It’s going to seem strange starting this out with a discussion of school bathrooms, but as you will understand soon enough, one particular school bathroom is, if not at the heart of this story, certainly not tangential to it. I speak here specifically of the boys bathroom on the A-level of Leavenworth Senior High School. It would have been typical of bathrooms in schools I had attended in various states and at least one foreign country were it not for the fact that access to this bathroom was controlled by Commodore Williams. Commodore was what they now like to call a gang war lord in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1963, and the fact that he was a high school sophomore and just 16 years old like me made him almost as remarkable as the fact that he had turned the A-level bathroom into his private clubhouse for members of his gang and their friends. This meant, among other things, that it was completely off-limits most of the black guys in the school and all of the white guys.
Except for me.
That story is what we’re really talking about here: how it came to pass that I was permitted to cross the threshold of the A-level bathroom and what I learned there, and where that knowledge took me.
High school ROTC was mandatory for all high school sophomores in the state of Kansas in 1963. It covered the PE requirement, since there was a lot of calisthenics involved in ROTC, and it served as the Great Leveler between the classes-within-a-class which inhabited every public high school in the nation at that time, and I assume still do. In other words, a guy like me who was in the so-called “honors” academic program had exactly one hour of each day when he would be compelled to inhabit the same classroom as guys like Commodore, who wasn’t in the “honors” program and in fact was hardly a student in the school at all, what with all of his gang-related duties and the other stuff it turned out he was up to. When I say ROTC was a leveler, I really mean it. I was in the same squad with Commodore. Our squad was in the same platoon with a bunch of other squads which were populated by some of my “honors” classmates as well as members of Commodore’s gang and those who might aspire to be in Commodore’s gang. This made for a very interesting ROTC company.
Our company met each day in the 6th and final period of the day, which only added to the problems facing the terminally alcoholic Reserve Major who ran the ROTC program at Leavenworth Senior High School. It was bad enough to be saddled with about 100 reluctant if not downright hostile students, but to get them an hour before they were set free must have seemed horribly unfair to the poor vodka-addled soul.
Coming from a military background on both sides of my family – recall my mother and father were both Army brats – I took to ROTC readily and seriously. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I just plain loved All Things Military. I even like shining my shoes and brass. So I tried out for the Drill Team and made it! The Drill Team was a platoon of crack cadets trained to do close order drill in complicated formations and spin our Springfield ’03 rifles about with unnerving precision. It’s also not going to far to say that I wanted most of all to make my father proud. He was at that time serving a so-called “hardship tour” in Korea away from the family, and I would write him letters about my accomplishments in ROTC, the straight A grades I was getting, how I could disassemble and assemble an M-1 rifle in the dark in less than a minute. My father and I had not had the best father-son relationship on the books over the past 16 years, and I wanted to use that year when he was away to prove to him that I could be the “man of the house,” and be the same kind of soldier he was, even if in a somewhat minor key.
Mostly what I did in ROTC was pay attention and try to give a hand to the guys who didn’t take to All Things Military as well as I did. I remember helping teach guys how to shine their shoes, and how to remove lacquer from belt buckles so you could shine them to a high polish with Brasso. Several of those less interested than me in All Things Military apparently took example from me, because after only about three months, Major Vodka called me into his office and announced that he was giving me a promotion.
This development was much more momentous than it might seem. Sophomores were ordinarily permitted to attain only the rank of Corporal and would not be given leadership roles until their junior year. But on that day the graying head of the Vodka Major hung particularly low. There were reports of some of his 6th Period ROTC cadets engaging in serious misbehavior bordering on criminal conduct immediately following attendance in his classroom. In fact, misbehavior by this contingent of miscreants during the 6th Period ROTC hour itself was getting out of control. Major Vodka forthwith promoted me to the rank of Cadet Sergeant and appointed me Squad Leader and handed me the list of my squad members.
