vato I buy my gambling tickets from every weekend.”

“Oh yeah, I know him. He always wears the do-rag and lots of jewelry. I didn’t know he ran the gambling pools.”

“He probably got busted for one of his many hustles, someone probably ratted him out,” said Sleepy.

“Every man has to have some kind of hustle in here. Pay numbers are low, even for those who work a full shift. How can a man survive on just eighteen dollars or less a month? I sure can’t,” I said.

“You know what my work supervisor told me homey, who has worked here for the last twenty-five years?”


“The rate for prisoners’ pay hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Still seventeen cents an hour. Ain’t that a bitch?”


I first met Pookey when I arrived at the California Mens Colony, a medium security prison in San Luis Obispo, California. He stood up on a bench of the bleachers facing the baseball diamond while nearly thirty inmates approached him to obtain something he was passing out.

He was in his late thirties, always wore a do-rag on his head, African American, tall and lanky, a chain smoker.

“Get your TV guides, just a Top Ramen soup!” he shouted with a raspy voice.

Inmates rushed him like paparazzi, Top Ramen packages in hand, dropping them in a laundry bag in return for a piece of paper typed with information on both sides. I approached him with curiosity.

“Excuse me, what kind of TV guide are you selling?” I asked.

“My friend, you must be new here. Here, take one on the house,” he said smiling, exposing his missing three front teeth.

I glanced at it, seeing that it was nothing but a computer printout of television programs for the week, printed on a copy machine.

“How much do you charge for this?”

“A soup a week, or pre-pay me and get four weeks for only three Top Ramen soups. I deliver each week’s issue right to your cell, if you subscribe.”

“You must make a killing!”

“I get by. Just trying to get my hustle on. Do you like porn?”

“Yeah, what do you got?”

He opened up his legal folder, pulling out three manila envelopes, each had a different magazine: Hustler, Barely Legal, Swank, and Cheri. “For you, my friend, all three, just ten dollars,” he said with a smile resembling Eddie Murphy. “Do you got any coffee,” he asked.

“In fact, I do, two jars of Folgers. I’ll be back.”

Within minutes, I returned, buying the magazines with the coffee. I rushed to my cell and hid them under my mattress.

Later on that evening, right after dinner, I saw Pookey on the yard, hustling something else.

“What are you selling now?”

“You know those two jars of coffee you gave me?”


“I broke them down and am selling dollar shots. I can make ten dollars out of a five dollar jar.”

“That’s brilliant! You got to show me more of your hustles. I find it interesting,” I said.

“Let’s take a lap around the track. I’ll show you all the hustles that go down in this joint. Just observe and listen.”


We entered building three and in the shower area there was a white guy washing clothes in a bucket. At first glance, anyone would think he was a gay boy. He looked feminine, thin, delicate.

“You see that white boy over there,” said Pookey, pointing to him. “They call him Maytag. He will wash your clothes for fifty cents an item. Skid-marked boxers, one dollar. You won’t ever find me washing a mothafucka’s boxers, but he don’t have no shame. He pulls in a good hustle, about two hundred dollars a month. Lazy mothafuckas around here won’t even put their dirty clothes in the laundry bag to send it to the institutional laundry each week.”

“Damn, that’s a lot of money! Not even the few privileged inmates in PIA [Prison Industry Authority] make that much!”

“You’re right! They work their asses off all day, like slaves, and make about a hundred a month making license plates, boots, and furniture.”

We walked outside of building three and saw an older white man, digging through the huge trash bin. The bin reeked and flies could be heard buzzing around.

“That’s Hillbilly Bob. He looks for potato chip bags and the plastic wrappers from the hoagie rolls we get in our sack lunch. He makes jewelry boxes and women’s purses, sells them for twenty dollars each. Inmates send them to their daughters or wives.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Check it out.” We walked toward an older overweight Mexican national inmate nicknamed Wesos, who was listening to ranchera music on his Super III radio while drinking coffee and sitting at a table. He had four beautiful jewelry boxes and two purses for sale. Each item shined like expensive jewelry as the setting sun reflected in its recycled material.

