by Joel Brender
In 1963, Sam Cooke wrote and sang a song called, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” By early 1964 that change was upon us. I was a carefree Californian then. Stan was a young man from the deep south who knew what a lynching was. Vince was a hustler from Chicago. We were three young men who had no way of knowing how extensive that change would be on our lives. Our social environment would be torn asunder. And a society that had required us to be “good little boys and girls,” would soon be transformed. Sometimes it’s a combination of events that bring about a momentous change. But it can also be one event, so small, just the caliber of a bullet.
By February 1964, the country had been slowly finding its equilibrium since President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. But no matter how many times we told ourselves that we’d be fine, we knew with a certainty that some of our innocence, our we-can-do-anything attitude, was lost forever. That we’d lose more would be apparent in the coming years with Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, Vietnam, Psychedelia, Drugs, Flower Power, Free Speech, Free Love (okay, I consider that one a bonus!) and so much more.
Despite being three young men who couldn’t have been more different, we found ourselves wearing suits of blue and fatigues of green in the US Air Force. We were members of the 862nd Combat Defense Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, Minot, North Dakota.
In 1961, President Kennedy, at his Inauguration, famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Rather, ask what you can do for your country.” Some here took that to heart and answered the call. Others wanted to avoid an Army draft notice. Still others, like myself, felt the Air Force offered an opportunity to escape an unhappy home life.
My home was now in North Dakota, a place where the wheat was high, the ground was flat, natural beauty was scarce and you wished you could have been too. Where celibacy seemed a state requirement and where a young man’s fancy turned to alcohol, all night poker, and 8-ball with the attendant card sharks, pool sharks, and hustlers who inhabit the day room of any barracks. And when a guy like Vincent O. Williams, who I was soon to know, said “Care for a friendly game?” You knew you should run, not walk, in the other direction.
Sometimes you’ll hear veterans talking about their time in the service as being special, or somewhat magical. The “magic” is that this entity requires you to care for each other, whether by forcing you to or simply allowing it. Whether it’s your roommate or someone you don’t know, if they share the same uniform you care about them.
I had been stationed at Minot straight out of basic training in December of 1962 so, lucky me, I was now experiencing my second full winter there. I felt nearly like a native. I ordered my jelly donuts by asking for a “Bismarck”, and greeted my friends with a hearty “hey, youse guys!”
Minot was the “big city” that all of us had to go to if we wanted to escape the base, which was located about thirty minutes north of town. Even though we had a nice movie theater on base that showed first run movies for a quarter, we also went to the one and only movie theater in town to feel like a civilian for a couple of hours. The town had two, count ‘em, two restaurants, a real main street and that small-town charm that you read about. Well, actually if you wanted small town charm you had to read about it because it didn’t exist otherwise! Now I’m not saying that to be mean. If I was trying to be cruel I’d mention that it took three years to complete a simple overpass across the Mouse River that only inconvenienced us airmen trying to get into town. The lane leaving town was always open.
But when you talk about or reminisce about the places you’ve been it’s really the people that stand out in your mind. Those that you loved, or hated. Those that frustrated you and those you frustrated. The people, the real reason that your mind so quickly remembers back to any time of your life, good or bad. The people, the anchor around which your ship of the mind ebbs and flows with remembrances.
People like my roommate Stan Clark. Stan was from a little town in up-state Mississippi, kind of off the beaten path near Corinth, and not that many miles from Memphis, Tennessee. They call that area the Delta, home of the blues, and for a time the Blues and the Grey’s fought battles all over that area during the Civil War. Also for a time, the 60s, battles were still being fought over voting rights, civil rights and those unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness still being denied to those of color.
Growing up in California I had not experienced firsthand the conflicts taking place down South. With tales of the Civil War my only perception of Southerners, I had some trepidation about sharing my room with Johnny Reb and felt he would dread living with a damn Yankee. But Stan was of that new breed of Southerner that has transformed the South into what it is today, good people willing to judge people on their actions not color or prejudices. How he achieved his sense of color-blindness I’ll never know. When he told stories like his “daddy” chasing off a black kid who just wanted to shoot some hoops with Stan in his driveway I was shocked.
