“Have you been to the Liberty Bell?” Lisa asked, removing a laminated meal card from the left-rear pocket of a tight-fitting pair of camouflage pants. I reached for my wallet, kept on the right side of my ass under a buttoned flap and took out identification to account for my meal.
Soldiers who lived in apartment complexes outside the heavily fortified communications installation received supplements in government paychecks to cover the cost of food for their families. Single soldiers, like Lisa Payne and myself, were given cards as a means for the military to monitor those who could eat at the dining hall without paying a $4 surcharge placed upon those who already had been reimbursed by Uncle Sam in cost of living allowances.
Lisa’s reference to the Liberty Bell seemed out of context, having been stationed in Ansbach, Germany and not Philadelphia, PA. The Liberty Bell, Lisa explained, was a little pub off base, in the center of town.
Lisa forgot to remove her uniform cap after first stepping into the mess hall, still describing the place with a metal dance floor. According to Lisa, at 3 a.m., middle- aged German women stormed the bar, for last minute sexual hook ups with young and drunken American GI’s. “The Liberty Bell is an absolute whorehouse,” Lisa explained. “It’s no place for a female GI, but fuck it– I stayed until last call and couldn’t believe my eyes. Have you met the Irish guy in our platoon yet– McManus? He was shit faced and went home with a cow. There was no Black music at all. Not even Tina Turner. Can you imagine such a thing– but they were playing house music– pounding house music, just like in New York. I lost myself. I gotta take you there.”
“Lisa, take off your B.D.U. cap,” I reminded, standing at-ease with my hands resting within the small of my lower back.
“Fuck these Army niggas,” she whispered, covering her mouth from what slipped out. “I’m a female. We’re not required to take off our hats while inside. Even in the Army, this is a man’s world. I don’t think I’ll survive the Army for more than a year. I miss the fashion and ethnic diversity of New York. The Liberty Bell? How will I ever survive? Dance Halls are as large has warehouses in New York! All my nice clothes are still there. I miss going out to the clubs. What I wouldn’t do to get dressed in a linen dress right now, jump on the 4 train and go dancing at Paradise Garage! I need to feel like a woman again, Taylor. I hate this uniform. The Army is turning me into a man. I ain’t no dyke, but let me tell you this if you haven’t noticed yet– almost every female in 141 is lesbian.”
“My brother Christopher is gay. So what! I really don’t care, but they had better not take me the wrong way, just because I’m a little tough. What was I saying? Oh, yes, I was telling you about the Liberty Bell. It’s a GI bar in downtown Ansbach– what a trip it is to go there. I had so much fun last night. Who knew German men were such vampires? Oh, I meant to loan you that novel, remind me after chow.”
“Thank you,” I said. For a moment she remained in silence as we waited in the cafeteria line.
Snow covered the toes of my new black jump boots. I looked away from her brown eyes and stared at the highly- buffed floor upon which snow from many boots had fallen and melted into dangerously, slipper puddles. I wished Lisa would stop with innuendos relating to sexuality and I cautiously looked away from her as I stood in line, almost pretending that I wasn’t there to eat with her. The chow hall was packed on Christmas day. Not as many soldiers went skiing in Austria like I had imagined. My new boots were difficult to polish the first time. The thick leather was thirsty for black Kiwi polish. I regretted wearing my uniform to dinner and not civilian clothing. Almost everyone was dressed in civies. I didn’t know that at permanent duty stations, soldiers were free to dress casually when eating at the mess hall. I spent hours polishing my new jump boots ($126) to meet Army boot polish standards. I used spin shining techniques taught to me by a black specialist at Ft. Gordon while there for thirteen weeks learning to become a 31 Charlie.
Having already learned to type in high school, I was weeks ahead of my platoon members and I was free to hang out in the tin barracks buildings of Ft. Gordon, GA, while others studied the keyboard. It was during these quiet times that I became an expert boot polisher, I’d listen to my radio, taking in the new tunes of the time, while everyone, but a few other fast typists, were learning to move their fingers fast enough to meet military standards for Single Channel Radio Teletype Operators.
