In July of 1966 the Viet Nam war was just warming up the bloodmobile, Lyndon Johnson was president, Kent State was just a school no one ever heard of, and Detroit was not a good place to be black. Jerry Burnett knew that better than most of us.
I didn’t know Jerry very well. To tell the truth, he scared the hell out of me. We had gotten in to it for about 15 seconds once, and one look at his face told me I never wanted to make him angry again. I backed down and things cooled─at least as much as they ever do in a San Antonio summer.
Somewhere along the line I learned a little here and there about Jerry. One day the guy in the next bunk asked me why Jerry was only a PFC if he’d been in the Army for almost 3 years. I told him that I had no idea. Later I learned that he had been promoted and busted at least twice. Would have made sergeant otherwise. I wasn’t sure at first but it soon became clear that Jerry also had what is called in polite circles a drinking problem. Night after night he would stagger into the barracks after midnight, pinball off one bunk after another until he found his own, usually the only empty one in the room.
Unless he was provoked Jerry was basically a peaceful guy who kept largely to himself. He ordinarily ate alone, drank alone and, I suspected, did a lot of thinking and feeling alone, too. He had lightened up these last few weeks, because his hitch was up almost any day. In fact, he had become almost friendly at times.
Jerry and I had never talked at all, really. Not so much as a, “hot, ain’t it.” Never, that is, until that hot July night in ’66, the night that, like it or not, I filled in all the blanks in this enigmatic black soldier from Motown.
It might have been the fact that I was born, though not raised, in Detroit myself that made me feel some faint attraction to Jerry. Maybe it was because I, too, was something of a loner, though not in his league. Or it could have simply been that I’m a sucker for a sad story, and he had all the earmarks of a man with a library full of them. Regardless, I did feel strangely attracted to him and that is probably why I went out of my way to talk to him that night.
It was Saturday, and I had been at the NCO club dancing and drinking beer. I pulled into the parking lot across from our barracks about quarter after one and parked my car. Even in the middle of the night it was still nearly 90 degrees and the humidity was utterly oppressive. It wasn’t too bad driving with the top down, but the moment I stopped and the air stood still, the full weight of the swampy atmosphere fell on me like a ton of wet feathers. I put the top up and locked the car and was turning to cross the street when I noticed someone sitting on the curb a few spaces away. It was Jerry, bent over, staring at the bottle he held in a brown bag on his lap. He was as still as the air and just as lifeless.
Before I knew what I was doing, I walked toward him slowly. When I was about 15 feet away, close enough that I didn’t have to speak loudly, far enough that if for some reason he took offense I would have a head start, I said, “Evenin’ Jer, what’s goin’ on?” Not a twitch. I tried again, “Been sittin’ here long?” I waited then.
After several seconds I saw his head, still bent over the bottle, turn slowly toward me, his vacant gaze eventually falling squarely into mine. He mumbled something inaudible, then chuckled a little and looked back at the bottle. His next move took me completely by surprise. He look up again and lifted the bottle toward me. He was offering me a drink. Of all the unlikely things he could do, this was right at the top of the list. After a stunned moment or two I walked over and took the bagged bottle from his hand and for the first time realized that it was Red Ripple. “Haven’t had any of this stuff since I got out of high school”, I said. I took a long pull off the jug and passed it back to him smacking my wet lips as I did.
Jerry reached out unsteadily and took his turn, emptying the remainder in one long gulp. After tipping it upside down to verify that it was in fact empty, he threw bottle and bag in the general direction of a trash can on the edge of the lawn 20 feet away. He missed by a car length but at least he hit the grass instead of the pavement so the bottle just landed with a dull thud instead of littering the parking lot with broken glass. His only response was a slow, growling, “Shit.”
I sat down on the curb next to him and waited to see what he would do. It became increasingly clear that this was a man with a problem. He wasn’t just a melancholy drunk. He was genuinely in a world class funk. Finally I asked, “Is something wrong Jer?”
He looked up at me again, head still tipped forward over his knees. “Is somethin’ wrong?” he repeated. “Is somethin’ wrong?” this time much more dramatically and a little bit louder. He suddenly threw back his head and let out a huge laugh as if that was supposed to convey some succinct meaning to me. It didn’t.
