Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ali turns 65

When I was in the Army, Muhammad Ali, who turned 65 a few days ago, was known as Cassius Clay. After winning the gold at the Olympics, he had turned pro, owned by a syndicate of businessmen from Louisville. The father of one of the Russian linguists in my outfit was one of these businessmen. Consequently, we became interested in the career of Clay, which we found to be an amusing name, almost as amusing as knowing someone whose father owned a prizefighter.

We were a small company of 100 linguists, stationed at various kasernes in Germany where usually there were large units of regular soldiers. They called us the Monterey Marys and we called them Animals. We tended to stay away from the bars they frequented -- often they were in the field practicing for Vietnam to come -- but now and again we got reckless. On these occasions, a bar fight usually happened, not involving us but fights nonetheless, and our pat response was always, "If only Cassius Clay were here."

We had a cartoonist in the company, and he also used Clay as a character in humorous situations, a kind of superhero who broke up bar fights. I imagine these cartoons might be worth something today. This guy also drew some amazing X-rated cartoons. He had the largest collection of scatological literature I ever knew existed, including contributions by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote an incredible short story about Queen Elizabeth passing wind, and Mark Twain.

Besides a considerable literary education, what with hanging out with colleagues who typically had M.A.'s in the humanities and had been working on Ph.D.'s as they reached draft age (and so joined to be a linguist rather than a foot soldier), I received an X-rated education in the Army, from hanging out with my colleagues to being stationed in cities like Baumholder ("sin city of Europe" according to Confidential magazine at the time), where a company sport was watching the 1000s of prostitutes arrive on trains whenever the Animals were due out of the field for a long weekend in town, to hanging out with the ladies who stayed after the Animals returned to war games, to knowing the German businessmen who ran the sex syndicates that ran this supply-and-demand enterprise, to befriending the young women, usually East German escapees, who were duped into believing they had been hired for legitimate work in the food service industry. What an experience! Amazingly enough, I still haven't done much with it in my writing. A screenplay never finished, Hitler's Blue Movie -- and a sudden urge to finish it. Several false starts on a novel. Hmm. My Cold War story remains untold, and I'm not getting any younger.

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