My mother used to say that Leavenworth, Kansas was the only town in America where everyone’s father was either an Army officer, a prison guard, or a prisoner, and she wasn’t far from wrong. No fewer than five prisons were located less than five miles from one another: Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the 1909 stone dungeon which stood on the main road into town; Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks, the maximum security prison for the U.S. Army; Lansing State Prison, a max and medium security facility just to the south of town; Lansing State Women’s prison, similar to the men’s and nearby; and Leavenworth Federal Prison Farm, a minimum security facility near the Federal pen on the outskirts of town. This made for a rather interesting population in the town of Leavenworth. A bunch of my sophomore classmates in ROTC were the sons of Army officers. I knew them well because most of us had gone to George S. Patton Jr. Junior High School together on the post. Several ROTC classmates were the sons of prison guards, although only one of them had the balls to advertise that fact. And many of my ROTC classmates had either one or both parents serving time. Among these were all eleven members of my squad, every one of them the son of at least one prisoner, or the son of, in effect, no one at all.
I studied the list of my squad members and was about to open my mouth and state the obvious when Major Vodka held up a hand, halting me. All I want you to do is get these guys through the rest of the year without any more problems. You do that for me, and I’ll make you Leavenworth High’s first junior year Cadet Captain and give you a company. I already knew that as soon as he came back from Korea, dad was being assigned to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania the following year and I wouldn’t be around for this promised promotion and command. But I snapped off a salute and said Yes sir! I had no idea what I was going to do with this squad of dead-end losers, but I thought I would come up with something.
It took my losers less than one 6th Period to let me know that they didn’t recognize me, a fellow sophomore, as their “leader” in any way, shape, or fashion. And it took me less than a week to figure out that I would have to do something about the situation. But what? I couldn’t just keep issuing them demerits for various acts of insubordination or outright dereliction of duty. Putting them in detention after school wasn’t a solution. I had to come up with something positive. But what? I was an Army brat; I had spent virtually my entire life in the Army, but what did I know about the Army that would help heal the wound that had opened between us.
I knew how to march, that’s what. would teach them to do something I already knew how to do very, very well. I would teach them to drill and we would win the up-coming squad drill competition, held annually and presided over by the Commanding General of Fort Leavenworth.
I can hardly find the words to describe how wonderfully this went over with my eleven sons of prisoners. The notion that one of their own classmates, moreover a hoidy-toidy “honors” swell, would compel them to march, that least favorite of their ROTC duties and additionally teach them to do it expertly was…how can I put this delicately…as a squad, they told me to fuck off.
I told them to drop and give me twenty. Push ups, that is. This was within my powers as an ROTC squad leader in high school, something that would happen never again in my years as a cadet at West Point or a Second Lieutenant in the Army, which did not permit push ups to be used punitively. So my squad of eleven prisoners’ sons started to do push ups, lots and lots of them, and the more they were punished, the more upper body strength they gained, which concerned me. A lot.
I can’t recall the names of the entire squad, the stand-outs I can remember as if it were yesterday:
Kenny Perdue. His father was in Lansing Stated Men and whose mother was in Lansing State Women. I never figured out where Kenny lived, because he didn’t tell me, but he was not a Ward of the State, so to speak. He didn’t have a foster family other than the town of Leavenworth itself.
Charlie Young. His mother and father were both doing time, lived in a shack out behind a gas station in town where he worked after school every day. He wasn’t a Ward of the State, either, but he got a regular pay check working the pumps for the guy who owned the station.
Golden Richards. I never figured out where his parents were or learned where he lived. He had a gentle-giant thing going on with him, and I was content to let giants be where they wanted to be.
Commodore Williams. I didn’t know a thing about Commodore other than he wasn’t affiliated with a gang, he was the gang. It was his.
