Private First Class, United States Army, Jimmy Jacks would have been sixty-seven, or perhaps, sixty-eight years old this fall. You do not see the point of bringing up this unknown stranger’s name? Well, here is another clue Jimmy J. (his local moniker), a few years older than I am, was the first kid from my growing-up working- class neighborhood to see service in Vietnam. Still not enough? Then take a little trip down to Washington, D.C. and you will find his “fame” listed on that surreally and serenely beautiful black stone work dedicated to the fallen of that war. Yes, I thought that might get your attention. This is Jimmy J’s story, but is also my story around the edges, and come to think of it, yours too, if you want end these damn imperial military adventures that the American state insists on dragging its youth, and in disproportionate numbers its working-class and minority youth, into.
My first dozen years or so of life were spend in a public housing project, a place where the desperately poor of the day, or the otherwise displaced and forgotten of the go-go American economy of the 1950s were shunted off to. So you can say I knew Jimmy Jacks all my life, really, although I did not physically meet him until we moved across town to my coming-of-age working- class neighborhood, a neighborhood whose ethos in no way was superior to “the projects” except that the tiny houses were, for the most part, single dwellings. And I really only knew Jimmy through my older brother which is to say not very well at all as I was, okay, just a wet-behind-the-ears kid. And Jimmy was the king hellion of the neighborhood and dragged my brother, and the brothers of others, in tow. So this ain’t going to be a story of moral uplift, which is for sure.
See Jimmy, when he was around the old neighborhood, was the very large target, that is to say the number one target, of the “shawlies.” Shawlies? In our mainly Irish working-class neighborhood, although I confess I only heard it used by more recent immigrants just off the boat (or plane) or older ones who refused to become vanilla Americans, that term signified that circle, council if you will, unofficial of course, of mothers, young and old, who set the moral tone, at least the public moral tone, of the place. In short, the gossips, old hags, and rumor-mongers (I am being polite here) who had their own devious grapevine, and more importantly, were a constant source of information about you to your own mother. Usually nothing good either.
And what conduct of Jimmy’s would bring him to the notice of that august body, other than the obvious one of corrupting the morals of the youth? Hey, as you will see this guy was no Socrates. Jimmy, it seems, or it seems to me now, was spoon-fed on old time gangster movies. No, not the George Raft-Jimmy Cagney-Edward G. Robinson vehicles of the 1930s in which the bad guy pepper-sprayed every one with his trusty machine-gun, everyone except dear old Ma (whom he would not touch a hair of the head of, and you better not either if you know what’s good for you). No, Jimmy was into being a proto-typical "wild one" a la Marlon Brando or the bad guys in Rebel Without A Cause. Without putting too fine a spin on it, some kind of existential anti-hero.
So who was this Jimmy? No a bad looking guy with slicked-back black hair, long sideburns (even after they were fashion-faded), engineer boots, dungarees (before they were fashionista), tied together by a thick leather belt (which did service for other purposes, other better left unsaid purposes), tee-shirt in season (and out). Always smoking a cigarette (or getting ready too), always carrying himself with a little swagger and lot of attitude. Oh yah, he was a tenth-grade high school drop-out (not really that unusual in those days in that neighborhood, drop-outs were a dime a dozen, including my own brother). And here is the draw, the final draw that drew slightly younger guys to him (and older girls, as well) he always had wheels, great wheels, wheels to die for, and kept them up to the nth degree. Employment (in order to get those wheels, jesus, don't you guys know nothing): unknown
That last point is really the start of this story about how the ethos of the working poor and the demands of the American military linked up. Jimmy (and his associates, including my drop-out brother) was constantly the subject of local police attention. Every known offense, real or made-up, wound up at his door. Some of it rightly so, as it turned out. I might add that the irate shawlies had plenty to do with this police activity. And also plenty to do with setting up Jimmy as the prime example of what not to emulate. Well, as anyone, including me, in own my very small-bore, short-lived criminal career can testify to when you tempt the fates long enough those damn sisters will come out and get you. The long and short of it is was that eventually Jimmy’s luck ran out. The year that his luck ran out was 1963, not a good year to have your luck run out if there ever is one.
Nowadays we talk, and rightly so, about an “economic draft” that forces many working -class and minority youth to sign up for military service even in ill-fated war time because they are up against the wall in their personal lives and the military offers some security. I want to talk about this “economic draft” in a different sense although I know that the same thing probably still goes on today. I just don’t have the data or anecdotal evidence to present on the issue. Jimmy, however, was a prima facie case of what I am talking about. When Jimmy’s luck ran out he faced several counts of armed robbery, and other assorted minor crimes. When he went to court he thus faced many years (I don’t remember his total, my brother’s was nine, I think). The judge, in his infinite mercy offered this deal- Cedar Junction (not the name then, but the state prison nevertheless) or the Army. Jimmy, fatefully, opted for the Army (as did my brother).
Here is the part that is important to understand though. Jimmy (and to a lesser extent, my brother), the minute that he opted for military service went from being “bum-of-the-month” in shawlie circles to a fine, if misunderstood and slightly errant, boy. Even the oldest hags had twinkles in their eyes for old Jimmy. Of course, his mother also came into high regard for raising such a fine boy committed to serve his country (and his god, don’t forget that part). Once in uniform, an airborne ranger’s uniform, and more importantly, once he had orders for Vietnam, then an exotic if dangerous place and a name little understood other than the United States was committed to its defense against the atheistic communists, his stock rose even further. I was not around the old neighborhood when the news of his death was announced in 1965 but my parents told me later than his funeral was treated something like a state function. The shawlies, in any case were out in force. Jimmy J, a belated R.I.P.