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James Costa: Friend opened my eyes to a whole new world

Occasionally someone special comes into our lives and alters it forever. For me, that someone was Joe Klein, a high-spirited buck sergeant I met while stationed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Prior to enlisting in 1951, I’d been expelled from school, run the streets and held a number of menial jobs. So I said to my friend, “Harv, let’s join up. The service can’t be worse than this.” How wrong I was! On my first day in, we were threatened, screamed at and intimidated. It was a bitter awakening. Undisciplined and hostile, I felt certain I would never last. I almost didn’t.

During my first two years I was demoted and punished for going AWOL a couple of times and fighting. Within that time, I was assigned a job I was insufficiently trained for, which kept me busy from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week. My incompetence eventually brought me before our company commander, who had me hitting a brace every morning while he reamed me royally.

One day, beyond frustration or caring, I turned and strode out. Enraged, he ordered the first sergeant to jail me. The sergeant replied they had no one else who could do the job. The commander then cried, “Break him!” But I was already a private. His only recourse was to throw me out of my room in an empty barracks into the open barracks itself. I was ready to go AWOL again, when our unit was unexpectedly disbanded and I was transferred to one preparing to ship out overseas.

That’s when I met Joe, a 6-foot-2 redhead whose irrepressible joie de vivre was a stark contrast to my melancholy self. A talented artist, he was inquisitive, charismatic and likable, and we became unlikely friends. One day while trudging together across a muddy field to the mess hall, I asked about a plane flying overhead. He identified it, then rattled off a list of facts about aircraft and their features. About a week later he asked me to repeat what he had told me, and I did. Much impressed, he announced he was appointing himself my teacher.

Joe began by dragging me to the base library, an unfamiliar place to me, since the only two books I’d read throughout my teenage years were “The Amboy Dukes” and “Devil’s Island.” He decided that we would each pick a book, read it, copy the unfamiliar words, look them up and memorize the definitions. We would then exchange books and vocabulary lists, and repeat the process, ad infinitum. The first book I had randomly chosen was (ironically) Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.” Its effect on my mind and emotions was profound. A fascinating, new world was beginning to unfold before these formerly blind eyes.

Bursting with ideas, theories and enthusiasm, Joe expounded on everything – politics, science, history, culture. He fired questions at me, heard my answers and challenged my reasoning. His favorite word was a command: “Think!” And I’ve never forgotten his exhortation: “Let’s not argue to be right; let’s argue to find the truth.”

Ultimately I earned my GED and sergeant stripes. Several years after my discharge I met my wife, Jeannette, whose calming influence and encouragement led me back to school. I am eternally indebted to Joe, my brilliant friend and mentor. I am grateful for his confidence in me, his inspiring guidance and especially for changing the direction of my life.