A Memorial Day Memory: Sgt. Boomer
By Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
I was prevented from going to Vietnam because of a bullet wound, but by 1971, the wound had healed. In those days, Washington, D.C. was a tough town, full of unrest, drug deals and gangs. I was trained in hand-to-hand combat by a “tunnel rat,” a U.S. Army Sgt. whose jobs was to enter North Vietnamese tunnels, plant charges, and then quickly back out in order to keep from being blown up by the charges he had planted. My instructor was one of those men; he was black, in his thirties, a handsome, sensitive man who had a grip like pair of pliers. His name was Sgt. George Artis Boomer. Once he had killed a man in a North Vietnamese tunnel, using his knife in the dark. (His stories were confirmed by the men he had fought with - I talked with many of them.)
His domestic life was turbulent. One time, his wife in Washington, D.C, had tried to stab him, and when she failed, she fled up the stairs and was found sitting on the bed with her baby in her lap. Boomer had gotten an M-16 and was thinking of firing through the floor at his wife when he went up and saw the baby. (Fifteen years later, they were still married.)
Boomer was a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the 18th Airborne Corps, and he had been a special hand-to-hand combat instructor for the 82nd Airborne. In Vietnam, he was almost been killed in a fight with a Vietcong prisoner. The Vietcong was part of a group of prisoners being held by the American Army. The prisoners were bound with their hands behind their back, and they were sitting on the ground. They were guarded by American troops. An Army lieutenant came by, and told Boomer to release this one man. Boomer objected. “Sir, that man is very dangerous,” he said. The lieutenant was arrogant as he was ignorant. Free the man, he said. Boomer did. No sooner had he done so, than the Viet Cong, with his hands now untied, had sprung to his feet and hit Boomer hard in his chest with a reverse punch to Boomer’s solar plexus. The Vietcong then hit Boomer with a sharp, hard side kick to his lower leg and punched Boomer again in the chest and throat. Boomer fell over backwards. The Vietcong, now convinced he was certain of victory, stepped over Boomer’s prostrate body with his left leg, positioning himself to drop his right knee, with using his body weight to land on Boomer’s face, a blow which would have killed Boomer. But the Vietcong had left his right hand hanging down, just before the knee drop, and Boomer seized that hand, pulled it with his own left, and with his right hand, reached up and took out the Viet Cong’s throat in a single movement. Boomer said that when the man screamed, it sounded like a something screaming under water.
He taught me never to exchange insults before you palm jabbed someone or struck the side of their neck with the edge of your hand. The Hollywood scenes where men stood chin to chin, jeering at each other, were not only fatuous, they were dangerous. Armand taught me excellent judo throws and arm and wrist locks. When I was an assistant coach, (I was still a teenager), a burly football player tried to knock me over in practice. He had knocked me over the first time. The second time, I threw him over my hip, and he landed flat on his back.
So the training with Boomer began. I had lived with the 4,500 member Blackstone Rangers, a black gang in Chicago. I got many death threats, but I still saw them as human beings. At first, Boomer’s practices were pretty taxing. He used to spar with his brother, and Boomer once told me: “My brother had me by my nut sack, and he wouldn’t let go, so I bit him across the bridge of his nose until he passed out.” After that, the two brothers didn’t spare any more. Boomer played for keeps.
One day, Boomer asked me if I had every done squat jumps. I never had, so he asked me if I could do fifty. To my own amazement, I did them, and he remarked, “A lot of guys cannot to that amount even after a lot training,” which made me less of a hopeless case in my eyes.
At that time, I lived in an apartment complex in Southwest Washington across the street from a black, lower-income housing project. (I know that, today, blacks are called African-Americans, but they weren’t called that then.) The day before my family arrived, a lawyer named John Black, white, age 40, and had been shot dead in the parking lot near a black high school. A gang ran the black housing project, headed by a guy named “Skinny Pimp.” He was supposedly the terror of the neighborhood.
