August 8, 2009
Climbing Pikes Peak wasn’t challenge enough for the U. S. Army’s 77th Special Forces Group, home-based in an area called “Smoke Bomb Hill” at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When my gung-oh outfit — also know as the “Green Berets” — designed a training exercise that involved climbing a 14,000 foot mountain in Colorado, to make it interesting they decided we’d begin the slog at least two 13,000 foot peaks away.
The Pikes Peak exercise was part of the Special Forces Summer Military Mountaineering course offered at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The march took three days to complete, which meant that we had to spend two nights in the Rocky Mountains in sleeping bags, no tents allowed. We had fine weather, with sun during the day once the morning fog burned off, and cool nights, so the sleeping bags were not the problem. The problem for me — a picky eater in those days— was that during the operation we dined only on field rations. Military “C-rations,” as anyone who was ever in the service will tell you, consists of tasteless canned meat, stale crackers, and weak Sterno-heated coffee. In my case the tepid brew was sipped from a can that had recently been emptied of its sliced peaches for my breakfast. (The nineteen-year-old version of me is on the left in the photo above. Click any image for a larger view.) When you wake up on a cold and damp morning in the mountains under a big pile of rocks, the C-ration coffee is plenty good enough to take the chill out of your bones.
On the first night out my buddy, Pluchek (military types call each other by last names only) and I slept under an arrangement of huge boulders. They seemed to have been placed on the slope of the mountain in such a way as to create a small cave-like shelter just for us. The idea of nesting there was to avoid the heavy dew that settles in the mountains each morning. Our plan didn’t work. Abundant moisture collected on the tops of the boulders and ran in rivulets to the underside, where it dripped onto us like water torture. The next morning we crawled from under the rocks like human slugs and dosed ourselves with some of that wonderfully bad coffee. Afterwards, during the “hurry-up-and-wait” military routine before the order to move out came, Pluchek used his rucksack for a pillow and napped on a warm rock like a lizard.
On the second night we camped in a pine grove in a small valley between Mountain Number Two and Pikes Peak. We relaxed around the campfire like boy scouts, telling stories, snacking, and goofing off. (That’s me at the right in the photo, sitting with a guy named Schmitz. Schmitz is drinking c-ration coffee. I’m the whittler.) We slept in the open that night, no tents and no boulders. The next morning, day three, we washed up and brushed our teeth and combed our hair using our canteen cups as basins.
We made the summit of Pikes Peak the next morning after our third long hike in as many days, this one all up hill. We didn’t have to actually “climb” the mountain. To me, mountain “climbing” brings to mind a hand over hand struggle using ropes and pitons and such. (Rock climbing was another of our Summer Military Mountaineering courses, but that’s another blog post.) As it was, we simply walked up Pikes Peak, strolled to the 14,110 foot summit as you would on any other hike. To be honest, the experience was rather anti-climatic — pun intended. We arrived at the summit to be greeted by tourists who, smarter than the average soldier, had opted to take the scenic cog railway. After a cigarette break and extra time to enjoy the view and take snap-shots, we were marched off and loaded onto two-and-a-half-ton trucks for the ride back to Fort Carson. (One of my favorite pictures is of Pluchek at the summit, in which Colorado Springs can be glimpsed in the distance through the morning mist.)
As we moved to the trucks, I spotted a cute girl posing for a snapshot by the Pikes Peak summit sign. I assumed the older man about to take her picture was the young lady’s father. She was a typical 1950s bobby soxer with bobbed hair, hip-length tan “car coat,” rolled up blue jeans to show off her white anklets, and what appeared to be classic penny loafers on her feet. The man must have noticed me and turned just as I was about to snap a final frame with my Kodak box camera. I love the blur that resulted from the smiling man’s movement — it creates a dynamic foreground element that serves to frame the girl and the sign — an example of what I’ve come to think of as photographic compositional serendipity. (In other words, dumb luck.)