Since the tracks ran along the river past the last street on the far east side of town, there was only one side of the tracks in Leavenworth, Kansas, but all of my guys came from the neighborhood close to the tracks. The streets down there close to the river went down toward the river in more ways than one: 4th Street was something of an East Side main drag with a few businesses; 3rd Street, no businesses, painted cottages and some respectable shot-guns; 2nd Street’s cross streets were lined with run-down shacks and unpainted shot-guns and empty lots strewn with garbage and stripped cars; 1st Street houses were in the same shape but now we were getting into abandoned industrial buildings and more empty lots; finally Esplanade, a former boulevard along eastern edge of the town overlooking the river which somehow retained kind of faded glory until you ventured far enough south that you ran into the nearly totally abandoned industrial sector.
Leavenworth in those days wasn’t a town down on its luck. It was famous nationwide, having been featured prominently in LIFE magazine as the town with the highest juvenile delinquency rate in America. You remember juvenile delinquents, don’t you? They were the guys in my ROTC squad. It took me at least three weeks of squad drill and countless punitive push ups to get them even marching in the same direction and several more weeks to get them marching in step.
Except for Commodore, who was never in step because he had rhythm. Even ordinarily, say down the school hallways or on the street, he didn’t walk, he bopped, bouncing up and down on his toes rather than thunking forward heel-toe-heel-toe taking conventional steps. Commodore’s bopping inability to march put him just slightly out of step with the rest of the guys who had just managed to learn to march with a regular gait. So Commodore did more push ups. He was getting more and more upper body strength, which he clearly did not need, since this reed-thin guy about 5 feet 6 or 7 inches tall ran a gang of about 25 to 30 members, a good number of whom were in their 20’s. Every day he and the members of his gang wore the same uniform to school: black sharkskin suits with narrow lapels or no lapels at all; bright red snap-tab shirts with skinny ties and a rhinestone stick pin through the tie to make it curve out from the snap-tab collar just right; shiny black pointed-toe winklepicker shoes; black chintzy-brim hats with the brim flipped up; and most days from Fall on, they wore black London Fog raincoats with tightly-rolled black umbrellas over their left arms. Suffice to say Commodore and his guys were sharp. They stuck out in a school where starched and pressed Levi 501-xx’s passed for formal wear.
Finally even the sharp-dressed-man Commodore fell into step, and my loser misfits started looking like an actual squad. I started teaching them how to handle their M-1 rifles, and after that I started teaching them some fancy moves. Double to the rear, MARCH! That one was when you did “to the rear, march!” twice in succession and ended up going in the same direction. Double to the right flank, double to the left flank, March! Now the whole squad pivoted right and right again, left and left again, and ended up marching in the same direction. Double to the rear to the left flank right flank, March! Now the squad executed to the rear march twice, left flank, then right flank and ended up going where they were before. Even for guys like Commodore and Kenny and Charlie and Golden, this was getting fun, especially when they got good at it. They could actually do this stuff! With the rifles it was similar. Right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder arms! All while marching! The squad was clicking. It began to occur to my band of losers and misfits that winning the squad drill competition was within reach. I broached the subject of staying after school…after school!…to practice. After a day of giving it some thought, Commodore approached me speaking for the entire squad and said okay, just so long as I didn’t advertise it around that they were staying after school for ROTC. I promised not to breathe a word of our little secret, and they showed up, all eleven of them not only for our first after-school practice, but for practices almost daily, every one of them.
Somewhere along in there around about the time Commodore lost his bop and began to march, he approached me one morning in the A-level hallway.
Lucian my man, how are you this fine morning?
This was the way Commodore talked, extreme hipster jive in the mocking form of High English. It would be years until I heard something similar from more than one famous jazz musician in New York. Spoken out loud in the hallway of Leavenworth Senior High School, it was…spectacular.
I’m fine, Commodore, how are you? I replied.