That’s when I realized for the first time that he was wearing his uniform. No one wore their uniform on Saturday night. Never. Especially Jerry who, as far as I knew, hated the Army more than anyone I had ever seen. Now I was sure that there was something going on inside of him, something huge, something that was so terrible I wasn’t sure I even wanted to know. But I did want to know. I had to know and I knew he would tell me.
“What is it Jerry? and why are you in uniform?” I said, and waited for him to answer. After nearly a minute, without looking up, he said.
“I re-upped today.”
“You what!” I blurted out. For Jerry Burnett to re-enlist in the Army seemed just slightly less likely than Senator Joseph McCarthy defecting to Russia. The one thing I knew about this man was that he hated being in the Army more than anyone I had ever known.
“I re-upped for 6.”
Now I was sure he was having me on. It just wasn’t possible. There was no force on Earth that could get Jerry to add six more years to his enlistment, not when he would be out next week. All I could say was, “Really? You’re not kidding?”
“Nope,” he burped, the words hitching a ride on a bubble of Ripple. “Six more big ones.”
“Why, Jerry,” I asked. “What in the world made you do a thing like that?”
“Had to,” he sighed. “Had no choice—no choice at all.”
Then I was certain that there was something very important that I wasn’t yet in on. There had to be some circumstance that had forced him to do the impossible. I had to know what it was. “There must have been a reason. What was it?”
He took a slow, deep breath and began.
“Yep, you’re right. I sho ‘nough had a reason. See, I been in since ’63. I was only 17. Had to get my mama to sign for me ’cause I was too young. Ditn really want to join, but they give me no choice then, neither.”
It was obvious that he was going to drag this out a little, so I just let him proceed at his own pace without interruption.
“I was datin’ this fox I met at a party. She was the cutest little sister you ever saw. Tiny bit of a thing, she was, but with great tits.” At this he smiled and nodded his head a couple of times. I was sure he was seeing her in his mind.
“Problem was, she lied to me about how old she was. She told me she was 18 but she was really only 15. Truth is, it wouldn’t of made no never mind to me. I couldn’t of left her alone anyhow. It was cool for a while. We met on the roof of the building where she lived almost every night. We’d spread out a blanket and pretend to have a picnic sometimes but really it was so she wouldn’t scrape her cute little black ass on the roof.” He smiled again, much more broadly this time.
“We kept meetin’ like that for a couple of months before her daddy found out. Jeeeesus! did he have a fit. Thought he was gonna whup shit out of me so I just split. Next day the pigs come and took me to jail. Stachutory rape, they called it.
“Well, I stayed locked up for a couple a months before they gave me a trial. No doubt about it, she was under age and I had been pokin’ her and that’s the law. Guilty as sin, I was, and everybody knew it. Includin’ the judge. I was lucky, though, least that’s what I thought at the time, ’cause the Public Defender’s office give me a good lawyer. He made a deal with the judge where I would go into the Army for three years instead of goin’ to jail. Judge asked me if I wanted to do that. Seemed to me like a real good idea, so I said yes.
“Next thing I know, here I am in Texas and everybody has rank on me and they’re tellin’ me what to do and I start to wonder if it was such a good idea after all. Then I think of living behind bars and decide I better get used to it.”
Up until now, I’d been following him pretty well. But now he was acting like that was the end of the story and I knew it couldn’t be. He had told me why he had enlisted in the first place but nothing that would explain why he had signed on for another six years. I was about to ask him when he continued.
“So here I am, ready to get out, and what do you suppose happens? I get a call from home and they tell me that the police have been hangin’ around, waitin’ for me to get out so’s they can lock me up again. They done changed their minds and I’m just shit outta luck. So what else was I suppose to do? They can’t touch me till I get out, so I just won’t get out.” His face went limp again. No sardonic laughter now. Just the cold stare of a man without hope, a man who had once invited the devil to dinner and was again having to pick up the check, a man who knew that the devil was a hungry fellow and would be back for more anytime.
What could I say. What could anyone say. I now saw this man, not as a threat, but as a gentle soul, a boy who had simply put love ahead of law and present ahead of future. A soldier of misfortune and a prisoner of time.