“He sells them for Bob, on commission. He amigo, what you want for those?” asked Pookey.

“For you, twenty dollars, my friend. You buy two, only thirty,” he said in broken English.

I picked up a jewelry box to see the craftsmanship, original, handmade from nothing but trash. “Excellent work,” I said to Wesos, putting the box back on the table.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” said Pookey.

We continued to walk around the track and entered the dimly lit recreation shack. Inside, we found Brad, a white inmate with long hair, resembling a stoner, who was painting a nude woman while glancing back and forth at a page from Playboy magazine. A Super III radio blasted the rock band AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The room reeked of cigarette smoke.

“Brad here sells these original paintings on the internet through a third party — an art gallery — for five-hundred dollars a piece,” said Pookey.

“Wow, how does he get that much? People in society can buy something like that for ten dollars at a Wal-Mart or Kmart,” I said.

“He gets that kind of action because they are autographed by Charles Manson. You see at the bottom corner, Brad simply stencils in the name ‘C. Manson’.”

We exited, walking around the track. A black inmate approached us wearing light blue hospital scrubs.

“Yo Pookey, you still want to see the dentist tomorrow?” said Malcolm, who was about 6-3, 250 pounds, looked like a college football player.

“Yeah, put me down. I’ll take care of you later,” replied Pookey.

“Alright homey, be looking out,” said Malcolm.

“What’s that about?” I asked.

“You know, getting to see the dentist or any doctor around here takes about three months. I gots a toothache right now. I gave him five bucks, he puts me on the list to see the dentist right away.”

“Good to know. Does he deal with anyone other than blacks?”

“Homey, he deals with anyone who has green. You gots money, he will even bring you band-aids, cotton swabs, anything you can think of, directly to your cell.”

Along came another inmate, a short blond-haired white guy named Rick, carrying several items, hidden underneath his jacket.

“Hey Pookey, here’s your ice,” said Rick, as he reached below his jacket, pulling out a plastic bag.

“Thanks, man. Take care of you later.”

“Alright man, don’t forget, you owe me three,” said Rick, reminding him.

“I got it, don’t trip.”

“What’s that about?”

“I hook him up with dollar balls of coffee. He brings me ice from the main kitchen every evening. He only charges two dollars a week. Nothing like a cold soda with ice while watching a prime time sitcom. You dig?”


“Alright homey, I’m out for the night. Talk to you later,” said Pookey.

On the way back to my cell, I laughed out loud, thinking of Hillbilly Bob. He made a living committing crimes while free and in prison he had been reduced to making women’s purses.


After about six months at the Mens Colony, I observed the hundreds of hustles of many men. I learned that the most profitable and best hustles were those kept secret, but even those were exposed because in the joint everyone knows each other’s business.

I met up with Pookey, after the evening chow, in building three, first tier.

“Yo Dave, see all those mothafuckas standing next to Cedric’s cell, cell 119?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Dead giveaway. They all fronting Cedric off. They forget this aint the streets, po-leece see everything that go on around here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look now, white boy Ray, he is bringing his color television set to Cedric’s cell. It’s like the homeboy shopping club. Traffic in and out of that cell all the time.”

“OK, I get it. It’s like a crack house.”

The top hustlers in the game were easy to spot. They tried to be low-key but always openly displayed their royalties, wearing bling: Rolex watch, gold necklaces, rings with diamonds, expensive designer sunglasses, clothing and tennis shoes the average inmate can’t buy in the prison vendor catalogs. They went out of their way to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m cool.” Such blatant in-your-face attitude catches the eyes of opportunistic guards or jealous inmates who would rat them out for an extra roll of toilet paper. The best hustlers basically tell on themselves.

