Memorial Day Memoir: Sgt. George Artis Boomer
Close Combat (2)
By Richard Sale
My wife and I came back from Georgetown late one night. It was after one, it was a sweltering, humid July evening without a breath of air. The project crowd had left their sweltering, airless homes and had spilled out into the streets. It was clear a lot of people there had been drinking. Crowds breed fear, but as I scanned this one, my eyes suddenly spotted Skinny Pimp, the gang leader. Sgt. Boomer and his buddy, Harry, had once been attacked in their house in Southwest D.C. by a gang. The gang was trying to get in the front, when Harry and Boomer threw smoke bombs out the front door, then, carrying their M-16s, they came out the back. The gang fled.
The sight of Skinny Pimp put me into a grim, furious, implacable rage. Yes, I had been at a party and had been drinking, but the insult of the little stone rolling by me on the pavement still irked me, and if I wanted to confront Skinny Pimp and the time was now.
I first took steps to get rid of any anger. Anger is the breeding ground of mistakes. Up in my apartment, I put on jeans and a jean jacket. I had a small, short club which I put into the belt of the jeans in case Pimp had a knife. I had no mouthpiece. I kissed my Iranian wife goodbye and went out. Some of the party goers saw me coming and were curious. When I get truly infuriated, I get calm, and my lips go white. I was later told that my lips were white. I was six two and so was Pimp. He was lean, wiry, wore cool clothes, black leather jackets, boots, the dark shades, etc. I told him in front of his own people that he had terrorized the little girl, our baby sitter, and I told him I was doing to send him to the hospital. It was not rhetoric. I was going to break his left ribs, rip his nose from his face, or break his collar bones. There was a tactic that I had trained for in which you sunk both stiff fingers into the hollows around the collar bones and simply sank your weight and yanked them out. I certainly was going to pivot and drive an elbow into his face. My mind was rapidly turning over tactics.
I went back home. I had the shakes for two hours and was madly talkative, unable to calm down.
Boomer and I trained together the next day, and he told me what was going to happen with Skinny. His real name was Alphonse, and Boomer said that by calling him out on his own turf, I had “spiritually destroyed him.” Since, as Skinny had complained, “You called out my name in front of everybody,” the gang leader would probably take a shot at me, probably with a long rifle from a parked car and try and kill me. Or he would disappear for six to eight weeks. It would be one or the other. Time would tell. I went walking through the project that night. I made myself visible. Nothing happened. I went and spent a month in London.
My wife and four year old son were still in London when I returned. One afternoon I went and saw a Kung Fu movie. It was dreadful. What it enacted had no basis in reality. After the movie, I went into the nearby Safeway to shop for groceries, and I was standing in the checkout line when, right behind me, stood Skinny Pimp and a friend. Our eyes met. I was alert, but not alarmed. Skinny Pimp was the first to speak. “How are you, Mr. Sale,” Alphonse said. So we talked, and I addressed him by his last name, just as he was addressing me.
So that was the end of that.
I finally did have my great bar fight. It was, thankfully, the only one I ever had.
It occurred three years later. I was working to get jobs for handicapped Vietnam veterans, and I went to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I gave a speech, talked to civic leaders, talked a lot to the veteran groups and veterans themselves. I had a great time. They gave me a lot of ideas. One of them told me to try and stop by The Dew Drop In, a local bar that was known as pretty colorful. He told me to watch myself. So, dressed up in my jeans and Levi jacket, I walked down to it about eight o’clock. I had no stick with me. Well, it was an interesting place. People there were already pretty drunk, and they would get a lot drunker before the night was over. But it was clearly a dangerous place. I went over to get a song from the Juke Box, and saw three .38 bullet holes on the wall behind the machine. Those shots had been fired the night before, the bartender told me.
Berkley Springs was part of a heavy truck route that wandered down all the way into North Carolina, and a pretty, overweight girl about nineteen was there was getting herself drunk, because her boyfriend was driving to Raleigh, and she hadn’t heard from him in hours, and the night outside was getting increasingly foggy. She kept playing that Dolly Parton song, “I Will Always Love You,” over and over. I gave her what sympathy I could, but her attentions were making me the center of attention, and that was the last thing I wanted.
West Virginia makes its citizens drink 3.2 beer, and you can have a lot of those without getting silly. I spent a lot of time interviewing the bartender who told me to steer clear of one man, a short burly guy strutting around, who was a known street fighter, and a very dirty street fighter. I said I had told him about my work with the veterans, and said the last thing I wanted was trouble of any kind.
