I was drafted into the Army and graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School in 1967. I missed the Glenville riots in 1968 because I was in Viet Nam. But Viet Nam had its own racial conflicts, and as a first lieutenant, I was made the commander of a supply battalion that experienced a racial clash in 1969.
The division commander told the men who he considered the leaders in the brawl that “Since you want to fight so badly, I’m going to send you to the front line.” I don’t know if he ever did, but my novel, A Long Way Back, was based on the colonel’s declaration.
A Long Way Back Excerpt
Turner surveyed the room, looking at his friends. He was glad he’d decided to come when Warfield called for the seven of them to meet. It was the second time they had all been together since leaving the service four months ago. Turner had never been emotional, but he loved these guys.
At their first meeting, he remembered the men sharing their coming home experiences with each other and how they’d dealt with their transition back into civilization.
The first thing Xavier Warfield said he did when he returned home was to buy a pair of Stacy Adams shoes, a brown Bill Blass pinstripe suit, a white silk shirt, and a .38 caliber handgun. “The first three were optional, the last a necessity,” he had said. When the Army took away his weapon in Vietnam, he felt naked. Warfield couldn’t explain why except he felt much safer with a gun than without one.
His first night home, his mother, whom he loved dearly, hovered over him, watching Warfield so intently it irritated him. His father was the opposite. “You okay?”
“Yeah, Dad. I’m okay.”
“Welcome home, son,” he’d said, hugging Warfield before going to bed.
After a sleepless three hours where Warfield jumped at almost every sound, he took his mattress, pillow, sheets, and gun to the basement and fell asleep within the hour.
“Why are you sleeping on the floor down here, Xav?” his father, with his mother standing behind him, had asked the next morning.
“You’re going to have to bear with me for a little while, Mom, Dad.” He didn’t expect them to understand, so he didn’t feel obligated to explain.
The first thing Leroy Casper told the men he did when he came back was to go straight to his house. He needed the comfort of a home, his mother’s cooking, and to catch up with his girlfriend, Ida, and his friends as soon as he could. He figured the busier he was, the better.
Casper became hyper in creating diversions for himself, like going out to cookouts, picnics, movies, the zoo, and even to a play. The night was for nonstop parties and anything else that would keep his mind busy. Ida, smart as could be, but a party girl herself, loved it. His friends just laughed, but Casper had a plan. He figured at some point when he slowed down, maybe the images would be gone. That was his hope.
The first thing Raphael Holland said he did when he returned was to seek out his Uncle Farley, who was an ex-con and a drug dealer. Holland stayed with marijuana and Wild Irish Rose wine for a while before graduating to heroin while working the streets for Farley.
The drugs served Holland well, obliterating at least for a short period the memories of sheer terror he had experienced, especially the tiger’s roar that awoke him almost every night. But there were consequences, and Holland realized early on he had merely replaced one bad dream with another.
With the help of his Aunt Mildred, Holland went cold turkey in her basement and pledged to himself he would find another way to erase the memories before he did something the Viet Cong hadn’t been able to do—kill him.
The first thing Marcus Glover told the group he did when he arrived in Cleveland was purchase a mosquito net because just one in a room made his skin crawl. He had visited four stores before he found one, but, even with the net, there was no peace until the insect was dead. The second thing he did was call Oscar Adams. The pool room fight had weighed on his mind even in Vietnam.
“Oscar? This is Marcus.”
There was silence on the other end of the line.
“I called to apologize about the fight, man. I hope you accept it.”
There was more silence before Oscar responded. “Okay.”
“Cool. So how are you doing?”
“I’m good, Glover. Sandra and I got married.”
“Great. Well, I wish you both the best.”
“You, uh, and she never…?”
“Naw, man. Never.”
“Good. Thanks. I-I understand you were in the war.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got to go. Take care.”
“Yeah, Glover. You, too.”
The first thing Clarence Bankston said he did when he came home was to inform his parents he was moving to Cleveland. As soon as the plane landed at Jackson-Evers International Airport, he’d decided. He already missed his buddies and couldn’t fathom living in Mississippi after having fought for the country.
Bankston was afraid he might hurt somebody real bad if provoked. It would be better to leave Mississippi and be around his friends who understood what he had been through. Plus, the way they talked about Cleveland, it had to be five times better than living in Mississippi.
Erving Robinson confided only to Turner. He was too embarrassed to tell the others. The first thing Robinson did when he got off the bus was head to Ebenezer Baptist Church where he’d been raised. It was Saturday. There would be people there.
As the brick two-story church came into view, he hesitated, hung his head, and turned to go home to surprise his parents instead.
“Maybe later,” he’d said to Turner. “Maybe later.”
The first thing Turner did when he got to Cleveland was rent a room at the Holiday Inn on East 55th. He had saved $1,830 of his army pay. Two weeks would barely dent his savings. Turner hadn’t called his mother because he needed to rest. Too many issues were agitating him; too many unanswered questions were bouncing around in his head.
He understood Sarge when he said he would buy peace of mind if he could. Well, this was the next best move: Rent a room, only go out to eat, and sleep the day and night away, which he did.
Being a loner, it didn’t bother Turner that he passed on calling his family or friends. Two weeks of cooling out wouldn’t hurt anything, but it certainly might help.