“Yo Dave, I want to show you the kingpin of all hustlers. The man is right here, hanging with us in the joint. See that big black guy smoking a Cuban cigar, surrounded by the entourage of men?”

“Yeah, isn’t that the rap label producer?”

“You got it, Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records. He is selling a dream to all us niggas that anyone from the ghetto can be a superstar. He no different than a preacher man or politician.”

“Yeah, but Suge is a multi-millionaire.”

“So is minister T.D. Jakes.”


Three months later, I caught up with Pookey on the yard.

“Did you hear what happened to Cedric? I heard he got busted.”

“Yeah, goon squad hit his cell. They found a DVD player with twenty porn movies, cellphone, cash, even women’s panties…heard he was playing the female art instructor up in Education,” said Pookey.

“Wow. How can someone accumulate that much stuff under the radar?”

“It’s all about hustling, homeboy. Manipulation. We all human. Everyone has a price or weakness. When you were on the outs, didn’t you ever want to be a rogue, a rebel, break the rules, like steal something from work?”

“I’ve been very tempted.”

“In life, you got to takes the risks if you want to get ahead. You can’t get ahead in here if you relying on a rat ass state prison pay number. Shee-it, a closed mouth can’t get fed,” he said, his body animated, speaking with his hands.

“You got a point.”

“Being in here ain’t no different than being free. Everyone in the world is hustling and when you doing wrong, you already know the consequences. But you ain’t thinking you going to get caught. You think you are special, invincible. The world is yours, like Scarface said.”

“You know man, from all the hustles you have shown me, I gotta give respect to Hillbilly Bob and Maytag. They got honest hustles. Doing something positive and productive. Just like you. Everyone else, they are sealing their fates, getting busted is the only outcome.”

“People forget where they are at and how they got here. That brings me to the oldest hustle in history,” said Pookey.

“What’s that?”

“See Tanisha over there?” I looked over and saw a very feminine long-haired African American queen standing by her cell door. She wore altered jeans made into shorts, cut high in the crotch, custom halter top white blouse, red lipstick made from Kool-Aid, her chest pushed out showing off her implants.

“What does she charge?” I asked.

“Don’t know, never went there, but damn…she got ass.”

“Yup, looks just like a woman.”


Two months later, four goon squad officers were in Pookey’s cell with a K-9 dog, a German shepherd. In just minutes, the dog came out wagging his tail, a high-priced Michael Jordan athletic shoe in his mouth. An officer grabbed the shoe, giving the dog a treat and started tearing the shoe open with a knife. He discovered a medicine baggy full of white powder. The officers gave each other a high five. The dog barked with excitement, started going in circles, chasing his tail. His trainer gave him another treat.

An hour later, they walked out of the cell with four plastic bags full of property. Cellblock Officer Ruiz, locked up all of us in our cells and spent four hours taking inventory of the rest of Pookey’s property, carefully placing it all into cardboard boxes. Pookey had about 300 canned tunas, 200 sodas, and 500 Top Ramen soups, among other things.

After dinner, the dayroom and showers were open. I caught up with Sleepy, who was waiting in line for the shower.

Horale, holmes. Another one bites the dust.”

“What’s the word?” I asked.

“Same shit as always. He had cash money, cellphone. Heard he was hustling the female dental assistant up in medical.”

“I always thought Pookey had a positive hustle. I never made him out for being that guy.”

“He just bumped up his game. Trying to come up. You know, when you think about it, we always fuck everything off ourselves in here. We don’t even get oranges, honey, or sugar anymore, due to the pruno makers.”

A white inmate named Rod approached me, interrupting our conversation. He was about 5-4, balding, mid-50s, and wore bottle-thick glasses, which magnified the size of his eyes.

“Hey Dave, I heard you type up 602 administrative appeals. Can you type this for me? I’m appealing a disciplinary write up where I was found guilty of ‘staring at female staff.’”

