At the dinner table, Fancy Goodnight, my seventeen-year-old granddaughter, drops a bombshell, spills the beans, or lays an egg depending on your perspective.
“Hey, you guys, guess what?”
Lavender Green Goodnight, Fancy’s twelve-year-old sister, responds. “You’re pregnant with twins, and you don’t know who the father is. It—”
Topaz Goodnight their fifteen-year-old sister interrupts, “It could be any of twelve homeless, drug-addicted, ex-cons that—”
Mavis Goodnight, the girl’s forty-year-old mother attempts to put the conversation back on track, “Enough, don’t joke about that. Fancy, what do you want to tell us?”
Fancy turns to her forty-two-year-old father, my son, Honest Goodnight. “Dad, Mom, you’re looking at a United States Marine Corps enlistee. I’m—”
“What? Fancy, what did you do?” Her father reacts first and furious.
“Fancy! You are joking, right?” Incredulous Mom is next.
“Fancy, you are dumber than a box of doorknobs. Why—” Lavender Green snickers.
Topaz slices into the conversation. “To meet and mingle with all American murderers. Of whom each male is a potential mate—”
Fancy turns to me. “Grandpop, you served. You were in the Air Force, and your dad was in WWII. I’m following in your footsteps. I’m building on a family tradition.”
I raise my hands in self-defense, “My name is Bennett. I ain’t in it.”
The conversation, debate, argument rages on through dinner and long after-dinner cleanup.
I retreat to the back porch with the latest Walter Mosely mystery.
Fancy finds me there. She settles on the love seat across from my reclining rocker. I try to ignore her.
“Grandpop, did I mess up? I mean, this is what I want to do. You said we should always follow our hearts, right? Okay?”
I lower my book, look at my oldest granddaughter. Fancy has tan skin, a long face, full lips, “good hair,” huge eyes, and a wistful, distracted way about her. She always looks a little lost. I think that’s a front.
I taught Fancy to play tennis when she was five. The moment she got on the court, Fancy was transformed. She was a ruthless, single-minded, vicious, relentless player. She beat more talented players and me because of her concentration and will to win.
I have two great fears for Fancy. One is the sexual abuse she will face from her fellow Marines and the institutional tolerance of this abuse. That will be a never-ending battle for her. I hurt for her already.
My other dread is that Fancy Goodnight will approach the Marines like she does tennis. She will be a very lethal weapon – forever. I don’t want that for her or any child. I want to, to drop a twenty-pound barbell on her foot, crush it, cripple her. Ruin her for any military or paramilitary service.
“Grandpop, are you okay? You look – angry. Are you mad at me?”
I shake my head.
“You know, I’m not super bright or into school like Lavender Green. I’m no social butterfly like Topaz. I’m not ambitious like Mom wants me to be. I’m not a leader like dad. Okay? I just need space to be me. Okay?”
Fancy is my heart. She can touch me like no one else can. She has grit, drive and a North Star. She’s not a follower, but others willingly follow her. Fancy doesn’t yet understand how she is a leader. She’s my highest hope for the future of our family.
Lavender Green skips onto the porch with three chocolate-coated ice cream cones. She hands a cone to each of us. We thank her as she plops down next to her sister.
“Grandpop, tell your oldest granddaughter to get real and drop this crazy Marine shit. She—”
I raise my hand to stop Lavender Green, “No can do. She’s your sister. You two need to talk. Leave me out of it.”
Topaz steps onto the porch while texting.
“Granddaughter, no phones out here. You know my rules.”
The phone maven steps out, closing the door behind her. Before we can continue, she pops back in.
“All done. See.” She puts her phone in her back pocket. The phone buzzes. Topaz gives us a shit-eating grin and steps out again.
I worry about that child. Topaz is a high school fashion/makeup icon with thousands of YouTube followers. We have our own homegrown, “influencer.” The thing is, to me, she seems more fragile, less confident than her sisters.
And, while Lavender Green is consistently capping on Fancy, there is a real emotional closeness between those two that I don’t see between Topaz and her sisters.
I have mentioned my observations to their parents. Their response has been, “We see it also. But what can we do about it?” I certainly didn’t and don’t have any answers resolving these issues.
Topaz steps back into our conversation.
“So, here’s the deal. I’ll give you a heck-a going away party sis. I’ll give you, like, a royal send-off. I mean, like sick to the bone stuff. I’ll spare no expense, big sister.”
