21. Wayne Keller – An Army companion not a real Friend

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I do not believe that I am very different than others. During our lifetime we all have various types of relationships and most of them serve a purpose some more than others. Between the years of 1956 to 1958 I served in the United States Army. It was a time peace when every young man was expected by the United States government to serve a two-year enlistment time. I had graduated from the University of Vermont and was very aware of the fact that I must first put my two years in at some service organization before I went ahead with the rest of my life. After basic training which was an eight week period I was stationed in El Paso, Fort Bliss, Texas for an additional eight weeks of specialized training. As it worked out for me after I finished the Nike missile school training that I was assigned to my whole class was kept at Fort Bliss. It was here that I met a little guy by the name of Wayne Keller from Indiana. I had never met another individual from Indiana before this time. During the rest of my time spent at Fort Bliss Keller and myself for some reason or other spent a lot of time together. In truth, we were never really friends. You might say that we were companions who for some ungodly reason which I have never figured why we spent much time together. We never seemed to agree with one another.

We were different in so many ways. We didn’t even like each other, yet when it came time for us to leave the base with a weekend pass and go to a very open soldier town right across the El Paso border in Mexico we went together. There were a number of times during this time span when Keller and myself also took longer leave times together.

Keller was a little man with a quick temper and set in his ways. He had little patience with me and I with him. I enjoyed reading and he did not. I was an athlete who, while at Fort Bliss was on the base wrestling team. Keller was not interested in athletics at all and thought that I wasted much of my time being interested in other than the most basic things that life set before one. Keller many times made remarks concerning the fact that I read so much and desired answers. Keller had a girlfriend back in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana who he phoned a number of times a week. Keller told me many times that after his time in the Army was over he intended to marry her. He thought it was quite alright for him to carry on with the ladies of the night in the Mexican border town that we spent so much time in. His girlfriend he told me was a phone operator back in Indiana and therefore he could speak with her on the phone as often as she cared to which he did yet he cheated on her constantly. That was his business and not mine, however, I always thought that this was not the right thing to do. There was little that we agreed on in general.

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I must admit that the two of us did enjoy that border town together. An incident that happened one evening there, perhaps tells a bit about our relationship and perhaps why we put up with one another. This particular evening we got a ride to the border, walked across the bridge, stepping into a very colorful Mexican street that had all that we were looking for in entertainment. As soon as you stepped off the border bridge you found yourself in Mexico with all it had to offer. It was a great place for the soldiers who did not have a bit of responsibility to carry on and I have one hell of a good time. We all drank a lot and took from the town what it offered. The streets were busy with soldiers and others walking past one bar after another. There will also many shops where one could buy whatever the owners of the shops offer to tourist and soldiers. The shops and bars were open in that they did not have doors that you would walk through, but instead there were partitions in their entrances that could be pulled back so that the bar or shop was an extension of the busy sidewalks.

As usual Keller and myself were looking for a bar where we could drink a lot of Mexican beer and enjoy whatever the night would bring to us. Not too far a distance from the bridge we walked into a bar that we had been in a number of times before and sat ourselves at the bar. On the bar stool next to me was a very large cowboy with a big black Stetson hat on. Keller sat on the other side of me. The front of the bar was open to the street so you could easily see and hear what was going on in the street adjacent to the bar. As we were sitting there a soldier from our outfit came walking by. I did not know him well, however, I had made his acquaintance and did find him to be a very nice individual. This soldier was a black man. As he walked by he could see Keller and myself sitting at the bar. He waved at us also greeting us. As he did this the cowboy sitting next to me for some ungodly reason that to this day I can’t fathom called this total stranger a Nigger. (I know that the use of this terrible word may offend some, however, if I wrote here the N-word instead of the offensive term that I have used here I believe it would take from the story that I am about to voice.) Just how stupid and ignorant an individual can be is beyond me. My soldier friend not looking for trouble looked back at us waved and kept walking. The large cowboy who had not spoken to me before this time turned to me and said: “I guess we really showed that nigger something, didn’t we.” My reply to him was in a rather disgusted manner: “We didn’t show him anything except that you’re an idiot.” The cowboy looked at me and replied: “You are either with me or again me.” To this I said: “I am sure as hell not with you.” Thinking about it now this whole conversation could be a script for a B western film yet it was happening. During this whole brief conversation Keller sat quietly on his bar stool waiting to see what would occur next. The cowboy looked at me with his eyes all lit up and said: “Then I guess if you are not with me, you want to fight.” Now I knew that he was a big man. I figured about 6 foot eight or so and he was not a tall skinny individual. I said to him: “if that is what you want lets get it on” and got off my bar stool. The cowboy started to get up off of his bar stool and it seemed to me that he kept getting up becoming taller and taller. It was like he was unfolding. It seemed to me that he’d kept on getting bigger and bigger. For whatever reason this amused me. There he was standing and he seemed to be at least a foot taller than my 6 foot three. The hole thing amused me. I was looking at him and laughing. I had thought that he was a big man, however, not as big as he turned out to be. To say the least this giant of a man didn’t know quite what to make out of the situation that he found himself in. Here he was picking a fight with the soldier who was looking up at him and laughing. Bullies big or small most times are easy to read. What I did next was a very natural thing for me to do under the circumstances. I certainly wasn’t afraid to fight if that’s what he wanted, but I never have enjoyed beating an individual up or for that matter getting my face messed up in an encounter. What I did was ask him if he wanted me to beat the stuffings out of him right now or perhaps he thought it better that he sat down. He quickly sat down and to tell the truth, I was not unhappy about that. The man was a total fool and ignorant and I sure did not want to continue to drink beer sitting next to him. I told Keller and I’m going to go to the area where the pool tables are and shoot a little pool, leaving Keller seated near the cowboy at the bar.