I had been doing a lot of weight lifting when I met Boomer. I was doing 328 pounds at a body weight of 170-2. I did a 425 squat or something. That strength Boomer taught me to employ with effect. In the gym where I worked out, there was an old punching bag hanging from the ceiling. Over time, all the sand in it had settled into a rock-hard layer at the bottom. If you sat on your knees, you had to hit your knuckles 300 times a day to toughen up your knuckles to drive the sensations out of them. The same thing had to be done for your shins and the knobs of your wrists and ankles. Three hundred or more times a day, you had to take a short club and hit those spots. Finally the day came when Boomer could come up with his paratrooper boots and kick my shins without hurting them.
Because my knuckles had no sensation, I could hit an object very hard. One man bet me $50 that I would ruin my hand if I hit a tree with all my might. (We had been drinking, needless to say.) I smashed at it with all my force, and while my knuckles with a little red and a little swollen, my hand wasn’t damaged at all. That is what conditioning can do. At a drunken Georgetown party, the owner of an apartment bet me I couldn’t knock his front door off the hinges. I did.
Young blacks liked to box in those days. Boomer himself and been a Golden Gloves winner, and he told me he was going to train me to fight young black men. At the time I was investigating a ring of black former non-coms who were shipping heroin from Vietnam to Okinawa and to the East Coast. I was, on my own, interviewing black heroin dealers down at 14th street in Washington, a notorious drug selling site. I was soon to be investigation organized crimes guys in California. They had threatened my life, and each day I had to go out to my car and search it for bombs.
Boomer’s moves resembled no one else’s. I have never really seen them on TV to this day. Some of them depended on kicks – always low kicks, not the high ones displayed in films which put you in danger of your testicles being ripped off. One kick was called the Tiger Tail, where you spun around with your booted foot drawn up so you could hit somebody’s groin. You were also to attack the back of a man’s legs by bending and slapping them out from under him. For frontal attacks, you would turn sideways, making a blade of your body, and then fending off jabs in order to smash an elbow into his face, then dropping a fist dropping down to hit him in the groin, then driving an elbow into his stomach, then kneeing him in the face as his head went down from the blow. These blows became automatic.
He thought me how to disarm cops. I had been beaten several times by the Chicago Police and never wanted to be beaten again. Once when I was in the gym, a guy from the DC robbery squad bet me that I couldn’t disarm him. He took the magazine out of his pistol and put in his holster. When he tried to draw it, I hit him hard at the bend of his elbow with my left hand, then using the grip of my right hand, I bent him down, with my left hand pressuring the gun hand into his back, where I could pry the gun from his grip. I did this on three different policemen. One gave me unexpected trouble. I hit the bend of his elbow, but when I tried to bend him over, he didn’t move. Not an inch. He was very tall and extremely strong, so I pinned is weapon in the holster and hit him with a palm jab --lightly -- this was an exercise – I didn’t want to put him down nor did I want to be arrested. But those methods worked. The Hollywood scenes were bad guys have a gun at someone’s head, were in for a bad time. Unless they shot you outright, anybody who puts a gun to your head clearly doesn’t realize that an action is faster than a reaction, and the right action will take his gun away.
Boomer and I used to practice on the open, grassy area behind the apartment building. The local police and security would get curious and come watch. There was nothing more graceful and spectacular than to have a D.C. policeman employ every come-along hold in the book on George, and watch him walk effortlessly out of them. Boomer was that good. He had studied close combat they way professors study fine art.
He taught me how to kill dogs. Boomer was terrified of dogs. But he had learned how to kill them, and he taught me. We are not talking about harmless house pets, but dogs trained to maul and kill. He had been attacked by one in Vietnam. One of his tests for me meant that I had to go up to a German shepherd in a police car, and put my hand on the dog’s head without getting bitten. He told me that animals smell fear, and I could only do it if I didn’t smell of fear. So one day, a squad car was parked at the curb near my four-year-old son’s school. The cop wasn’t in the car, but the dog was. His head was out of the car, and he was snarling viciously. So I emptied my mind of everything but calm. Boomer was nearby, but I didn’t look or think of him. Taking my time, but moving quite inexorably, I ended up putting my hand flat on the German shepherd’s head, and he didn’t bark. He didn’t bite. He was quiet. I abruptly withdrew my hand, as just as I did, the dog barked again and showed his gums. I wanted to do it again, but Boomer’s said, “One time is going to have to be enough. If you do it again, he’ll attack you. He’s mean to the gums.”
