Arriving late, I saw to my disappointment that all lower bunks were already taken. As I started to pull myself into an upper bunk, my foot slipped, and I banged my face hard on the iron bed rail. As I stumbled backwards, the man in the lower bunk rose.
“You’re bleeding,” he said. “Lemmee see that.”
It was autumn 1946. I had joined the Army and been sent to a reception center at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We recruits had just been issued our uniforms and assigned to our barracks. My new bunk-mate dabbed at my split lip with his new Army olive-drab handkerchief and handed it to me.
“You take the lower one.”
With that, he raised his 6-foot-plus frame effortlessly into the upper bunk. From that day on we were inseparable. It wasn’t by design, it was just something that happened. I don’t remember why the rest of the barracks began calling us “Batman and Robin.” It could have been because of the difference in our height (I was a good 8 inches shorter than he was) and because we were always together. But, whatever the reason, the names stuck. We even called each other that.
Normally, we would have only been at Dix a few days, then further assigned to a basic training center. But a large number of draftees and volunteers had been mustered to replace the men who had won the war, and who were now being discharged by thousands per day, and all training centers were full. We would spend almost a month at Dix, learning the most basic of the basic, while waiting for a real training center to beckon. Whatever the activity, Batman and I were side by side. Even if one of us was selected for an unpleasant duty, the other would volunteer to go along. It was almost fun to be on KP with Batman, as we swabbed the floor while he led us in the ribald verses of I Used to Work in Chicago.
Finally the day came when we received our orders, assigning us to basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky—all of us, that is, except one. I was devastated to learn that Batman was not on the list. Of course, we soon realized why. We were all Caucasians. Batman was African American. It was a segregated Army in those days, and Batman would go to a separate training center and be then assigned to a segregated unit. We parted—tearfully, I’m not ashamed to admit—vowing to keep in touch. He wrote as soon as he joined his new unit, and I wrote back. Gradually, though, as our paths diverged, the letters stopped. When I tried later to renew the correspondence, I realized I could no longer remember his real name. The fog of time had intervened, as it probably had for him, too.
I would go on to spend more than 33 years in the Army, acquiring many fine friends and wonderful memories. But one of my fondest recollections will always be of the short time spent with my first true comrade in those very early days when I was Robin.
Batman, are you out there?