He handed the papers to me. I looked at the write-up; his arguments took up about three pages. His defense was that he was cross-eyed and on Thorazine, a powerful psych medication.

“Yeah, I can type it up for you. One dollar per page.”

“You take stamps?” §

Tito David Valdez Jr. writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. David can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Visit David’s MySpace at or go to for information on David’s case. This article originally appeared in the print version of The Rogue Voice.


Steinbeck Country: the 21st Century

steinbeck country

by Stacey Warde

I met a longtime resident at the local bar recently who challenged me on just about everything from the moment I walked in.

“You live around here?”

Sure, I said. He introduced me to his wife of 40-plus years, a beauty, stately and queenly.

He told me she’s from a long line of settlers who moved here in the 19th century. She smiled at me, like a queen.

“I’ve met you before,” I told her. “I never forget a face.” And I don’t. I forget names but not faces.

“I don’t think so,” she responded. I grabbed a beer from the bar and sat down beside the couple. The old man gave me a smug up and down. He snorted. The wife sat beaming.

“You met her in here?” he challenged.

Sure, I said. I turned to the wife and told her that I’d seen her in here with another longtime resident that we both knew. The light in her face softened and she remembered coming but not meeting me.

She softened even more when I told her that my family had settled as homesteaders in Laguna Beach around the same time that her family settled here.

“Your family homesteaded?” the old man asked.

Sure, I said. There’s a junior high school in Laguna named after my great-grandmother. I come from a family educators, I told him.

He couldn’t believe it. His wife warmed to me. He turned into a jerk.

“What’s your family name?”

Thurston, I said. It was my great-grandfather’s name. He came by wagon from Utah as a little boy. They were Mormons.

He looked down his nose. “You a Mormon?”

I laughed and he backed off a little.

“You own a house here?”

Well, no, I said.

“What do you do?”

I informed him that I work on a farm and he wanted to know what I did there and did I own a gun?

“You don’t own a gun?”

Well, no, I don’t feel the need for a gun. When I need a gun I’ll get a gun, I told him. I was starting to get irked and so was his wife.

He told me he drove a squad car as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy, liked to shoot his guns and was a member of the American Legion.

“Were you ever in the military?” he asked.

Sure, I said. He wanted to know what branch and I told him that I’d served in the army at Ft. Lewis, Washington, with the second Ranger battalion just after the Vietnam War. Jimmy Carter was president then, the only modern U.S. commander-in-chief who didn’t send his troops into war, I told him.

He snorted. “You a liberal?”

I’m what you a call a liberal libertarian. I tried not to let him pigeonhole me. He seemed perturbed, unable to finger me.

“You were a Ranger?” he said, almost sneering. He was so incredulous that he asked the question five times throughout the remainder of our conversation.

By now it was clear that he’d filled up on too much drink. His true colors came out and he wanted to know where were the blacks when there’s work to do?

And, who’s always first in line for handouts?

“You work with the blacks while you were in the army?”

Sure, I said. I knew where he was going with his drunken questions. I didn’t want to get into another ignorant conversation about racial stereotypes.

Sadly, he’s not the only longtime resident in this area whose family connections go back generations, and who doesn’t seem troubled speaking badly of blacks or Mexicans or liberals.

It’s small town California here, I realize, Steinbeck country, where race relations and welcome committees for the poor once were made through goon squads and hired guns.

Apparently, that smallness of mind since Steinbeck’s time hasn’t gone away. It lingers, and not just among the drunks but among ranchers, land and property owners too, and conservatives who balk at any liberal idea.

A farmer I know here once railed against entitlements for the poor and especially illegal immigrants who were ruining this country. I found out later that he’d received nearly $150,000 in farm subsidies over the years.

I wonder sometimes how people like that can sleep at night.

“Get this man another beer!” the old man waved at the bartender.

No, that’s OK, I said. I’ll drink water.

