"A Kagnew Two-Man Reunion" by John Sims

Before leaving for Nashville and the 1st Annual 1964-5 Kagnew Alumni Reunion scheduled for March 28-31st, I researched the entertainment possibilities of that town. Among the websites I found was one for a girl singer, Tori something. For some reason I read her bio and resume while really concentrating on the night clubs, etc. Then I sent one last e-mail to Len Thomas, the other half of the scheduled/expected reunion attendees, telling him to meet me at the Best Western on Music Row around 3:00 pm the following day. The main purpose of our meeting was to reminisce and enjoy the fellowship of an old acquaintance but in our final planning we also decided to attempt to drink all the beer in Nashville too!!

We met as planned and did a lot of back-slapping and hee-hawing about each other looks. Len still looked like Len but I, after gaining quite a few pounds and growing a near white beard for the occasion looked more like an overweight Robert E. Lee than my former self. Over a few beers in the motel lounge we became somewhat reacquainted and met each other's mate as a girl singer began to set up and play near the bar as her mother doted over her. A few songs into her first set we all began to talk with her and make request. It almost seemed that the more we drank the better she sounded. Coming back from my first trip to the head I glanced at the flyer on the door and found the singer's name to be Tori something. Upon returning to the table I began to recite facts about Tori's childhood and life to the amazement of her and her mother. After a few minutes of enjoying the advantage I held I admitted where I had gotten the information and we all had a few laughs over the first major coincidence of the day. (I think that was the first time anyone had seen her website). As the motel lounge seemed to be getting low on beer and we had all developed an appetite we decided to call a cab and go downtown to eat. I remembered a nice restaurant across the street from the Wild Horse Saloon (don't you love that name?) so we directed the former POW with a bad attitude cab-driver that-a-way.

After a few cold ones and a good supper we were off to the beer joints on Broadway--- Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Legends, The Stage, etc. Len, being a pretty durn good musician after about sixty years of pickin' and singin' including being a member of a famous Kagnew club band in '64 & '65, was on the stage in short order and I tried to get proof for him in the form or pictures. As the bartender in one bar began to get that worried look on his face as if he was concerned about his beer supply, we would slide out the back door, through the alley, and into the next bar. Again the strange phenomenon we witnessed before began to happen-- The bands seemed to get better and better as the night continued and by early AM it was almost impossible to restrain oneself from dancing on the furniture. At the next bar the band was truly outstanding and they brought up a young trooper from the audience to play his harmonica. He was just assigned to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell and he put on an exhibition of harmonica playing that was inspiring! Next a rendition of "Dueling Banjos" between he and the fiddle player nearabout(a word Len learned in Nashville) brought down the house. After leaving Asmara I was rooked into serving a short stint with the 101st in VietNam so naturally we had to buy the young trooper a couple shots of tequila. (Len was wearing his U.S. Army cap that night {the lifer} because there was a light rain falling. Surprisingly there were quite a few people who come up and thanked him for his military service---Things have changed recently)

A little later reality began to set in as we realized that although we had made a mighty effort we would not be able to drink all the beer in Nashville the first night..... and about that time came the second weird coincidence of the night. Just like in Asmara and catching a gerry-cart, we all bailed out and loaded up into a mini-van for the trip back to the motel. In talking to the driver I immediately deduced that he "ain't from around here". His name was Jacfor and when I ask him if he was from Eritrea he started stuttering and almost wrecked. "How did you know?" I told him I knew a black Caucasian when I saw one and that Len and I had grown up in Asmara. He was born near the Somalia border but had left because of the war and was actually raised in Italy.

John Sims

We were all almost giddy (and drunk) as we got back to the motel. We told Jacfor all about Asmara and Massawa. He got a little emotional as we told him of our love for Eritrea. (We might have spread that part on a little thick but it was effective) Len taught him a few phrases in his native tongue that he was too young to learn in his childhood there. At one time we talked of going back to town and get a couple of those carriage ride buggies and have a gerry-cart race. But after a half hour of talk and pictures we exchanged phone numbers and Jacfor told us the best place in Washington D.C. to get good zigny. He said there was quite a large Eritrean community in Nashville and we said goodbye there were a few high-fives and hugs and our new friend drove off.

We were flabbergasted...... What were the odds? Two Eritrean vets getting into a cab in Nashville thirty seven years after our African adventure and come face to face with an Eritrean! And this was after the weird experience with Tori earlier and the near success of accomplishing our beer-drinking goal. (Yeah, we came that close). Len had remarked many times that night how perfect everything had been, from the trip down, to the food,the music to, well, everything. (We talked about going to a casino).

But instead we sent the wives to bed and went into the lounge for a beer. Things were about to wind down there except for a couple of pickers at the bar ad-libbing. That's all it took for Len to head to the room and get his guitar and I tapped my foot for a couple of hours as they played. I thought, "Man, if I could make a livin' at this I might do it all the time". As the bartender (who looked like the dark haired girl in "Pulp Fiction" insisted everyone leave, we remembered our plans for tomorrow and decided to get a couple of hours sleep. Whew!!!! What a day!

That old age thing was working the next morning and Len and I woke up relatively early ((9:00AM) and Len was Looking for GRITS! We figured any street would lead to a good breakfast but after five miles we U-turned and asked. We ate, shook off the previous night, and like good troopers took our wives to the second largest mall in America. That afternoon it was a tour of the old Grand Ole Opry house, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and Earnest Tubb's Record Shop between stops in the Broadway bars. (The bands start at 10:00 Am and play four hour sets for tips only.) As it turned out there were quite a few Eritreans there. We met a parking lot attendant from Karen who also was astounded as we nailed him as to his origin. We talked with him about the Karen R & R center and showed him pictures of everyone on the forts' flagpole mount. Aren't humans funny? In "65 did anyone remotely think they'd fondly reminisce of those times? That night was similar to the previous one except we didn't argue when it was time for last call. We were some tired puppies.

Saturday was the time we set aside for pictures and memories. The motel lounge was closed and they let us use it for show and tell. Of course since there was only two of us we had trouble identifying everyone in the pictures but were able to clear up some of the mysteries and vacant spaces in our memories. We had pictures of our friend John Nelson who tragically died two weeks before he, Robert Herrick, and I were supposed leave on the same flight. I wish the world today knew what a great guy he was.

Len and I were not close friends, more like casual acquaintances, at Kagnew, but we were amazed by the fact we both had pictures of the same events, parties, etc. A year and a half of e-mailing each other after contact through Rick Fortney's web-site, we felt comfortable enough to meet as virtual strangers and have a ball together. During the sober moments which brought a true appreciation of the amazing musical talent in this town, Len was heard to say, "How do they do that?" and "I'm going to burn my guitars." (Although he went home and bought himself a new Martin)

The last few hours together were a little sad. We had quickly developed the kinship I think we were both looking for on that trip. After thirty seven years with virtually no contact with Kagnew alumni, I was blessed with a new best friend who understood some parts of my life that no one else could. We said our goodbyes around 3:00 AM Sunday morning because we didn't want to do it the next morning. My wife and I drove back to Birmingham about 9:00 AM listening to a cd of Len's band he had given me. Those were a great three days!

Next Spring you guys get ready to join us.... For I feel if we're still kickin'...... Its gonna happen again.

John Sims

P.S. Let's all show our appreciation to Rick Fortney for the service he's doing for us all.


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 2002 All Rights Reserved