I am doing well, my man. Doing well. Do you have a moment to accompany me into my office? Commodore asked this as if a corporate executive were putting the charm on a recalcitrant underling, trying to get him on the team. It was gang war lord talk taken to the nth degree. I acquiesced and he led the way into his office. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every head in the hallway turned our way as a white guy followed Commodore Williams into the A-level bathroom. And this wasn’t just any white guy. This was the white guy who had been bossing Commodore around in ROTC, dropping him for push ups, disrespecting the man right out loud to his face. They were witnessing the Yalta Conference right there in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Commodore led me into the A-level boys bathroom and introduced me not to everyone but to the few who were sharp-dressed like he was, who I took to be his top troops. You see, Commodore wasn’t a mere squad leader like me. His gang had the numbers of a platoon. These guys were his squad leaders.
What was going on in there for the most part was gambling. A half-dozen guys were pitching pennies against a piece of wall under the window, and over in the corner a dice game was in full swing, a tangle of dollar bills visible on the floor in the middle of maybe 10 guys.
Lucian, my man, would you care to avail yourself of a game of chance? Commodore shot me a little grin. No thank you, I said, but I would like for to teach me how to hambone. Several guys were up against another wall with their knees bent and backs flat against the wall as if seated on invisible chairs and they were slapping hambone up a storm. You mean like this? He teased, resting his back against the wall and letting loose a flurry of leg and chest-slaps too fast to see how it was done. Yeah, like that I said. So Commodore invited me to lean against the wall next to him and began showing me how. Hambone is a rhythmic slapping of the thighs and chest to what amounts to the Bo Diddley beat.
Hambone hambone where you been?
Around the world and back again
Hambone hambone what’d you do?
I got a train and I fairly flew
Hambone hambone where did you go?
I hopped on up to Miss Lucy’s door
It’s difficult to envision like this in print, but it begins with an upstroke against the bottom of the thigh which lands on the chest, slaps back-hand against the top of the thigh on the down-stroke and ends the beat on the up-stroke, then it begins again with a new up-stroke. Onward from there.
So written out, it sounds like this — with “duh” indicating the sound of the upstroke shots to the thigh and chest and “ta” indicating the sound of the down stroke on the top of the thigh.
The musical notation for drums looks like this:
It was going to take me awhile to learn to hambone, but with the door to the A-level boys bathroom now open to me, at least I had access to the place where hambone was practiced all day long. After school, the squad and I practiced close-order squad drill over and over again. During school I used my door pass and I practiced hambone and practiced and practiced, at least as much if not more than they practiced close order squad drill. I wasn’t just fascinated with the hambone rhythm. I was obsessed with rhythm itself. I didn’t realize it then, but now I think I do. My obsession with rhythm had something to do with the fact that I can’t recall being touched by my mother except when I was sick at home in bed. On those days, she used to come into my room and take my temperature and and scratch my back with her fingernails in this marvelous, soothing rhythm. I guess it felt so good to me not only to be touched by her, but to basically have her rock me to sleep with her back-scratching that I used to fake being sick every once in awhile, just to experience it. I would tell her my stomach hurt or had some other ailment, and I’d make sure she first took my temperature while she was busy, like making my brother’s and sister’s lunch for school, and I’d go back into my room and cover the thermometer bulb with my finger and rub it rapidly against the sheet on my bed until it showed a temperature above 100. I had to be careful, though, because if the thermometer showed my temperature was too high, when she scratched my back it wouldn’t feel hot and she would find me out. My normal temperature has always been 99.2 or 99.3, so I felt mildly hot to the touch anyway, so if I got the thermometer up to 100.1 or 100.2 she couldn’t really tell the difference.
All my life I’ve basically rocked myself to sleep with the same rhythm she used to scratch my back. I’ll lie on my side with one leg pulled up and the other resting across it and rock gently back and forth from the waist down, or I’ll scratch the inside of my ankle with the toenails of my other foot. I haven’t just been fascinated by rhythm in my life, I’ve lived a life which depends on it.