“You’re going to turn down a beer?” He looked at me as if I was a girly man.

No, I said, and thanked him for the beer. I learned from civil rights activist and Baptist preacher Will Campbell many years ago that it doesn’t do any good to make enemies of your enemy.

I lifted my beer, a Guinness, and took a long pull.

“You were a Ranger?” §

Stacey Warde works as a farmhand in the small central coastal California town of Cayucos, gateway to Big Sur and all points John Steinbeck country. This article first appeared in CounterPunch online.

Corporal Lavery

By Rick Kelso

Ft. Dix, New Jersey, 1964

i want you

I was a private in the US Army, 20 years old, fresh out of boot camp and medic training in Texas, having just arrived at a steamy double-bunked wooden transit barracks in Ft. Dix, New Jersey. I was lowest of the low, headed for Italy as soon as my orders came in, was told I’d be here between 10 days and 2 weeks. It was July—muggy, blazing misery. All around me in the barracks were fellow flunky privates and a scattering of NCOs in their perfectly starched uniforms who quickly made their bunks and locked up their trunks and headed to the PX snack bar to idle away their time playing cards or bullshitting.

Except for Lavery, a corporal in army-issue boxer shorts and wife-beater T-shirt who was probably around 35 but looked 50 with a scarred, seamed face and two inflamed eyes glinting with a depravity and danger I had not yet witnessed in my limited years but recognized instantly by instinct. He sipped from a pint of cheap bourbon. Lavery was my bunkmate. When I showed up with my duffel bag he sat on the bottom bunk and sized me up with those eyes and in a thick southern drawl told me, “Y’all got the top bunk. Toss yer shit up there.”

I did as told. Lavery was no more than 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds, stringy, concave, with a 5 o’clock shadow. He watched me assemble some of my gear on the top bunk and offered me a no-filter Camel. I shook my head, told him I didn’t smoke.

He looked me over—a fresh-faced ex jock Southern Californian without an ounce of fat, who scored the maximum on the physical fitness tests at my last two posts. “You will,” he said.

The barracks was nonstop noisy, with about 80 troops squashed together. Some privates, with no rank on their sleeves, knew each other from their last posts and gabbed or played cards. I sprawled on my bunk and read Steinbeck. Lavery sat on his bunk and studied nudie magazines and finally asked if I was reading a “crotch novel.” When I told him Steinbeck, he snorted derisively.

I swung over and sat on my bunk, legs dangling down. Lavery peered up. He had opened a large wooden box with about a dozen knives, one of which he began sharpening with a stone. Bowie blades, switch-blades, bayonets, a damn machete, etc.

“Come on down here,” Lavery said.

I jumped down.

“Sit down, troop. Lavery ain’t gonna bite yer ass or rape it.”

I sat down beside him, but not too close. He handed me a bayonet. “Got that from a dead Chinese in Korea. Seventeen years old and I’m on Pork Chop Hill. That’s no shit. Been busted eight times. Ain’t gonna get no rank til Veet Namb gets goin’. And it will—count on it. Y’all lucky you goin’ to Europe. I’m goin’ to Wurzburg, Germany. Ah prefer the Philippines. Almost married me a whore over thar. Got some fine whores in Copenhagen, too.” He finished off his bottle, dug into his duffel, withdrew another, opened it, handed it to me, issued me a look indicating I’d be on his bad side if I refused, so I took a welcome slug and thanked him and handed it over and he told me they would have kicked his ass out of the army a long time ago for brawling and drinking and punching out a lieutenant if he wasn’t a decorated combat vet who’d already done a tour in Viet Nam in 1962—a volunteer. “That motherfucker’s gonna bust wide open and be a damn sight worse’n Korea, trust me, boy.”

