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MEMOIR

...and Mistakes Made Along the Way An excerpt from a memoir

by Fred Beauford


Chapter Eight — My Return to the Bronx

I didn’t make much of a soldier. In fact, I hated being in the army. I think I broke some kind of record at my base in Germany as the longest ranking private in its history. It was only after I had three months to go that they finally gave me my first stripe. By that time, Elvis already had three.

In regards to race, I never saw that as much of a problem, even though for most of the time that I was in Germany, I was the only black in the Third platoon; and there was only one other black in the entire company except for two non-cons. Most blacks, I couldn’t help but note at the time, were foot soldiers in the Infantry, not riding around in big, bad-ass tanks with gung-ho white boys.

I was used to being the only one, because, after all, until the Edenwald Projects were built in the upper Bronx, I knew only whites and I had little problem relating to them as people.

I was well-liked by the guys in my outfit, mainly, I think, because I was such an irrepressible little fast talking wiseass, acting both like a slick Italian and a street-wise black. I guess if you have already experienced seeing a person killed right in front of your face, and witnessed countless knifings and general violent mayhem like I had, that allowed one certain bragging rights.

I could hold my own in any conversation and I could tell that the guys didn’t know quite what to make of me. One of the things I have discovered over the years, after living in various locations in the US, is that there is something about New Yorkers, whatever race or creed, that no matter where or what situation we find ourselves in with non-New Yorkers, we just think we have seen it all, done it all, known it all, and everyone else is simply a bunch of damn hicks or squares. It’s buried deep in our DNA, and it’s what makes us true New Yorkers.

True Californians, both north and south, especially hate us.

I was recently riding the slow, crowded No. 34 bus cross-town, when the white bus driver gave a woman some lip.

“I hate new Yorkers,” she hissed, anger tensing her face.

Although I recognized the woman’s frustration, given how slow bus service has become in New York City, and felt some empathy, I knew that the true New Yorkers on that bus wanted to give the bus driver a hi-five, and her the finger.

In the Army, I was exhibit # One for the ultimate obnoxious New Yorker. I was a stereotype come to full life, with this weird mixture of Italian, Jewish, African American and Irish background, which greatly amused the guys, all of whom, like Elvis, were in their mid to late twenties; draftees who hated the Army, and hated the fact that their lives had been so interrupted by all of this military bullshit.

This fact annoyed the holy shit out of the regular army non-cons, most of whom were WASP’s, and blacks from the south. “”Niggers and hillbillies,” I once overheard my friend from Maine say with a voice full of contempt when he thought I was asleep.

I still had my eyes closed as I heard another friend say softly to him, “Fred.” 

I imagined him putting a finger up to his lip.

The draftees, who were from all parts of the Untied States, and from all economic classes, cheered on anyone who had the nerve to give the finger to the army, as I did. I can see now why they got rid of the draft.

Also, I believe strongly that there was one other reason why I was so popular: I was cute, plain and simple. I was a slim, young, little “pretty boy” with a killer, baby-faced smile.

The U.S. Army then would be barely recognizable by those serving in it today. In my day, there were no women. There were a handful of German women who served as cooks in the mess hall, but that was it until you hit the local town and partied with the hookers. I once heard that there was a small group of women soldiers tucked away somewhere on our base, but I never saw any of them.

Rumor had it that they were all “homely dikes.”

As one soldier put it to me, “Beauford, It’s a good thing that you have never met one. Man, you don’t know ugly! I wouldn’t fuck one of them with your dick!”

We could go for months at a time, especially when on maneuvers, and not see or hear a woman’s voice; so we cute little teenagers drew more attention than we often wanted. There were only three of us in our Company, and without saying so, we knew instinctively that some of those guys that were always in our face, saying what “great guys” we were, desired our company for more than our great personalities.

My friend Huff, the most handsome of the three, had so many “friends,” that it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “watch your back.”

Despite the crouch grabbing, macho, New York tough guy persona I tried hard to project, I was still very much aware of that fact that I was not without my share of admirers with more on their minds than just friendship.

***

But when all was said and done, the biggest problem I had in the army, and a problem that will plague me for the rest of my life, is that I have an almost pathological hatred of people giving me orders, and my not being able to have a say. In the army, as in most large organizations, it was yes sir this, and yes sir that! As the non-cons constantly explained to us, there was the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.

On those rare occasions when I put myself on the couch, I see clearly a direct line from the time spent in The Home, to my sometimes strong, often irrational dislike of authority and people telling me what I should think and do.

I was that loudmouthed “little nigger who always had something to say,” as Benwine had once so ungraciously characterized me back in the Bronx.

Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the army, and after two years we gladly parted company. But for many reasons, I am proud and glad that I served, managed to survive, and was given an honorable discharge. That time served has paid me back many times over, and is still paying, because as a vet I am not saddled with worries of healthcare costs like everyone else with little money.