Lavender Green snaps back, “Topaz, don’t get your tits in an uproar. Fancy could change her mind. Right? The Marine Corps could be disbanded. Or she could fail the physical. Shit, Fancy could get a full-ride tennis scholarship to Harvard. Anything could happen.”
I want to add a possible foot injury to that list, but I don’t.
Fancy and I exchange quick looks.
The oldest daughter grins and embraces both her sisters. “Look, you two need to chill. I’ll talk to both of you every day. In a week or two, you’ll be sick of my calls. And I do want a party, but simple, no cameras, no broadcast. A party directed by the incomparable Topaz Goodnight with keynote addresses from Our Genius in Residence, Lavender Green, and Grandpop Goodnight, okay?”
I like Fancy’s resolve and diplomacy. I think the idea of being a Marine or of just taking control of her life is giving her new confidence and consideration for those she will leave behind. But taking control always has a downside to. I want to go and find another quiet place, but they are not about to let me get away that easy. I have to work with them to develop a strategy to win over or at least neutralize their parent’s opposition to Fancy’s career choice.
“Okay, Grandpop, now that we have a plan, tell us about basic training back in the day. Help Fancy get ready for it, okay?”
“Topaz, my experience was in the early 1960s. I bet a lot has changed since then. My history may not be that relevant. And—”
“Grandpop, I want to hear about it. I do. I think it will help me. Please.”
Topaz springs up from her chair. “I’ll get you a beer.”
I’m going to tell you about our first night in basic training. We were a group of California and Hawaii kids flying out of Oakland to San Antonio, Texas, in December of sixty-two. We were a rowdy bunch on the plane. I think about forty percent of us were what you call people of color. I counted all the Hawaiians as POC. There were rough boys from the Bay Area and Northern Cal. There were country boys from the Central Valley. And islanders from all over the Pacific. There was a blonde boy, Milbank… I think, from Paradise, California. That boy was anything but an angel.
Due to storms, we landed at Lackland, AFB, at about 8:00 p.m. – three hours late.
A black Sergeant stepped on the plane dressed in wet fatigues with a look of disgust and contempt on his dark brown face.
“Shut the fuck up! Put your ass in a seat and shut your goddamn mouths. Not one fucking word. I’m Sergeant Brown, your Training Instructor, or TI. You will address me as, ‘Sir’ if and when I give you permission to address me or your other TI, Sergeant Knolls.”
One of the white boys near the front raised his hand and spoke.
“Hey, ah, Sergeant are we going to eat—”
Brown was on that boy like a lightning strike, yanked him out of his seat, hauled the kid off his feet, spoke to that trembling, pale recruit in a low menacing voice like a storm rolling in.
“Asshole, you and I going to have a little chat. Just you and me. You stay in your seat while the rest of these jokers deplane. You understand. Don’t speak, just nod.”
Sergeant Brown had our attention. We didn’t have any more questions as we marched out into a blizzard.
The wind was driving sleet like a knife through our thin clothes. Walking down the stairs to the tarmac took all the rowdy out of us. The bus carrying us to our barracks was less than forty feet away. But by the time we were seated on the freezing bus, we were frightened and flash frozen.
On the iceberg bus, a thin, ugly white Sergeant, Grandy Knolls, was tossing us field jackets seemingly at random. He informed us that we had missed dinner and saved the Air Force money. He said we had made an excellent first impression.
The white boy who asked about eating was not on the bus with us. We never saw him again. That was the thing that worked on my mind for a long time.
After a chilly ride to our barracks. I was hoping for a good warm night’s sleep. I needed time to take stock of my situation – time to warm up and figure how to get out of this mess.
That was not the Sergeant’s agenda.
They stood us in two lines by our double-decker bunks facing each other. Sergeant Knolls took roll call. Sergeant Brown had a derogatory comment to make about each of us.
After roll call, they gave each of the two boys at the head of the lines a pillowcase.
“All right assholes, you got one chance only to put the contraband you were told not to bring but brought anyway, into these sacks. Contraband is first and foremost weapons, knives, pistols, saps, blowguns, darts, spears, brass knuckles, garrotes, and such. And any food, tobacco, chewing gum, drugs, or such. Any gambling devices, dice, cards, or such. Do you understand?”
We all kind of mumbled, “Yes or Yes, Sir or Okay.”
“You, assholes, are too dumb to be in my fuckin’ Air Force! On the floor and give me ten pushups on my mark and count them off like this, ‘One pushup, Sir, Two pushups, Sir’ as loud as you girls can. Go!”