When we returned to Fort Carson and were told about our Summer Military Mountaineering class for the following day, it turned out to be another activity that raised questions in my naturally non-military mind. (After two years in the army I was still not fully on board with the military logic of there being a “right way, a wrong way, and an army way” of doing things. That may explain why, after just one three-year enlistment, I happily left army life behind for good.) When briefed on our next assignment, my thoughts went something like this: Unless we where going to be prospecting for gold and silver in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, why in the world did we need to learn how to pack mules?
At nighttime Wilson had it easy. After the evening editions came in, all he did was sit on his stacks of newspapers under the restaurant awning and customers came to him. Shipyard workers like Daddy came. So did bookies, businessmen, politicians, judges and lawyers — strippers from the burlesque clubs up on Baltimore Street. They all came for the late papers and the big deli sandwiches and kosher pickles, or the prime rib dinner for $3.25. Wilson was on another big-time movie rant. It was my fault because I said Africa Screams was the best Abbott and Costello movie ever made. Wilson came right back at me with, “That’s just a jerky takeoff on a 1930 documentary called Africa Speaks.”
“Since they got popular, Abbott and Costello mix in old stuff with new stuff. It’s a trick to confuse the American movie public. Tell me I’m wrong.”
My ears got hot and my brain went mushy — that lasted five seconds, then I got mad. Who did he think he was to dispute my word?
“Nobody with five brain cells would call it a comedy,” Wilson said, and smiled like he knew he had it all over some hillbilly kid up from Virginia. “It’s just delayed reaction and overreaction — predictable, predictable and predictable.” Right then some guy he knew came by and Wilson got more big in his moves, talked different. “How you doin’, Slick!”
“Ain’t nothin’ to it!” the other guy went. “You makin’ it?”
“Hey, man, gettin’ there!” Wilson slapped his leg. “Gettin’ there!”
The other guy said, “Down on it!”
“Yeah,” Wilson laughed. “Down on the end of it!”
They jabbered in African for what seemed like five minutes, until the other guy went off. Then Wilson turned back at me, but before he could say a word I got in my two cents’ worth. “Paper says Africa Screams is number one box office. Why, the fat guy does—”
Wilson interrupted with, “Just stupid Abbott and Costello delayed reaction gags. For instance, in the lion cage it takes Costello —”
“Costello is the fat one, right?”
Wilson did a slow-motion double take at me. “Hey, if you can’t even tell them apart —”
“I know one’s fat and one’s thin, it’s only the names mix me up. Anyways, people laugh so hard they pee their pants!”
“Yeah, fans eat that shit up.” Wilson yawned again, then glanced around. “Look, Andy, check out The Boy With Green Hair, it’s playing at the Garden. That’s a movie!”
“Boy with what?”
“Green hair.” Wilson smiled. “It’s a symbol.” Wilson took a big pause. “The Boy With Green Hair has an important message for American citizens—it’s a bombshell that’s hit Baltimore City — a total bombshell!” I kept my peace and he kept on. “See, it’s a fable — which is sort of like a fairy tale. See, this kid’s a social outcast because he’s different — green hair, but it could be anything.” Wilson cut his eyes at me, sort of squinted to see if I followed what he said. “Like wrong color skin for instance?” Another dumb pause, then nicer. “No bad jokes and half-naked savages, like in Abbott and Costello. Take my word, Andy, The Boy With Green Hair is an A-Number-One bombshell that has hit this town.”
The number six bus pulled over at our corner. Mike, this girl who dressed like a boy so the state law would let her sell newspapers, she was across the way with an armful and must have figured it was her turn, her bus. While she waited for the light to change, I quick grabbed my stack of papers and jumped up for the bus and yelled back over my shoulder. “How about when Abbott and Costello join the French Foreign Legion? In the desert they see a mirage, a kid selling newspapers. They ask how come he’s there and the kid says, ‘Can I help it if they gave me a bad corner?’” Wilson didn’t laugh, and I told that joke good. I jumped on the bus and flipped newspapers out to sell. Out the back window I saw Mike run across Light Street after the bus, yelling, mad as hell.
After school me and Mike watched Blind John tap, tap, tap, across the street, trip on the curb and go splat on his face. Mike laughed. At first I didn’t, then I did. But not as much as she did. Blind John got up but didn’t know which way he was. He turned left and left and left again. He paused, spun right, and paused again, then he went off toward his house on Barney Street.