I walked to the rear of the bar and started to shoot a game of pool. Soon after I chanced to look across the pool table and notice that the bartender was handed two beers to the cowboy and that the cowboy past one over to Keller. I went back to my game, however afterward looked back at the bar and notice that the bartender had again pushed two beers towards the cowboy to which he shoved one to Keller. This went on a number of times. At last Keller and myself left the bar and I asked him what was going on with him and the ignorant fool that was seemingly buying him beer after beer. Keller laughed, telling me that when I left to go to where the pool tables were he told the cowboy he better buy him a beer or he was going to call me over and I was the baddest man in town. I guess the bully believed him because Keller drank a lot of free beer that night. If the story had been a little bit different and we had fought and I had gotten the worst of it, I believe that would’ve been okay with Keller as well.

This all took place on a Saturday night. While I was a soldier at Fort Bliss I went to church every Sunday morning. I was very fortunate to meet a wonderful family the Homely family. Tom was a cotton farmer who had lived in El Paso all his life. I guess Tom was in his sixties. He seemed to know everyone in town. After dinner, I told Tom about my experience on Saturday night. I told him that when I was standing next to the bar in front of this cowboy he seemed to be a foot taller than me. He must have been seven feet tall. Tom said that he knew who he was and that this cowboy loved to fight and was as mean as a bear. Tom informed me that this bully had almost killed a number of men with his bare hands in brawls and that I was incorrect about his height. He is seven feet three Toms said as he grinned at me. We both got a good laugh out of it.

Foot Note:
When I did stand up at the bar and saw just how big this man was I at once knew what I had to do in order to survive. I gazed at his lower legs and intended to dive at them dumping him onto his back. Once there, that would have been all she wrote for he would have never gotten off his back at least I hoped not.

It was in the 50s that Keller and myself traveled together. As a means of getting to where we wanted to go most times we hitched hiked. Today that would be a very dangerous way to travel, however, it was a completely different story during the 50s. If you were a soldier in uniform most times all you had to do is stand on a highway and put your thumb up. We had a 10 day pass and had decided to travel to the West Coast together. There was an army airfield near El Paso so Keller and I decided to see whether we could pick up a ride. We found an army reserve pilot who with his crew had traveled from the Hollywood area to El Paso and was soon to fly back. They were an interesting group. The reason they flew to the El Paso area is so that they could cross the border and buy booze. Their plane was loaded with cases of Mexican beer. The plane that they flew down in was the type of plane used for transportation of soldiers or supplies. There were no seats within, of course, except for where the pilot and copilot sat. They were a friendly bunch and offered us a ride. It was quite a ride. Most of them were still suffering from the hangovers they had left over from what they did in Mexico the night before we took off. To fly out of El Paso one has to fly over the Franklin Mountains. We along with the rest of the crew got ourselves into parachutes and sat ourselves down on the metal floor of this transport plane. The plane took off and just barely flew over the Franklin Mountains. To our surprise the pilot did not climb and gaining more altitude but instead decided to fly very close to the ground for quite some time. It was an enjoyable and exciting flight, however, Keller and myself wondered if with our pilot flying if we would reach Hollywood alive.

We had safely landed in a small airfield close to Hollywood. The crew were nice enough to give us a lift to Hollywood, where Keller and myself found a cheap motel to spend the night in. For the rest of the day and evening we walked around Hollywood taking in the sights however was not that impressed. We found ourselves in a television studio where we obtained passes for some sort of quiz show that would be produced the next day. When we woke up the following morning, Keller and myself decided not to take on the TV show, but instead walk out to the highway and put our thumbs-up and travel to Las Vegas. I might add here that we had a very limited amount of money in our pockets, however, that did not bother us a bit. We had a system that seemed to work out quite well for us when we hitchhiked together. Whether we were hitchhiking in a town or on a highway cars would stop much more quickly seeing a small soldier on the road than two soldiers one being a larger man. How we overcame this problem was to have Keller stand on the side of the highway with his thumb up and myself hide someplace near the highway perhaps behind a tree. When a car would stop to pick Keller up it was only then that I would come out from my hiding place. It worked! That day we picked up rides quite easily hitchhiking during a very hot day finding ourselves a number times, let out on desert roads with few cars passing by. We did reach Vegas having a few dollars in our pockets. We did have enough money for one night lodging and check into a rather nice motel downtown Vegas on Fremont street. That is where we wanted to be anyway for all the interesting action was there not at the strip with all the fancy hotels and tourists.