We shared another slug. He showed me each knife. Then he said, “Tomorra mornin’ they’ll wake yore ass for KP at three. Y’all be on KP til eve-nin’. Then y’all go on 24-hour guard duty, 4 on, 4 off, then back on KP, ’til you get yore orders. Y’all suppose t’ put yore fatigue jacket on the back of yore bunk so’s they kin see y’all a private and wake yore ass up. What I’d do, if I was y’all, is borra one of my jackets and put it on the back of yore bunk so’s they don’t wake yore ass. Nothin’ worse’n KP and guard in fuckin’ July.”

He handed me one of his faded fatigue jackets, the area where his staff sergeant stripes once were darkened. I placed it over the back of my bunk.

It was evening by the time we’d consumed over half the bottle, when suddenly a black buck sergeant with the wasp-waist of a welterweight and the shoulders and arms of a battleship jumped up on his foot locker and, shirt off, began ranting about black power and wanting to challenge any white motherfucker in the barracks to combat. He was in his boots and fatigue pants and as scary as Sonny Liston. While a handful of blacks chuckled, all white men paused from their card games, reading, and bullshitting, to stare silently at the black man until Lavery suddenly snatched his Bowie knife and sprung across the barracks quick as a cat and had this knife at the man’s throat, a wild gloating grin on Lavery’s face.

“You want it now, nigger boy.” he said evenly, calmly “I’ll slit yer fuckin’ throat ear to ear and sleep like a baby, motherfucker. Come on, say the word.”

The powerful and enraged black sergeant went limp as he towered over Laver. He swallowed. He blinked. He slowly shook his head. Lavery quickly withdrew his knife, stared at him. The sergeant sat down on his foot locker. And hung his head. Lavery turned around and walked back to sit beside me.

“Got nothin’ against niggers,” he told me. He was neither shaking or breathing hard. “Served with some good ones in Korea and Namb. One man’s good as another. Don’t know what got into that nigger, but I reckon he’s calmed on down.”

After finishing the bottle, Lavery took me to late chow and I passed out on my bunk. Around 3 in the morning I heard the barracks sergeant rousting privates for KP. They didn’t roust me. I went back to sleep and when I awakened around six, Lavery was up and freshly shaved and alert in his tailored fatigues. He grinned at me, held up his fatigue jacket with corporal stripes. I dressed, cleaned up, ate chow with Lavery and fell out at 7 with 15 or so NCOs to be accounted for. Right off, the barracks sergeant recognized me in my baggy, funky fatigues.

“Why the fuck ain’t you on KP, troop?” he yelled at me.

“Nobody woke me up, sergeant,” I retorted, while Lavery kept a straight face.

“So you’re a fuckin’ wise-ass, think you can out-smart the US Army, huh?”

“No, sergeant.”

“Well, we will fix your ass good, Kelso. We will find you a shit detail that’ll make KP and guard duty seem like child’s play.”

While NCOs scattered, Lavery winked at me and joined them. Half an hour later an MP jeep pulled up and a spec.4 walked in. The barracks sergeant pointed to me. “Take that cake-eating motherfucking goldbricking wise ass and work him ’til his cheesy faggot dick falls off.”

I followed the spec. 4 to his jeep. He took off and surveyed me as we sped along through the vast post. He was around 25, squeaky clean in tailored fatigues. His name tag read KEARNS.

“I’m company clerk,” he said. “We need somebody to clean the day room and mow our lawn. I belong to a special unit of MPs who do honor guard duties. Strictly crack troops. We got our own chef, so the chow’s first class. You won’t have to do much.” He glanced at me. “Anything’s better than KP and guard, especially in this heat.”

He pulled up to a barracks beside a wooden dayroom with orderly room attached. In the day room, he handed me a broom, mop and bucket. I swept and mopped the day room and was done in about an hour, pausing several times to toss darts and shoot pool balls. Kearns came back out and told me to mow the lawn, which was very small. Crack troops, immaculate in tailored fatigues, trickled in for chow. They ignored me as I ate with them and talked about softball. The chow was the best I’d eaten since joining the army back in January.

