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February 21, 2006

Message to the People: God bless Black Jack — and damn the war

Like many people who grew up in mega-city ghettoes, I have a very small circle of friends. As my oldest friend Kerry Norwood says, “Choosing a bad friend in our neighborhood could get you killed.” Very true. Thankfully, I met a good friend in 1992 when I moved to Lexington from Atlanta — Keith Jackson (who I lovingly call “Jack”), a kindred spirit who was also reared in hard-scrabble housing projects.

Jack is a few years older than me and has always been somewhat of a big brother. When I was in my wild 20s, he always served as a rock — keeping me out of fistfights (or helping when they couldn’t be avoided); helping me through family and relationship problems; educating me on deeper meanings of brotherhood in our fraternity; sitting there smiling as I defended my dissertation; or just letting me shed a few tears in the safety of his presence.

He’s taught me so much. From him I’ve learned more about balance, self-control, manhood, selflessness and unconditional love than I have from any other individual. Some years ago on one of our jaunts to Vegas, Jack even taught me to play blackjack, which quickly became my favorite game of chance (come to think of it, given my penchant for aggressive, high-risk behavior, maybe teaching me blackjack wasn’t such a good idea). Because of his prowess at the game, I gave him the nickname “Black Jack.”

People who know me are shocked when they see us interact. Somewhere along the line I developed the reputation of being a rather hard-nosed fellow who is willing to follow very few people. For the life of me, I can’t imagine where that perception comes from. Either way, I often defer to Jack. With him, I can relax. He is one of only a few people in the world who doesn’t want anything from me. Most people only care about you as long as you can fill some void in their world and make their lives a little easier. Jack’s different. When he calls, the conversation almost always starts off the same way, “What’s up, Jones? Just calling to check on you — making sure you’re all right.”

When I recently found out my grandmother (who raised me) has a rare form of cancer, Black Jack’s phone number was one of the first I dialed. He calmly said to me, “Go ahead — let that pain out, Jones.” He then sat quietly while I cried longer than I can remember. He then comforted, “It’s gon’ be all right, bro — you ain’t alone in this.” As he always does, he made me get the emotion out, calmed me down and checked on me the next day. It must be old hat for him by now — looking out for his wayward, crazy little brother. Jack is used to being the first one I reach out to when I’m in trouble. He’s taken care of me for almost a decade and a half.

Of course, taking care of people is what good old Black Jack does. He doesn’t just look out for his wife, two young daughters and troublesome friends like me. Many people don’t know this side of him, but he’s also one of only a handful of black officers in Lexington’s Fire Department, a trained paramedic and a major in the U.S. Army Reserve. Unlike most of us, he literally spends his life saving lives. He never brags about it. In fact, he downplays the importance of what he does. It’s OK that he’s so quiet though, because his goodness is so damned loud.

In March, Black Jack has to leave me, his family and loved ones to go to Iraq on deployment. He’s being dropped in one of the country’s hotbeds, Mosul, for a solid year. Even though he doesn’t agree with the war in Iraq, he’s never complained about having to go. Always an avid reader, lately he’s devoured even more books on leadership, war and politics. When we talked about his readings, the war and his preparation, he coolly said, “I’m good now bro, but I’ve got to be better. I have to do everything and anything I can to keep my soldiers alive.” Selfless to a fault. Best man I know.

I’ve always been against this so-called War on Terror. I’m even more adamant in my opposition now that it threatens my friend’s life. Goddamn this war and bless Black Jack.

Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is associate professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at U of L. His LEO
column appears in the last issue of each month.