While we were in Vegas we spent a lot of time apart. When I had been stationed there for the atomic bomb tests that I took part in I had met a number of interesting individuals and that is who I again searched out. We did not have enough money to eat or even get lodging. This again was no problem for all a soldier had to do was go to one of the downtown casinos, the Golden Horseshoe or any of the other casinos on Fremont Street and stand at a crap table. Keller and myself had little money to gamble with but if you just played safe like betting odd and even at the roll of the dice you did not run out of the little money that was available. As you stood at the table the hostesses within the casinos would offer you drinks as well as hors d’oeuvres. There was no doubt that the employees in the casinos knew what our game was but we being soldiers they let us get away with it. After a lot of free food as well as the free alcohol we would part and I would find my Vegas friends. They took care of my needs.They were quite a bit older than me and a most interesting crew. Most times as the night went on Kelller and myself would meet up again. We would walk down to the end of Fremont Street, where there was a knoll and a railroad station. Here you could find a green area to stretch out and go to sleep for a time. It was really strange. The police in the town did not bother you as you lay on this green knoll. Your position there was quite interesting because next to you could’ve been a guy dressed in a tux and next to him a bum. By not spending too much time together, it made it possible for us to get along.

Both Keller myself were short timers. This is a term used by the Army for soldiers who had only a short time of their enlistment before them. We were having one hell of a good time in Vegas, but we knew that we had a get back to base and it was a long way from where we were. Unlike our trip to Hollywood there was no airplane available to travel on and we would have to hitchhike. I said my goodbyes to my good friends from Vegas, Tommy, who had been middleweight champ of Ireland, Bart, who had been light heavyweight champ of Australia and Johnny Sapota who was a strongman type that when he was in Hollywood made a living as an extra. Tommy wanted me after I was discharged from the Army to come back to Vegas making a number of interesting offers to me. Johnny Sapota told me that if I met him in Hollywood he would have little trouble getting me parts in movies. It all sounded very exciting and interesting to me, however I was looking forward to being discharged and returning to my family in New York and never did take them up on their offers. Many times I have wondered what would have become of my life if I had taken up the offers made to me.

If Keller and I were not able to get back to Fort Bliss and appear in our morning line up we knew what the consequences would be. We would be spending time in the stockade and for sure we would not be discharged soon after. We went out to a highway not far from Fremont Street and placed our thumbs out. It was not very long that a state police car stopped next to us. We did not know what to expect. The state policeman said guys get inside I’ll take it over to Hoover Dam where it will be easier for you to pick up a ride. This very pleasant policeman dropped us off at the dam. We hung around Hoover Dam for a short time enjoying the site and then went to the highway to hitchhike once again. For whatever reason cars were not stopping to pick us up. We started to worry that perhaps we would not get back to the base as quickly as we needed to. At last a car sped by us and came to a sudden stop some 50 or so feet past us to which we ran up to. To our surprise there were two very good-looking young ladies within the car. They told us that they were officers wives and that they were on a holiday. We were told that we could travel with them for a number of hundred of miles where they were going to stop at some sort of the resort and spent some time there. During the time that we were traveling with these two ladies they made it clear that we were invited to stay with them at the resort. I informed them that we were both broke to which they said the vacation would be on them. Keller was all for it not seeming to care that we would be AWOL if we did this. I wanted to be sure that by my discharged day I would be discharged. Keller did his best trying to convince me that we should go along with the offer to which I said no.

There was something else involved in the situation as well. We had been told that If an enlisted man was found with an officer’s wife you could be in more trouble than just being AWOL. After a very pleasant ride with these two young ladies, we got back on the highway again. Keller never got over the fact that I would not go along with their offer which led to us not speaking to one another for the rest of the time that we traveled back to Fort Bliss. We did get back there on time, but just barely. We had hitched all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, but knew that there was no way that we would ever be able to pick up rides fast enough to stand roll call on time. In Albuquerque we found an airbase and a great thing happened there. We were able to clean up and pick up a meal.

Now Airmen and Army service men did at that time not have too much love for one another, however to our surprise at this airbase they did pass the hat, allowing us to have enough funds to buy bus tickets from Albuquerque to El Paso. I don’t think after that time Keller and myself spoke to one another again. He was still angry at me for not being willing to vacation with the two officers wives. The leave was very eventful and for some reason or another I guess being together served it’s purpose, however to this day I can’t figure out just what that could have been.

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