Finally came the night of the big competition. Six squads, one from each ROTC company, showed up at the football field across town for a night competition under the lights. The Commanding General from Fort Leavenworth was there to judge the competition and give out awards to the winners. I had my guys shined and polished until you could see your face in the toes of their shoes and belt-buckles. Our M-1 rifle stocks shone with polish and their barrels and actions gleamed with fresh gun-oil. We were ready.
The first thing the General did was inspect our weapons and uniforms. This meant each squad member had to come to inspection-arms perfectly, open the breach to his rifle and snap back to attention for inspection. The squad performed flawlessly.
Now came the hard part, marching a prescribed close order drill. I barked the quick series of commands: Squad…attenSHUN! Forwaaard…MARCH! To the left flaaank…MARCH. To the right flaaank…MARCH! To the reaaar…MARCH! I held my breath between orders looking for Commodore’s distinctive bop, or Charlie’s inattention, but they held their concentration and we ended the drill precisely where we had begun in front of the Reviewing Stand. We were last to compete, so we didn’t have long to wait before the Commanding General made his way back onto the field and the PA boomed with the third place winner, second place winner, and finally first place. First Squad, Second Platoon, Sixth Company! We won!
The General walked along my short rank of losers and misfits, pinning a medal to the front of each of their uniform blouses. I watched their eyes as they looked up in fear at the General, then glanced down with pride at the medal on their chests as he passed along the rank. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it was the first time in any of their lives that they had won anything. They were bursting with pride. I was collapsing with relief it was over. And I was bursting with pride for them, and for me, and hoping that my dad, way over there in Korea, would somehow be able to acknowledge my accomplishment.
My mom and brother and sisters came down on the field to congratulate me. By the time they finished hugging and congratulating me, the squad had melted into the crowd. It wouldn’t be until later that each of them would find his own way to thank me for putting them through the hell that had produced such magical results.
The next day, Friday, Kenny Perdue asked me what I was doing that night. Going to teen-town, I replied. Okay, I’ll meet you down there around 10:00, he said. We jumped in my family Volks beetle and drove around until we found a closed gas station on a dark street. Kenny told me to park in front of the Coke machine. We got out and he taught me how to jack a Coke machine with a 9 inch screwdriver. Nickels and dimes poured into his hands as he yanked out the machine’s metal cash drawer.
Next Monday, Charlie Young asked me what I was up to the following morning. Going to school, I said. No, I mean around 4:00 in the morning, he explained. Meet me downtown on Osage and Second he said. I got up the next morning and sneaked out of the house and pushed the Volks down the street before starting it up so I wouldn’t wake mom. I met Charlie downtown and he took me around and showed me the location of all of the town’s bread-boxes, where bread and rolls were delivered early in the morning to diners, restaurants and small groceries. It was how he got his breakfast every morning, he explained with his mouth full of sweet roll.
With Commodore, as you might expect, it took a little longer and was more complicated. He approached me the a week later on Friday afternoon in the A-level bathroom where I was working on my hambone. Lucian my man, it is very good to see you this afternoon, Commodore said. You too, Commodore, I said between hand-beats. What are you doing this evening, say, around 8:00 o’clock? he asked. Going to teen town, I said, still wailing away at my thighs and chest. I would suggest that you forget teen town for this evening, Lucian. I will send a car. You still down on 16th Street in that green house? Yeah. My man Sidney will pick you up at 8:00 sharp. Does that fit your schedule, Lucian my man? Yeah, Commodore, I said, by now having left my hambone wall-recline and stood watching him bop out the door of his office.