Thirty pushups later, no longer cold, we were sweating, panting back in line. We filled the pillowcases with switchblades, jackknives, hunting knives, a box cutter, straight-edge razors, an ice pick, brass knuckles, a derringer, and a zip gun. I couldn’t even name some of the weapons.
At that point, I knew I had made a grave error in joining the military.
After the collection, a laughing Sergeant Brown held up both pillowcases.
“Well, well, you don’t listen. If you listen, you don’t hear. If you hear, you don’t understand. If you understand, you disobey anyway. We’re going to fix that shit – real quick. What do I have here, Sergeant Knolls, about twenty pounds of contraband?”
“Um, about twenty-five pounds, I reckon. Not close to the record, though. These is pretty tame pups.”
Sergeant Brown walked directly to me.
“Goodnight. What kinda fuckin’ name is that? You gonna give me a good night kiss Goodnight?”
“No, Sir. I will not give you a good night kiss, Sir.”
“Even if I ask nicely?”
“You just a tease Goodnight. So, who’s right? Me or Sergeant Knolls? Twenty pounds or twenty-five?”
“I don’t know, Sir. I haven’t held the pillowcases, Sir.”
“So, you think we’re both wrong and that you’re smarter than both of us. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“You have hurt our feelings Goodnight. We’re going to remember that. Right Sergeant Knolls?”
“Right as rain.”
I thought I should maybe try to go over the fence that night during the storm. If I could even find the damn fence.
Brown stepped to the boy across from me.
“Mendoza, you look like an intelligent lad. So, who’s right, Sergeant Knolls or me?”
“You are, Sir.”
“Goddamn right, boy. How did you figure it out?”
“You’re the senior Sergeant. You outrank Sergeant Knolls.”
Knolls jumped in front of Mendoza.
“Mendoza, you fuckin, kiss ass, brown nosin’ motherfucker. I won’t forget this.”
Brown laughed again.
“Leave the boy alone. He can’t help being a kiss ass.”
Knolls sniffed Mendoza’s face and chest.
Knolls shouts, “About face, Mendoza.”
Knolls turned Mendoza to face the bunks.
Knolls sniffed Mendoza’s back.”
“Mendoza, you smell wet boy. Are you wet, boy?”
“I think you’re wet. I think you’re a fuckin’ wetback. I think I smell the Rio Grande on you, boy.”
Down the row, a white boy snickered. Brown was in his face instantly.
“Esterhouse. Mr. Esterhouse, why are you laughing? What do you find so damn funny?”
“Sir, I, I—”
“I’m not laughing, Esterhouse. No one else is laughing but you. Why is that?”
“Sir, Sir, I apologize. I—”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Brown walked to the front of the barracks.
“All eyes on me. Listen up. We’re a unit. A military organization. We take care of our own business. We look out for each other. We police each other. I don’t like Mr. Esterhouse. I want to do damage to Mr. Esterhouse. I don’t want him in my Air Force.”
Brown points to Mendoza.
“I don’t think Mr. Mendoza likes Mr. Esterhouse or Sergeant Knolls or me. I think the power should be with the unit, not the leader. If I had my way, I would kick all you motherfuckers out. None of you good enough for my Air Force. Mendoza, do you want me to kick Esterhouse out? I’ll do it right now.”
Mendoza takes a deep breath before he responds.
“Sir, I think we should take care of our own, Sir.”
Brown steps quickly to Mendoza.
“Bull funkin’ shit. This has to be unanimous. Everyone has to agree with you, especially Esterhouse. Should we take care of our own, or do you want me to use my power? Say, ‘Yes, Sir’ if you want to take care of your own.”
The barracks rock with a resounding “Yes, Sir.”
That was my first night in basic training.
Fancy’s eyes are big and bright as she leans toward me. “So, what happened? I mean, you stayed in the Air Force.”
Topaz is shaking her head in disbelief. “That is disgusting. What they did to you guys. How could you stay?”
Lavender Green looks sick. “What did you do to Esterhouse, Grandpop?”
I answer Lavender Green’s question, but I look directly at Fancy.
“Esterhouse and a few other white boys got bruised up pretty bad that night. They ah, decided the Air Force wasn’t for them.”
The girls look at me for a long time. I stand up, finish my beer.
“Next morning, I thought I might fit in the Air Force after all.”
I pick up my book and retire to my bedroom.
Image: United States Air Force [Public domain]