As I say to my friends now, serving in the military can often be better than a college degree. When I graduated from N.Y.U., thanks in part to the new G.I. Bill that was enacted because of the Vietnam War, all they did was hand me a diploma and said, “bye.”

The only downside to the military is that you have to listen to loud-mouthed, ignorant people yelling at you, and calling you names like “dickhead,” and “stupid asshole;” and you just might get your head blown off, or have a 60 ton tank turn over on you, or lose a leg, an arm, or your life. But other than small things like that, it’s a great experience, which pays dividends for life. In fact, in some cases, they will even bury you free of charge.

***

But at 20, all of the worrying about another scared young man in a different uniform blowing my head off was forever behind me. Once back home, I visited the projects a few times and did not like what I saw. The great plague, heroin, had it firmly in its grasp. Heroin had been introduced sometime in 1958, just after I left for the army.

James and his family had moved out of the projects and now lived on 222th Street in a house Mrs. Johnson had bought. The entire area had undergone great changes in the brief two years I was away.

This part of the Bronx was now undergoing rapid development. The empty lots that once served as short cuts for me were now filled with single-family attached houses. These new houses were different from the old, huge, three- story houses (like the one my mother finally bought on 216th Street and Bronxwood Avenue) that used to dominate this area.

Another big change was that the area was fast becoming all black. This was a time when the white flight to the suburbs was in full bloom. Although this part of the Bronx was as close to a suburb as you can get and still be living in New York City, my old white friends now wanted no part of it. In a few years it would be almost entirely black.

It wasn’t just the Northwest Bronx that was undergoing dramatic changes. My first visit to Harlem in over two years revealed that it wasn’t just the Edenwald Projects where death and destruction reigned supreme. Heroin had taken over Harlem with a fury. Everywhere there were nodding junkies. I even spotted guys I knew from the Enchanters standing on Lenox Avenue, lost in an inner world induced by that powerful drug.

Harlem was never a walk in the park, but now this place had become even more dangerous, as a growing army of $100 a day dope fiends prowled the Harlem streets, day and night, and stole anything that wasn’t locked down, to feed their habit. They ripped off without conscience; their mothers, brothers, grandmothers—anyone and anybody.

How could businesses operate in such an environment? How could mothers raise children?  How could little old ladies do the simple act of buying groceries, or going to church on Sundays and feel safe?

This white plague was to spell the beginning of the end of the once vibrant Harlem, as fear started to grip everyone; this was the same Harlem where, the first night I was in New York, there was so much bustling life that people had to walk in the streets. The great Harlem, home of brilliant poets, actors, dancers, and musical geniuses, was now dying and the rest of America just stood by and watched, doing nothing.

Uptown in the Bronx, it was just as bad. Neil was strung-out. So was Billy. And so, I was sad to learn, was my former best friend, James Johnson.

What happened to James was a true tragedy, in that he OD’d only a few weeks after he first tried the drug. I was with him the day before he died. We traveled down to the South Bronx together, where he was raised, and I tried not to notice how he kept nodding off as we rode the subway down to 165th Street. I didn’t want to know that he was on drugs; if I ignored it, maybe it wasn’t really happening.

But the next day, I was to learn that my head-in-the sand approach had failed badly. I knocked on his door and was quickly informed that he was dead.

Just like that, his young life was over.

A few years ago I had a letter to the editor published in New York Magazine. It was in reaction to a surprisingly well-researched article about how heroin once overtook Harlem. The writer got it exactly right.

“For a long time,” I wrote, “I had trouble watching the movie, The Godfather. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I sat and watched the entire movie on AMC. And yes, it was a great movie, a classic, in fact. I was even able to watch the part where the Italian gangsters were discussing this new, tremendously potential income stream from heroin.

“Only to the blacks,” they agreed, siding with the great wisdom of The Godfather.

“That scene, and my intimate knowledge of what misery, death and destruction heroin led to when they flooded black communities with that deadly drug, had been what had kept me from watching that film all these years. In my mind, I couldn’t understand how anyone could glorify such human beings. And glorify the Godfather, the film surely did.

“Sure, he loved opera, his family, and his cute little grandkids and was loyal to his circle of cronies, but he was a mass murderer and a destroyer of civilizations, and he did more to harm black people in this country than anyone in our short history. He murdered my best friend, James Johnson, the one who introduced me to the wonderful world of books.  The Godfather destroyed the Edenwald Projects, and through the surge of heroin addiction, murdered so many more of my friends, and he murdered Harlem.”

New York Magazine published most of my letter, but cut out the part where I compared what the Italian Gangsters did -- with a wink and a nod from the white establishment -- to the “small-pox laden blankets the English settlers once gave so generously to the unsuspecting Indians.”


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