When chow was done, I wandered into the orderly room to ask Kearns if there was anything else he wanted me to do. He and the burly old first sergeant, with 6 stripes and diamond in the middle, drank coffee. The top smoked a cigar. He asked if I wanted coffee. I had some coffee. The first surveyed me as I stood studying several softball trophies in a case behind glass.

He said, “We got a tough softball league on post. Very competitive.” He continued to appraise me—a kid who had his own share of baseball trophies in my old bedroom in Southern California. “You a ball player?” He puffed his cigar, lifted his feet onto his desk. He had hash marks from two wars and the combat infantry badge at the pocket of his khakis. When I nodded, he said, “You look like a ball player. You any good?”

“Played college, sir. I was a prospect. Had offers to sign a pro contract.”

“So what happened to put you in this piss hole like this when you could be playin’ ball?”

“I’d rather not talk about it, sir.”

He took two puffs. “Where’d you play?”

“Southern California, sir.”

“What position?”

“Short, second, centerfield in college.

“What about softball?

“It’s all the same. Gotta hit it and catch and run the bases.”

He glanced at his clerk, who’d been following our conversation with sly amusement. “We’re in the tournament right now, for post championship. We won it two years back. Right now our centerfielder’s on emergency leave for two weeks. You got your gear?”

“Spikes and glove are in my duffel, sir.”

He slipped his feet off the desk and turned to Kearns. “Write him up a ‘permanent day room orderly’ slip, Kearns. I think we got a ringer.” He turned back to me. “You a ringer, Kelso?”

I nodded.

That afternoon, Kearns drove me back to the barracks where I handed the ‘permanent dayroom orderly’ slip to the barracks sergeant. He read it, shook his head slowly, then nodded, peered up at me with a single probing eye. “Looks like you’re learning,” he said.

Kearns waited in the jeep while I rushed in to grab my spikes, socks and glove. Lavery was on his bunk, gazing at a nudie magazine, nipping. I informed him of my good fortune. He was not in a good mood. “Told yah so, kid.” He was nipping from a bottle of terpin hydrate—military cough medicine. He held it up. “When y’all run out-a cash, y’all can always get this cough medicine from the dispensary—it’s got ten per cent alcohol.”

That night, my first time up, I decided to hit left-handed. I’d never played fast pitch softball. A natural right-handed hitter, I always hit batting practice left-handed and was a better low-ball hitter with much more power. On the third pitch, batting seventh, with a man on and no score, I connected and drove a boomer that took off to dead right field like a golf tee shot, kept soaring. The right fielder never turned around as it landed 20 feet over the fence. As I rounded the bases, my new and temporary teammates went wild, greeting me at the plate like a hero. We won the game. I hit a line-drive-double, right-handed, later on and scored. I glided around easily in the outfield. I realized right off I was the best player on the field. We played four games and won the championship and I ripped shots all over the field from both sides of the plate and stayed on as permanent dayroom orderly until I got my orders, eating chow and hanging out with the top and Kearns.  I was an equal, one of the boys.

I had joined the army because of complicated circumstances of disillusion and self-imposed defeat as a major league ballplayer’s son, developing, when I quit, a phobia of being on a ball field ever again, my heart broken by baseball, my once great dreams replaced by the infantile impulse of becoming a writer.

During this time Lavery continued to suck down cough medicine and grew morose and ragged. When I tried to thank him and inform him of my good fortune, he snorted and muttered as he lay sideways on his bunk, “Baseball, softball…none of it means shit to me, even if it means shit to y’all and everybody else.”

I shipped out a day before he did and he was passed out when I came to say good bye. §

Rick Kelso is a former boxer and drinking companion with Dell Franklin. He doesn’t get out much, so you’re not likely to see him anywhere, and if you did, you wouldn’t want to meet him. He’s a washed up, suicidal liberal who sits at home all day, writing and dreaming of better times.