Spending my early childhood in San Francisco and the product of a not-so-prosperous family, we lived in what is called today, the inner city. Then it was just called ‘downtown.’ It was truly a melting pot at that time with its large Chinese, black and Hispanic populations. The schools I went to were not only diverse but reversed from the norms. I was one of two white kids in my classroom and I didn’t have any issues with it.
As Stan and I got acquainted and settled into our barracks and work routine we had other roommates who came and went, but Stan and I were “roomies” for most of my two years in Minot. How lucky I was. We spent countless hours telling each other what we hoped our life would be like in the future: Which female movie stars we were in love with (poor Ann-Margaret never knew how easily she could have had me), what career paths we would take, where would we go in the world for excitement and adventure. Stan was, and probably still is, one of the “good guys.”
On one of our frequent trips into town to taste the local cuisine, a bunch of us from the base were sitting in the “best” restaurant in town. No, not the food, it just happened to be on Main Street. It had a small window to the street that allowed you to possibly see a girl, any girl, walking by. They could have charged a premium for that table, we would have paid it.
Well, this particular day we were sitting there having a burger and putting nickels into the little juke box that was on the table, when this local girl came in. We had seen her around and she was known as “easy” if you were so inclined. She wasn’t much older than any of us, but she looked older. Her clothes could have been second-hand for the way they fit. She looked tired. Sad, too. A little shampoo and perfume would have definitely helped her. She started to go around to the tables looking for a meal, a handout or whatever. She worked her way around to our booth and most of us were impolite to say the least. All except Stan.
He was very quiet. He didn’t tease her or act like a complete ass like the rest of us. He just sat there looking at her, not saying a word. In a few minutes she left and started walking up the street. A few more minutes went by and Stan got up and left the restaurant going the same way she did. We looked at each other, smirked and said, “Stan’s going to get some.” About a half hour later Stan rejoined us at the restaurant. We were teasing him and asking how it was and he wouldn’t say a word. Just sat there. Kind of smiled now and then but not a word about it.
About a week later Stan and I were back in town, and listening to Lesley Gore sing “You Don’t Own Me” on our little jukebox. (Obviously, she wasn’t in the Air Force!) The door opened and in stepped the girl. She looked around the room and I noticed Stan was trying not to get noticed. She finally spotted us and headed for our table. Stan finally had to look up as she was just standing there staring down at him. With nothing being said she bent down, took his face in her hands and gave him a big kiss. “Thank you,” she said, and walked out of the restaurant.
“What the hell was that about,” I said. “Are you that good?”
Reluctantly and after much prodding he told me what happened. He felt sorry for her and chased after her to see if he could help her. Eventually, he took her to the shoe store up the block and buying her a new pair of shoes. And yes, she offered to “take care of him” but he refused. “Just thought she could use a little help,” he said. Definitely one of the “good guys.”
As compatible as Stan and I were we had our differences: his side of our room looked like a publicity shot for Hilton Hotels while mine looked like the movie set for The Longest Day. His boots were always spit-shined and tucked neatly under his bunk while I had figured out that black paint could take the place of shoe polish. I smoked, he didn’t. I didn’t gamble, but he did, and if you gambled at Minot Air Force base you were sure to make the acquaintance of Vincent Orlando Williams.
Vince was extremely likable, affable, and the sharpest dresser and the sharpest hustler in our barracks. Cards, dice and definitely pool – eight-ball, nine-ball, you name it. The man could shoot a stick! I’m still convinced that Jim Croce also knew Vince and his “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown” was homage to him.
You wouldn’t think that a street-smart black guy from Chicago and a Southern white guy would have anything to do with each other, but Stan did like to gamble, and Vince picked him out immediately as a “pigeon.” So as payday rolled around twice a month Vince would show up in our room just being friendly and shooting the breeze, listening to our Elvis albums – Blue Hawaii, GI Blues, Blue Christmas. Geez, was The King ever happy? He’d laugh along with “The First Family” comedy album, then back to his room to bring in his James Brown, B.B. King, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx albums. He would playfully remind us that we had no soul and it would be his mission in life to get us some. But through it all he made little comments to Stan.
“You shouldn’t gamble Stan,” he said. “You’re not good at it.”
“Says you. I’m pretty good when I get serious about it,” Stan said.