I had nothing to do but shine boots and read a Gideon Bible at Ft. Gordon. It was no coincidence that I accepted Jesus there. One was considered an ‘ate-up’ soldier if his or her boots did not shine– even in the snow. Between pages of Psalms and dips of blackness, my innocent childhood mind was transformed by the power of scripture and a high I got off the Kiwi.
The first three weeks at Barton Barracks, before meeting Lisa, reminded me of the terrible loneliness I encountered at Ft. Gordon. To pass the time, I bought a new pair of boots and steadily shined them. I didn’t like to go out drinking like most. In order to pass my time, being new and not having any new friends in the Army, I spent down time mastering the unofficial military custom of spit shining. I used a brown cotton Army issued t-shirt, dipped first in black polish, then a shiny tin lid filled with water, and with evenly tempered circular motions pressed by my saluting fingers, a glossy, mirrored surface appeared. The many layers of polish created a Cinderella-like aura over my soles.
Unlike common issue, plain Army boots handed to recruits at basic training, walking in a pair of jump boots felt butch and soldiers stationed with 141 Signal were authorized to wear them. The boots with a globe-like toe proved to be treacherous in the snow. I fell outside the mess hall, with at least fifty fellow soldiers standing nearby. I took Lisa with me and we tumbled into a snow- covered row of pine trees that separated the dining facility from the posts’ chapel.
Being at a permanent duty station came with many new perks, including authorization to wear Army jump boots. I stood my ground, inside the chow hall as I brushed myself off.
Drill sergeants at Ft. Jackson wore jump boots. Surely I appeared normal even after the terrible fall when I screamed like a little girl. I couldn’t wait to break the jump boots in, so I wore them in the snow on Christmas day, ruining hours of buffing, just to make a good impression on Lisa and others in my new unit.
“The entire platoon was at the Liberty Bell last night. Where were you? In your room? This is Europe! You should have been there to witness the anger after of the platoon after I left the Liberty Bell, not holding the hand of one of thosee niggas, but that of a white man, a German! What was I thinking?” She asked.
“I attended a Bible study and stayed off-post,” I said shamelessly, almost wanting to shock her, knowing never to deny or turn my back to the Lord. “My roommate, a Specialist Carter, invited me to his Bible study, and after having a few home-cooked meals in the home of an elderly missionary couple, I decided to spend Christmas Eve there. I’m not having sex until I get married,” I explained to Lisa and went on to say “That’s where I was Friday night. I’m born again. I don’t drink!” I hoped my Christianity didn’t offend her. I wanted to be her friend but wasn’t going to back down.
“Don’t get me wrong, Taylor. Don’t let the color of my skin lead you astray when reading into my soul. I’m Catholic and know where you’re coming from.” She made the sign of the cross and kissed the knuckles of her thumbs that she gracefully folded into standard Catholic knotting before her lips, as if to imply that her dirty mouth that had spoken just moments before, had miraculously been cured of the demonic dialect that seemed to plague her very soul.
“I’m not judging you,” I said. “I’m born again and still got a plank in my eye and that hurt, falling down outside. I’m really sorry.”
“That was embarrassing but funny as hell, Taylor. I like you.”
A blue eyed private first class sitting behind a small wooden desk interrupted our conversation and Lisa’s imitation prayer. We had been talking, non-stop, for well over an hour and seemed to be forming the sacred bond that best friends and soul mates establish just moments after meeting. It seemed now, the entire company, eating Christmas dinner at the mess hall, were watching us closely– Opie Taylor and a skinny, baby Oprah Winfrey– and both new to 141. They watched us carefully as we entered the dining hall. The new faces who seemed already to know each other– making so much noise as newbies. My notation of being Born Again seemed to anger Lisa, somewhat as we progressed in the line towards servers dressed in white, holding large metal spoons and tongs.
