Almost Having My Face Slashed at Fort Bragg

A close friend during my two year tour at Fort Bragg (1966–68) was a tough Puerto Rican kid from the South Bronx, Ruben C.

Ruben didn’t adjust well to army life and was frequently in trouble for minor infractions that kept him from advancing beyond the lowest rank, Private E-1. He was a heavy drinker of Gypsy Rose and Thunderbird, which was an addiction allowing him to survive the unbearable (to him) routine of military discipline. He thought of me as a big brother (I was 26, he was 18) and always showed me the utmost respect.

One night while he was drunk Ruben beat-up a very sweet, harmless kid from St. Louis, Jason “Jellyroll” Morton (sometimes just “Jelly”). My bunk was upstairs and when I heard the fighting on the first floor I went down to see what was going on. A drunken Calderon was beating up a defenseless Jellyroll. I got right in Ruben’s face and berated him, shouting that if he couldn’t hold his liquor he should stop drinking.

This must have seriously hurt his Latin pride because a few minutes later, after I had returned to my bunk and got under the covers, Ruben came up the fire escape with an empty beer bottle, broke it on the railing of the fire escape and came in through the emergency exit with the neck of the bottle in his fist and the jagged edge protruding as a dangerous weapon.

In the stateside army most soldiers didn’t want to remake their beds every morning, so we would carefully slide in to a neatly made bed from the top, trying not to disturb the sheets and blankets so we could wriggle out in the morning and just do some quick straightening up of the top blanket. I was thus entombed with my face protruding from the covers and my blanket tightly tucked into the mattress around me.

I was totally helpless and unable to move when Calderon approached my bed, held the jagged end of the broken bottle inches from my face and started screaming that I was a white motherfucker who shouldn’t talk to him like that and he was going to teach me a lesson. I tried to talk but was making matters worse. Within seconds my face was going to be slashed to ribbons.

Just then a small Puerto Rican kid, actually from Puerto Rico, rushed to the other side of my bed facing Calderon and started jabbering in Spanish. I don’t know what he said but it worked. Ruben pulled the bottle from my face, jumped on my bed which was at the end of the row and smashed the bare light bulb on the ceiling cutting his bare hand. Then he jumped on every bed in the row, about 15 of them, smashing every light bulb on that side of the barracks. Finally, when he reached the end of the row, he picked up a broom and with the handle started smashing out windows. His rage spent, he left the floor and went down to his own bunk.

The next morning when I approached Ruben he had a hang-dog look of shame and embarrassment on his face as we apologized to each other. He was charged with destruction of Army property and received Article 15 punishment, a fine and restriction to the barracks for two weeks.

Maybe that kid from Puerto Rico did me the biggest favor of my life.

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