“No, you’re not. Why don’t we just play for fun, that way they’ll be no hard feelings when you lose.”
“Like hell, get your money out,” Stan said.
With variations, that’s how it went, every payday for quite a while. Eventually I started telling Stan to stop gambling with Vince or anyone else for that matter.
“It’s hurting you as well as your wallet,” I told him
One day he finally agreed. That was it, no more gambling. And when next Vince came in the room he told him so.
“I know why you just happened to pop in, Vince. Today is payday and you think you’re going to con me into gambling with you,” Stan said. “Well no more, I’m done with gambling.”
“Ah, you say that now Stan, but you can’t quit, gambling is in your blood.”
“I’ve told you, I’m done gambling.”
“No, five minutes after I leave your room you’ll be coming into my room wanting to place a bet. Bet you can’t stop.”
“Bet I can.”
“Bet you can’t.”
And Stan, angry now said, “Bet you five dollars I can.”
Finally, Vince said, “Pay me.”
And that was the last time I ever saw Stan bet. Cured at last!
It was soon apparent that Vince genuinely liked Stan. The feeling was mutual, and he didn’t want to take advantage of him anymore. This magnanimity did not extend to all his other pigeons however.
Over time, many of Vince’s marks stopped gambling with him, which really hurt his income stream. No one would go a game with him, in pool especially.
He had to think of something. And then he had it. On payday a lot of money changed hands on the day room pool tables. But on this particular payday morning, there was no Vince trying to get a game. All the minor hustlers and wannabe’s but no Vince. The competition was pretty even without him. Even those that didn’t bet often were having some luck and feeling cocky and confident. By late afternoon, the room was still crowded, those beers that we weren’t supposed to have in the barracks had been mostly consumed, and a mellow friendly atmosphere had settled in. Then we noticed Vince, standing in the doorway and looking over the room. Not saying a word. Standing there real quiet with a load of packages in his arms.
A few other people noticed him and the room got quieter. Finally, he sauntered into the room, past the pool tables, to some tables and chairs on the far side of the room. Laying down his packages, still not saying a word, he started opening them one by one. Each package had an article of clothing inside and eventually he started loading his arms with the garments. He walked over to one man, held up a new pair of pants.
“I want to thank you for buying these new and expensive pants for me,” he said. “It was the money I took off you that allowed me to do it.”
He walked around the room and said something to nearly everyone, “Beautiful sweater isn’t it? You paid for it.”
“How do you like these shirts? Thanks for buying them for me.”
Everyone was so angry, and no doubt embarrassed, that they started slamming money on the tables, demanding he play, determined to beat him. Vince had them again! He cleaned up, as he did most paydays.
It seemed that Stan and I were kind of Vince’s inner circle as we shared personal thoughts and feelings openly. One day Stan mentioned that he was going home on leave. Vince started teasing him saying that he would like to go home with him. You know, see Mississippi and meet his family.
Stan laughed and said “If I bring you home, my daddy’s going to shoot both of us.” Vince and I both laughed, even though we knew he was probably stating a truth.
At other times Vince would drop by our room just to shoot the breeze, listen to music and especially to tell us about all his other “pigeons” that he was continually fleecing. We knew when he would score because our door would burst open and he’d be standing there in the latest “threads” he sent away to Chicago for, posing and prancing like a runway model. We laughed a lot together on that base.
A base is a hometown, its own little world. It’s insulated and sometimes isolated from what’s happening outside of it. Most importantly, it’s where being black or white didn’t matter as much because we all wore Air Force blue.
On the streets of Chicago would Vince laugh and joke with Stan and me? Would he be allowed to?
In Mississippi, at least then, would Stan have been allowed to care for Vince?
In 1972, I was working as a design draftsman at Ingils Shipyard, in Pascagula, Mississippi. Remembering that Stan’s hometown was named Iuka, I was able to contact him and ultimately spent an enjoyable day with him and his lovely wife, Linda.
I have not seen or spoken to Vince since transferring out of Minot Air Force Base. But I think of him often, and I hope life has treated him well. And I hope his “marks” don’t have his address.
President Kennedy was challenging us when he said, “What you can do for your country.” Maybe by getting along with each other, living with each other, and definitely caring for each other, we contributed in a small way to our country, our world, our blue world.