“Now how did he know which way?” I said.
Mike said, “Blind people got radar we don’t, Andy.”
That night I went everywhere in our house with my eyes closed, upstairs and down, even in the dark basement, which didn’t make a difference because I was being blind. Nobody home but me. I felt everything. It took forever but I didn’t care. I put my hands on every stick of furniture and everything else, even food in the icebox — and Momma’s underwear, which was thin and slippery and snagged on my fingernail. It was all too beautiful, too beautiful. I loved being blind. I felt everything.
The next day on the corner I asked Wilson had he seen the movie Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wilson being Wilson, he said, “Yes, but the real question is, Was it any good?” He took a pause, smiled. “And should I apologize if I didn’t like it?” He didn’t know a thing about that movie and proved it when he went into a fake know-it-all speech about not-important details, using fancy show-off words like “directorial intent,” for God’s sake — which I bet he didn’t know what it was any more than me. But he left out how they’d made the city look at night, wet streets, lampposts, three kinds of beautiful shadows — light, dark, and darker. Four if you count pitch-black.
Wilson must have seen my smirky face, so he changed off the subject and stuck his fist straight at my head. He hollered, “Klaatu barada nikto!” I froze, couldn’t figure him out.
“Say it, Andy,” he said. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’” Wilson jumped on his stacks of papers, one foot on the News Post pile and the other on the Sun. He was off-kilter because the stacks were uneven, but he did a bunch of bounce-squats like Cheetah anyway. “Say it, Andy! Say it!”
“Tell me what it means.”
“Trust me, white boy.” Wilson’s fist was still in my face. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!,’ then we bang fists. It’s a greeting.”
“From outer space.”
“Just do it, goddammit!”
I did like he said, we banged fists and yelled it together, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Wilson laughed and fell on his newspapers, sprawled flat out, his eyes all wet, tears down his cheeks from laughter. My knees went soft and I slunk to the sidewalk next to him. We laughed for five minutes with no idea why, like hyenas in a Tarzan movie.
The third and final part of Klaatu Brada Nikto! will post Friday.
Klaatu Barada Nikto! was originally published in the August, 2008, issue of Urbanite magazine, which featured short fiction intended, I suppose, as beach reading material. With a similar purpose in mind, I’m posting it on the blog this first week of August, 2009, but in three installments. Each part runs just a bit over 1,000 words, so it’s an easy read. Part 2 will post this Wednesday and part three posts on Friday.
I watched as dried sweat made white lines on the colored men’s skin, which was not just brown but had purple and blue in it, even some green, especially in the shadow parts. Their muscles bulged from the stuff they moved: lumber, vegetables, crates of oysters. New sweat washed away old and changed the line patterns on their chests and backs like a crazy Picasso couldn’t make up his mind. The men did a song I couldn’t make out, but the tune kept perfect time with how they moved on the gangplank. When they went from the bright sunlight into the shadows they got to be invisible, but their song kept on, lower, and mixed in with the clang noises from the shipyard, the bells and horns and whistles off the ships. Wave sounds came up from the pier pilings and brought the oily water smell to my nose, a sharp chemical odor, soft at the edges. A white bay steamer waited for sunset to sail. Rows of skipjacks with furled sails the color of old ivory, cleaned of oysters, fish, crabs, corn, and melons from across Chesapeake Bay, rocked in the tide.
Later, at Wilson’s Light Street newsstand, under the restaurant awning next to Cross Street Market, I asked him about shadows in movies. Big mistake. I expected he’d preach about movies that had important messages for U.S. citizens, but instead he went off on his own subject.
“Indulge me on this, Andy,” he said. “Popcorn has two flavors. Ever notice that? On top popcorn tastes one way, but on the bottom of the bag it’s different.”
I knew that, but it never came in my brain to mention it. I decided to play him some. “Why is that, I wonder?”
“Gravity,” he said. “Because it’s heavier, butter sinks to the bottom.” Wilson smiled. “Go ’head, tell me I’m wrong.”