The short Black girl was what I needed to overcome my Christmas blues. She took my mind off longing for home. I permitted my manly arms rest peacefully at my side, realizing that inside the mess hall, the formalities of miliary life were gone on Christmas Day. Lisa charm and charisma was releasing me of my greatest fear in regards to the military– what if there are no artistic people, like us, who serve? Lisa melted that assumption the moment she started talking and introducing her peculiar, bi-sexual lifestyle to me.
Her smile filled me and made me glow, unlike the companionship I had found in new friends at Bible study. My stomach growled. I was starving. Lisa read off the numbers on her meal card and I followed and signed the roster. We picked up large plastic trays and our silverware, being careful to inspect each utensil for hard food items not washed away in mess hall dishwashers.
She was what I needed at the time in life when I had determined it was best to leave the church behind. She expressed herself like a poet and somehow soothed my fear of God. Perhaps my shy, quiet demeanor intrigued her as much as her boldness appealed to my bashful desire to escape and grow wild and sinful. I rarely spoke words to interrupt her on our informal date, really not having anything to say anyway. My life was boring growing up in the country. She was from New York and had seen everything.
While waiting for Lisa to finish dressing for chow, as I stood inside her barracks room door that had not been closed due to company regulations governing visiting protocols, I saw her tits. If any of the many soldiers who lived in the barracks were to have walked by the room, they would have seen her undress, shamelessly too. It seemed as if I were a little brother in a big sister’s bedroom. She went topless and I witnessed silver dollar size chocolate nipples that made me turn bright-red, I’m sure, but she seemed not the least bit frightened by my momentary glance.
She offered a wink to indicate that my repressed flamboyant tendencies were not an offense to her and that we, in a sense, although not yet a couple or in love, were ‘family’.
Lisa’s roommate was blonde with a double-chin whose last name was Blaugahjeaneau, according to a name tag on a pair of BDU’s hanging on an open door of a wall locker in Lisa’s room. Lisa walked me to Blaugahjeaneau’s side of the room for introduction. The poor girl seemed terrified of Lisa’s Bronx attitude. Lisa and I quickly left her to her privacy and vanished to the other side of the room, out of view from the sinking chins where Lisa made circles around her ears with her saluting finger just before popping a Blow Monkeys cassette tape into a small stereo system. Lisa pranced around for at least five minutes without as much a bra to cover the shame, despite the fact that the door to the barracks room was still open. She waved her limp wrist to the crooning of the singer and winked at me.
I was shocked that I was so noticeable, even in uniform and jump boots.
We left Blaugahjeaneau to finish listening to the remainder of the Blow Monkeys album and headed out into the cold December air on our first official date together.
“Did you ever see so much snow?” She asked, diving into a pile of powder to make an angel. I loved her from that moment.
Lisa selected a table far away from the other soldiers eating near the salad bar and a soft-serve ice cream machine. I nodded to Lisa, indicating that I too preferred to sit where it was quite. I waited patiently, still standing in a slow food line where I had requested mashed potatoes, fish, and corn.
“You never answered my question. Have you ever been to the Liberty Bell? It’s a pub in downtown Ansbach with a tiny dance floor. I haven’t danced since last summer. Like you, I’ve been in basic training. I never thought I’d miss music so much. What a release it was to go dancing. It reminded me of the Paradise Garage. Have you ever been to New York?”
“No. Never been out dancing either.”
“Do you like dancing, Charles?”
“Yes, but remember I don’t drink.”
“Don’t tell me you eat Army mashed potatoes,” Lisa noted. “They put salt-peter in them you know.”
“I think that rumor is true as far as the food in basic training is concerned,” I noted. “But I haven’t noticed any numbness down there, since leaving Fort Jackson.”
Lisa was shocked.
“I’m taking your white ass dancing tonight. Stop looking so sad, my little friend. You’re going to love the Liberty Bell– these German men– what a fucking trip!”