That night at 8:00 sharp a dark sedan pulled up on the street outside our house. A young man of about 20 wearing one of the gang’s black sharkskin suits held the rear door for me as I got in. Neither the driver in the suit or the young man in the suit said a word. We drove east…way east…down near the river in the old run-down industrial part of town near the railroad tracks. The car stopped and I got out and the young man in the suit opened an unmarked door leading into what looked like an old loft building, two stories, windows painted over, no lights anywhere, not even a street light. The car drove away. Inside, an enormous man who had to weigh at least 250 pounds motioned for me to raise my arms and frisked me quickly, removing my wallet and inserting it in one of about 50 pigeon-hole boxes on the wall that looked like they had once belonged in a post office. Other boxes near mine contained wallets and knives and a few sported snub-nose revolvers. I turned around and from across the room Commodore gave me a wave to come over. Lucian my man! Did you have an enjoyable trip? He asked. Yeah, I answered, utterly bewildered. What is this place? Commodore indicated the rest of the room with a sweep of his arm: a bar ran along one wall, three pool tables in the back, a juke-box and a small dance floor. This is my club, Commodore said. Can I get you something, Lucian my man? A cocktail perhaps? You have to understand that this was happening in a state in which you could not buy a drink by the glass in a restaurant or bar, and many counties to the west of us were completely dry. As much as I wanted a real drink, I was too intimidated and told him a Coke would do. Commodore snapped his fingers and a young woman in a very short skirt and very revealing top appeared with a tall glass of Coke. Anything else, Lucian my man? One of these fine ladies, perhaps, he said with a grin. They’re mine, too, and all for you on this night, my man. All for you.
Not a one of them, not a single member of First Squad, Second Platoon, Sixth ROTC Company ever uttered thank you in words, but each in his way made his appreciation evident. Commodore, as usual, was just a tad more flamboyant, his rhinestone stick-pin gleaming in the soft light of his club.
Memories of that night came flooding back about ten years later. I was in my loft down on Houston Street with a glass of Henry McKenna on ice watching the late evening news when the phone rang. Looooshaaan, boomed the bass voice of Murray Weinstock, one of my oldest New York friends. He was a piano player who played sessions and occasional gigs around town and one of the funniest guys I’d ever known. He had a resonator schnozze that started on West 4th Street and ended somewhere in Hoboken, and with that natural born equipment and his huge talent as a singer, you could hear Murray’s booming bass voice on jingles and songs on the radio all the time. His halo of Jewish afro recalled the early Bob Dylan, but without the ambiguous gleam in Dylan’s eye.
You gotta get up to Tramps, man, said Murray, referring to a music club just uptown in Chelsea. I’m playing with Don Covay, and man, he is rockin’ the joint tonight. You gotta get up here, man. This is something special.
So I hopped a cab up to Tramps and found Murray on the bandstand playing piano and signing bass behind the man who had the famous hit, “Mercy Mercy.” Don Covay was old school rhythm and blues with an emphasis on the rhythm. He not only had the voice, he had the moves, now crooning on his knees, now crackling across the stage like a tap dancer. When the set was over, Murray came off stage and he and Covay were toweling off over by the entrance to the men’s room. He introduced me to Covay, who immediately gave me the eye and began firing hipster jive my way, like so many older musicians did in those days, the gist of which was, who are you and why should I be taking the good time out of my day bothering with you? I said what I usually did when I was about to be buried up to the neck in jive. I’m the best hambone man you ever met in your life, I said. Covay took a step back. No. You?
Yeah, me. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars right here and now I can beat your ass in hambone. Covay reached for his wallet, took out a hundred dollar bill and handed it to Murray. I did the same. We sat down next to each other on a bench along the wall next to the entrance to the men’s room. Covay started the slow slapping beat…
Hambone hambone, where you been?
Back-a-your house and home again.
I picked it up and threw in some extra strokes. Covay followed, and I threw in some more, going to two hands, two-hand cross-overs, double and triple beats…I made up my mind to just bury him. Sure enough about 60 seconds in, he threw up his hands and laughed out loud. Man, where did you learn to do that?
From Commodore Williams down in the A-level boys room at Leavenworth Senior High School, I said. I tore off another run ending with a flourish of triples. I knew Commodore would have been as proud of Lucian my man as I was of him and my guys the night they the squad close order drill competition.