Since July you have been receiving a form of serialized version of the book, Forks in the Road, a chronicle of my two-decades in the United States Air Force. This is a supplemental story that does not appear in Forks in the Road.
James Edward Alexander
On a big board behind a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” a schedule listed Flight 1607 for base-wide detail. Such listings designated those basic training troops available for a wide range of duties, most of them servile and unpleasant, typifying that aspect of military life when sergeants and corporals said “go, do, and don’t ask why.” The most common assignment was guard duty.
In 1951 Lackland Air Force Base was strictly a training base. If there was anything that really needed protection, properly trained Air Policemen safeguarded it. Therefore, everything else left to “guard” was intended to instill in us the basic notions of military security. Some of the most “sensitive” areas were the parade fields and empty buildings. Our weapons were extra length billy clubs and unloaded M-1 carbines. My Flight 1607 had drawn a weekend assignment. My status as Flight Right Guide did not excuse me from this duty.
I reported as ordered to the proper building for orientation, assignment, and transportation to my post. In clear letters on the big board, I saw ALEXANDER, Post # 24, 1800 – 2400 hrs. The Sergeant of the Guard was emphatic: “You will be on alert for anything unusual.” My silent thought was, ‘Everything I’ve done since leaving Valdosta has been unusual.’ We boarded troop carrier trucks, and as the small convoy passed my barrack, I sat hoping the whole thing had been canceled and that we were being driven home. When we stopped it was at the classroom area near the P-T field. The Corporal yelled, “Post 24, Alexander.” I dismounted, readjusted my helmet, gripped the unloaded carbine, and marched up to another trainee whose shift had just ended. I was his relief, and the smile on his face told me that’s exactly what I was providing. He took my empty seat on the truck as they sped away to another site.
Post 24 was two very long square blocks of buildings used as classrooms to administer more tests to determine our assignments after basic training. On those days of testing these un-air-conditioned structures provided cover from the hot Texas sun. On this day they provided nothing. I made a quick assessment: it was Saturday, the time was 1800, the buildings were empty and locked, and there really wasn’t anything inside or outside that anybody wanted. Four good reasons, I thought, why I shouldn’t be there to patrol the four sidewalks that bordered approximately 10 buildings. But I remembered Sergeant Hall’s reminder: sometimes the only logical response to military orders is “yes sir,” or “Yes Ma’am.” I began to walk.
My pace was brisk. I was the classic sentry, with the rifle resting on my right shoulder, my eyes probing for the “unusual,” and my ears tuned to detect the hushed approach of an intruder. I covered the first lap in ten minutes. Half-way through the second circle an automobile stopped alongside me. I was quick to observe this action. The driver yelled, “Airman.” I turned smartly to put the person in full view. I was ready to challenge him if he trespassed on my post, and I would do so by yelling, “Sergeant of the Guard, Post 24 under attack.” That’s what the sergeant told us to do in such cases, and our warning would be relayed to him by a network of guards operating between my post and the guard shack where the sergeant rested while awaiting my call. I really believed that. The stranger lowered his window and said, “Airman, I watched you go around that block like you’re going to chow. Now, I’m here to tell you, you ain’t going to chow, and those buildings ain’t going nowhere either. So, slow your ass down, or you won’t last two hours. How long ya gotta walk this post?” I could see him clearly. He had five stripes — a technical sergeant, one less than a master sergeant. “I’ll be here till midnight sir, sir,” He laughed a little and offered some help. “Tell ya what son, you can walk slower, it’ll be OK, and if one of them buildings start to move just mention my name – big Eddy — make that Sergeant Big Eddy, and the damn building will stay put.” He drove away. I resumed my stroll.
