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Old Folks

Monday, April 30, 2012

(Photo)
Four from the 130th -- ready to party.
(Walt Sehnert)
When one joins an army unit (or any other organization for that matter) he always meets interesting, even unusual personalities.

I think this was even more the case when I joined the 130th Bakery Co. in Korea, during the Korean War. I was one of 12 white soldiers, which integrated (up to that time), an all-black company. We were northerners, while those already there were southerners, making for regional differences as well as blacks and whites.

One of the first fellows I met when I joined the130th in Korea was Private Leroy, a black man of about 40 years of age. This was unusual, since the average age of the men in our company was probably less than 25. What was more unusual was the fact that this man was a 40-year-old buck private. We were on the same shift at the bakery. I thought that if we got to be friends, maybe he would do a better job on our bakery shift. It didn't help.

(Photo)
Two more from the 130th, Cotton and Sehnert.
(Walt Sehnert)
One day Private Leroy told me his first name was Mervyn. "You mean Mervyn Leroy -- like the movie director?" I asked. "Yeah," but don't you be spreading that around. Mervyn is a perfectly good name, same as my pap's. Mostly, here they call me Old Folks." I almost laughed out loud, but I could see he was serious. When Mervyn was only 12 he pretty much left home. Eventually, he wound up in Chicago, where he took a job in a packing plant.

At the packing plant they had a little boxing club, and a coach, who said that he once had gone three rounds with Joe Louis. "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't," said Mervyn. "But he was pretty good, and he treated me better than anyone ever had, so I was happy."

It turned out that Mervyn was pretty good at boxing. One year he got all the way to the semi-finals of the Chicago Golden Gloves. He was pretty cocky in those years and decided he was ready to go pro, even though his coach urged him to "Wait one more year."

Mervyn was not ready for a professional boxing career, either talent-wise, or maturity. He began to "drink a bit," and quit training. Purses grew smaller. Opponents got tougher. He lost most of his matches and got knocked out with ever greater frequency

Finally, in 1936, in the midst of the Depression, he came to a point where he decided he should go into the Army, eat regular, and get himself back into shape, and then, he would go back to pro boxing.

Instead -- Mervyn found he had another talent, and the Army was the perfect place for him to practice his special gift. He became a professional gambler.

Mervyn had no desire for Army promotion, or accepting any responsibility, or "serving his country." He was a poor worker. He had a knack for ducking out when there was any real work to be done, and when he was on the job his work was below mediocre. He did just enough to get by -- enough to keep from getting reported -- no more.

Mervyn moved slowly, or not at all. We were constantly prodding him to hold up his end of the work. When he was off-duty he sat dozing in the dayroom, or napping in his bunk. Anyone else, you would swear that he was ill with some dread disease. But not Old Folks. He was just saving his strength.

Once a month Mervyn came alive -- on payday. From the time we got our pay Mervyn was alive. He gambled non-stop (cards, or dominoes, or craps, his game of choice), until he, or his "victims" were broke. They didn't sleep, or even eat, other than snacks during this time.

They rarely even took a break to go to the bathroom. Every spare minute, day and night they gambled, and this could go on for two or three days. More often than not Mervyn came out on top, though how could you be sure?

He never bought anything, a radio or something to make his life in Korea a little more pleasant. He didn't pig out at the PX. He didn't make trips to Seoul or to the local brothels. When the games stopped Mervyn reverted to "Old Folks" and went back into hibernation. He must have just lived for those games.

There was one other time that Old Folks stood out in the crowd. It was summer, and someone thought that we should have a party to celebrate the end of the war. The peace talks had begun, and though they ground on and on for months, at least they brought the shooting war to a close. A lot of our fellows were going home. All in all, it seemed a good time to celebrate.

One of our cooks had some experience in one of the big restaurants in New Orleans, and suggested a big "fish bash" -- "just like you're dining at Antoines," he extolled. On payday, when everyone felt flush we passed the hat and collected plenty to finance a real feast. The cook and I were chosen to be the committee to buy the fish, at one of the fish markets in Inchon.

Our fish feed party was like no other party I've ever attended. The cooks were up to their task and the fish was delicious. If there was a secret it was that the fish was really fresh, and we all had the appetites of youth. The fish kept coming, and we all ate till we nearly burst.

We had saved up our beer rations over a couple of weeks, so the spirits flowed liberally and everyone was in a happy mood. Someone had brought up an old phonograph, and we listened to big band records along with some Korean and Japanese discs.

One fellow had a guitar, another, his harmonica, and they began to play along with the records, almost like we had our own dance band. The more popular the song, the more we sang. After most of the guys had eaten we pushed back the tables, which provided us with a pretty good sized dance floor. Some of the officers had brought their Korean "wifeos" to the party, and one of the company's trucks brought back a half dozen "girls" from one of Yong Dung Po's leading brothels, so there were a few girls to dance with. They were good sports and willing dance partners, but there were not nearly enough girls to go around.

But lack of girls did not preclude dancing. As the Harry James band blared on the old phonograph guys filled the dance floor, most not dancing with a partner, but moving to the music -- they couldn't sit still pretending they were with their favorite gal back home. Some of our guys were wonderfully loose-jointed, and rhythmic. As the evening wore on these fellows showed moves that would have made Fred Astair envious.

Sometime during the evening, when everyone was feeling quite mellow and happy, Old Folks made his appearance at the party. He had eaten, then retired to the sidelines with a beer, watched a while, then sort of dozed off, as was his custom. It was a bit of a surprise when he not only got up from his chair, but made his way to the "dance floor."

He didn't say anything, but began to sway with the music, then seemed to go into a kind of trance. "He's going to do Jello!", someone said. With that most of the old timers in the company cleared the dance floor and began to shout, "Do it, Old Folks"; "Jello, Man, Jello"; "You the man, Old Folks!"

What transpired was one of the strangest dances, if you could call it that, I'd ever seen. Old Folks stood in the middle of the floor and began to shake. His whole body quivered, like someone with a severe case of the ague. His eyes were closed and he shook, from his head to his finger tips, not violently like he'd break apart, but, yes, like a bowl of Jello, when you first set it down. There didn't seem to be any quivering to the beat of the music, but there certainly was a primal movement connection to the music, of some kind.

All of the dancers had stopped by this time, and moved to the side of the room, to let Old Folks have the floor to himself. Everyone was shouting encouragement, maybe for Old Folks to shake himself apart, I don't know.

The spectacle went on for the length of the recording. At the end every man was on his feet, shouting encouragement for Old Folks and his strange dance. The record over, Old Folks came out of his trance, went back to his seat, picked up his beer, and lapsed into his slumber, while the dance went on. Normalacy had returned to the 130th.


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By