After two hours or so, I was sitting at the bar still, talking to the bartender or my neighbors when it happened. One minute I was trading remarks, and the next, I felt my whole body lifted from the bar stool and had the fearful sensation of being carried aloft. I froze with fear. My assailant finally put me down on the floor, but I realized he had me in a full nelson, using his strength and weight to bend my head towards my knees. Well, I was trained for this. You trained to counter this by letting your body weight sank as low as it could go, and then you would use your leg strength to drive up against the grip of the full nelson. I did that. I did it with all my might. Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing – there was a spike in my anxiety. He was shaking me like a rag. My head was still bent forward, and I could not raise high enough to attack his eyes. But then I had a thought. Another counter was to get a leg behind his legs, upsetting his balance and strength. When I tried this, I failed but the attempt made him stumble. I missed, but then I got my right leg behind his two legs, and I bent and grabbed his pants by the knees and jerked upwards. He was suddenly airborne, and I was pushing backwards with my feet as hard as I could. He went staggering back until he hit a wall and grunted. I yanked my skull backwards into his face, broke free, and hit him in the temple and then kicked one shin very hard. He tried to tie me up with punches, but I avoided them and hit him with a very hard palm jab. He blinked, disoriented. By now the place was still with everyone watching, I was told later. My assailant advanced towards me, and I passed my hands before his eyes, distracting him, and hit his shin with a very hard kick. He winced and stumbled. We finally had eye contact. “Have you had enough, or do you want to go on?” I said. He nodded. He had had enough.
I went back to my seat, extremely shaken, and he came up. He wanted to buy me a beer, and someone made place for him at the bar. “Where did you learn to move like that?” he asked. We talked easily for a while. At one point, quite mystified, I asked him, “Why did you attack me?” He looked shifty. “I didn’t like the look you gave me as I was coming in.” I was dumbfounded. I replied, “I didn’t see you come in.” Perhaps the insult lay in not noticing. But, at some point, getting drunk, he became ugly. He muttered, “I still think I could have won.” Now, his face was only six inches from my face. All I had to do was lift up my left arm, the palm of my hand facing down, and drive an elbow into his face with full force. I was really tempted to do this. But it would have ruined his face, I was in a strange town, I didn’t know his network of friends and hadn’t mapped the dangers yet. I said, “Okay. Let me get this straight. You want to go back out there? Is that what you’re saying?” No, that’s not what he was saying, and we went back to drinking beers together.
Of course, Boomer was furious with me afterwards for not ruining the man’s face and doing him in. An assault on you was a threat to your life, he said, and you had to treat it as an attempt to murder you. You don’t let people like that walk away. He was truly pissed. But I still think I did the right thing. The guy was basically defenseless.
Years had passed before I saw Boomer again. I had moved to Hawaii for six years, I had divorced the Iranian, and my new wife worked for GTE in Washington. When I had first trained with George, he had worked as a security guard at the National Gallery. One night there was a party at the National Gallery. Caspar Weinberger, then the Secretary of Defense, and I were talking -- we were friends, and my new wife Carol, was off talking somewhere, when, far across on the floor, I saw a security guard going past. I immediately recognized the walk. “Boomer!” I yelled. The man stopped, but he didn’t turn. He didn’t look up. Instead, crossing one foot nimbly behind the other, he crossed the floor at amazing speed, the tactic aimed at putting you in range of a low side kick aimed at your ankles.
But when the figure reached me, he simply stood up, and smiled, and I smiled back, and then I hugged him and he hugged me. My wife Carol, who embodies everything good that I had ever wanted from life, had heard me yelling, and she thought that one of the security guards had insulted me, and I had called him out. Carol had heard of Boomer, but my suspicious were that my stories were seen by her as sheer myths. Boomer, it turned out, quickly respected and felt affection for my new wife. He would later say that “the new wife and much better than the old one.” Carol and George talked. Yes, Richard’s stories were true. Boomer said to my wife in an aside that I was the best student he ever had. Maybe it was true. He was not a man to lie.
But Boomer is a man I will never forget. He never picked a fight, and for years on end, he had raised and defended a family in a poor, crime-ridden area while holding a steady job. All that time, he worked incessantly to improve his art. He studied close combat the way you and I would study Hemingway’s prose. When I saw him after a period of almost fifteen years, he had gained no weight. He had a forearm and a hand that were as hard as polished wood. His grip was like a pair of pliers still. “I help teach the young ones,” he said, “but I can keep them in line if I have to.”
I tried to call him recently, but he had changed his number. I am still trying to reach him. We were close enough to defend each other and even die for each other, if the occasion demanded it. That is true friendship, and you don’t forget that kind of tie and obligation.