The next few laps were in fact slower. I started to time my progress by counting the steps and the shapes of trees along my route. After a while I had figured and refined the game to a degree of comfort. I glanced at my watch. Only an hour had passed. The next hour seemed like 180 minutes. Night had fallen on the groove I was making in the sidewalk, the buildings, covered with black tar paper appeared as unfinished projects, and the dimness of the streetlights added an eerie hue to the entire area. Fewer cars now passed my way, and I was my only company. My thoughts turned to how a 17-year-old Colored child from Valdosta was trying to understand the swift transition from segregation to integration. There was so much uncertainty, yet I was not afraid, nor was I so cocky as to deny that I was vulnerable. I just walked and wondered.
Finally, I glanced at my watch and figured the time remaining for two more circuits. Each cycle now consumed 45 minutes. Sergeant Big Eddy would have been proud of me. I was almost back to the point where the relief guard would arrive. I heard the smooth sound of the truck engine. I mustered the remaining energy and broke into a slow trot. It was almost over. I wondered who my replacement would be, but really didn’t care as long as he could breathe and stand erect. The truck came to a halt almost in the same tracks where I jumped off six hours ago. The corporal again barked the announcement. “Post 24, Houston.” Panic struck me. Houston stumbled over the outstretched legs of others and jumped to the ground.
Houston was a small 18-year-old child, whose body and manner pretended manhood. Everyone in the Flight felt the urge to imagine him as a younger brother who ran away from home just to be with you. Yet, when he spoke, his words were those of an educated person, and he earned our respect for not being educated and pretending some excuse to avoid military service. He stood so small beside me and spoke. “Alexander…” He didn’t finish the greeting. His voice, always trembling, had admitted in barrack conversation among strangers his discomfort of being alone at night. He was desperately searching for self-courage that he doubted. He was a pitiful sight. The corporal ordered me to get aboard or walk home. I told him I preferred the walk. I took one final look at Houston and departed.
I had gone about two blocks when the agony of seeing Houston’s fright overpowered me. I was tired, but I was also the very-active-athletic-17-year-old-just-out-of-high school-quarterback. Although the six-hour walk had sapped my energy, I just knew it was going to be a night of terror for Houston. I figured the darkness alone could send him into an emotional and physical frenzy. The thought pained me. I stopped, and before I could think of a logical reason why I stopped, I turned and headed back to Post 24. As I turned the corner, a shaky silhouette was ambling toward the first turn. My tired legs had covered a four-block distance since I left him; he had only progressed about 150 yards. To avoid scaring him, I started to whistle, still I could imagine what that sound was doing to him. When I got a little closer, I raised my voice and called his name to assure him that it was I who was approaching. When we met, even the darkness could not hide the wetness accumulating in his eyelids. I put my arm around his shoulder and told him I understood. His broken voice asked, “Alexander, what am I going to do?” I told him the plan. “Houston, don’t say a word, just listen. Give me that rifle; turn around and get the hell out of here; go and sneak back into the barrack; get in my bed, and because a bed check is likely, pull the covers over your head, since we sure as hell don’t look alike. At exactly 6:15, get your ass up and return to your own bed, because if you’re still there when I return to my sack I’ll collapse on your face.” He tried to speak, but I motioned him to remain silent. When I did allow him to say something he asked a pertinent question; “What will happen when the corporal comes at six o’clock?” I was just too tired to worry about that issue at a conscious level, but an unconscious defense engaged to provide a logical answer. “Houston, only you and I, and a bunch of other unfortunate dip-shits work these shifts. Corporals have more sense. He’s probably at home in bed right now. Besides, even though you’re White and I’m Colored, to corporals, we all look alike — stupid.” He tried to speak again. I didn’t want to hear it. I had started to walk away. When we were separated by a few yards, he gave me all he could. “Alexander, Alexander, thanks for being my friend.”
We had helped each other cross another barrier. It was a pretty nice gift to exchange at midnight. We had both come from places and societies so many miles from tonight. I looked back just in time to see him turn the corner. I yelled, “Houston, I believe you. We all need friends sometimes.” He was out of sight. I knew he heard me. I felt alone again, but I no longer felt lonely.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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