There was a black high school nearby which had a large field that I used to run five miles daily with 5. Lb ankle weights in order to strengthen my legs for kicks and for stamina. The young black guys were neat young men. One yelled at me one day, “Hey man. Why aren’t you black?” I replied, “Just lucky I guess,” and his friends all whooped and hollered because black men liked and excelled at this kind of exchange. It was called being “sounded on,” and they usual were better at it than I was by far. That was probably my own success in bantering with them. They were very quick and very witty, and they were good kids. I felt great affection for them.
But there were some mean ones. I used to do practice drills in the garage where the lawyer had been killed, and the high school students would drift over and ask questions or they would ask what I would do it they threw punches at me. I told them to throw them first, and I found that some were very good jabbers and had a great left hooks, and I was hit a lot in the beginning. I wore a mouthpiece, but I often had swollen eyes or nose bleeds. But I endured it with a purpose. I learned how to think and strategize while I was being hit. You learned that being hit is not a major tragedy. You learn to remain calm. A crippling blow wasn’t likely to hurt. It would simply knock you out. One time, one kid brought in his older brother, and he was big. He was a skilled boxer, and he had been hitting me quite a bit, but suddenly, as a ducked a hook, I bent and with my balled right fist, I hit the inside of his left thigh very hard while with my left hand, grabbed the inside of his left ankle and took his feet out from him. He fell heavily and was hurt. There were other moves you could do. You would push on his chest with one hand, and pull at his belt with the other and knock him down. The best move against a boxer is to encircle the arm not doing the jabbing and throw him. You learn by doing.
Boomers also taught me stick fighting. I had a thin 6” stick that you could conceal in your hand and that was used to stab the back of the legs, stab the area just behind the ear, stab the kidneys, the lower back, stab between the neck and the collar bone, stab at his temple, stab the breast bone, etc. Again, you never ever threatened an opponent. No one should even know that you had the stick on you. They would only become aware of it when they were hit with it.
The gang leader named “Skinny Pimp” soon became a problem. I liked to go and talk to the folks in the project. My son was four, and often he went with me. The teenagers in the project were glad to baby sit for my young son. One night, after midnight, my Iranian wife and I came home, we were much too late, and I took the baby sitter back to the project, apologizing for being late. Near her door three black guys were sprawled under the street lights. They did not look friendly. But what struck me most was the terror in the face of the baby sitter. She was a lovely, sensitive and intelligent girl, and she was terrified. I told her not to be afraid, and I held on to her arm, and kept my eyes on the three uglies sprawled there. No matter what their race, gang members are all alike. After she went inside, they looked at me and I looked at them. As I turned my back to head for my flat, I was full of fear, not knowing what do expect. Was I to fight all three? Probably. Would I win? Who knew? I was trained, trained to respond, but I dreaded having to take all three on at once. Boomer had trained me to take on multiple assailants. But fear makes you hesitate, and I was trying to steel myself, when a little stone rolled close by me on the pavement.
My heart stopped in my chest. I was still walking, but my heart had stopped. My mind was racing. Did I call them out? Did I turn and fling myself into battle? If they had hit me, I would have no choice to take them on. Boomer had schooled me to take on multiple opponents. But I walked on, my will clenched like closed eyes. Nothing happened. I went inside the building where my flat was.
But I would have to call out Skinny Pimp. The stone rolling by me gnawed at me; it built up venom and vindictiveness, and my anger was going to have its day. And that day came. I will relate what happened in the next post.