I just nodded. Sometimes Wilson tried to shame me with his words, the strangest talk of any person I knew, white or colored. Right then a girl strutted up the sidewalk across the street. Wilson saw her and hollered, “Hey, Shirley!”
She stopped, looked over. “Yeah, Fool, what you want?”
“How you doin’, babe?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good! Good!” Wilson gave her his one-hundred-watt smile. “Doin’ all kinds of shit myself just to avoid other shit.” He paused dramatic, then, “Where you goin’ at?”
“Store.” Then Shirley got prissy fast, hands on her hips. “Why?”
“You got a dollar?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“On your way back, Sweetness, bring me a pair of socks.”
Shirley looked at Wilson like he was crazy — slowly shook her head — smiled and went on. Wilson started to sing, mostly to himself:
Blow it, preach it, Say a taste tonight.
Make it talk tonight.
Blow that shit, man — Work it on out.
Then he turned my way. “Don’t mind me, Andy — I lost what little sense I had three girlfriends ago.” He pointed at Shirley, halfway down the block. “Pay attention,” he said. “See what I did there?”
Was that supposed to be funny?”
“Gals like it when you tweak ’em.” Wilson put his arm around my neck like he was my buddy. “The other thing you should know is this: The Beacon has the best popcorn of any theater in Baltimore.” Wilson laughed big again. “Look and learn kid,” he said. “Look and learn.”
Wilson was this colored kind of guy who looked like Satchmo but not fat. I figured he was 13 or 14. Maybe 16. Hard to say with colored people because they looked younger than they really were. And for a long time I couldn’t tell them apart, either, but later I figured that was dumb. Colored people are as different as you and me. If you can’t see that you don’t have eyes. But all that off to one side, Wilson drove me nuts with his wise-ass ways — expert on everything, crazy stuff. Like he claimed white people couldn’t dance, said they just “vacillate” to the music. Is that even a real word? When I called him on it, Wilson backed off and said he’d agree that white people were born with the same rhythm as colored people, but they were scared of it. Scared of it? Right there I did him like he did me and just changed subjects.
“Well,” I said, “Bob Hope is great on the radio.”
“Hope does the same material every week,” Wilson said, “only the names change.”
“Jack Benny’s good.”
“Who’s he think he’s kidding with all those stupid hair jokes?”
“Burns and Allen?”
“They still on?”
“You like anything, Wilson?”
“Only radio joker with half a brain is Fred Allen,” he said. “Allen’s smart and funny.”
“I don’t get that guy.”
Wilson smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t, Andy.”
Now what did he mean by that tone of voice — some kind of disrespect? I just let it go. Anyways, my secret job was to learn all I could about the newspaper business. I watched how Wilson kidded people and made change and such. He didn’t seem to mind that I hung around, but he didn’t volunteer information, either. The wind shifted and rain started. We moved his stacks of papers to the other end of the awning to keep dry. He took a News Post and opened it to the movie listings. After five minutes of no talk Wilson finally said, “Andy, you seen Panic in the Streets with Richard Widmark and Jack Palance?”
“Yeah,” I said, and right there I thought I had him. “Palance plays the bad guy, see — name of Blackie. This doctor chases him ’cause —
” Wilson looked surprised. “A doctor chased him?”
“Thought you seen it.” “Didn’t say I saw the damn thing, wanted to know if you did.”
“Yep, caught it at the Echo on Fort Avenue. See, Widmark plays this health doctor and he’s gotta find Palance ’cause Palance has the plague and . . .”
“Shut up!” Wilson hollered. “Shut yo’ fat white mouth!” He laughed. “Don’t ruin it for me, Andy — Christ!”
“I didn’t tell the plague details. That’s the real story.”
Wilson just put his finger on his lips.
“You gotta see Palance,” I said. “Face like Frankenstein. There oughta be a law against that much ugly in public.”
Wilson sort of smiled. “Sounds good” was all he said.
I had won! For once I shut Wilson down cold.
Part 2 of Klaatu Barada Nikto! will post this Wednesday.