The background buzz told him the phone had been lifted from the cradle.

“Hello. Ronnie Burns, please.”

An awkward silence on the other end of the line spoke to the misgivings Henry had felt as he dialed the lone “Burns, R.” listed in the Cleveland White Pages web site. “My name is Henry Horowitz,” he hastened to explain. “I was in Korea with Ronnie Burns. We were in the same unit, he was my friend…”

The response was abrupt, “You got da wrong number, bro. Nobody here ever been to Koo Ree Ah.” With that, the phone went dead.

Henry tried to picture the gruff-voiced man who answered his call, imagining him holding the receiver at arm’s length, wary of the unidentified white man’s voice. The image was blurred by the cataracts of time. He was too late; sixty years too late.

Henry had last seen Ronnie Burns in September 1953, when the two soldiers were at Fort Dix, New Jersey, waiting to be mustered out of the army after enduring the final two years of the Korean War stand-off, the truce negotiations still in progress when they left for home. A corporal in the 60th Explosives Ordinance Disposal Squad, Burnsie, as he was called, had spent his days tramping the shell-torn countryside hunting for unexploded, still-lethal grenades and mortar shells that he blew up with butter-bar sized sticks of Comp-4 explosive, an accelerant so unstable a half dozen of his sapper comrades were killed or maimed in the previous year while using it. Patriotism had little to do with his reason for enlisting. After graduating from high school his full time occupation was hanging around the street corner, one stumble away from falling into the life he had promised his mother he would avoid. Facing the choice of khaki’s and fatigues or the orange jumpsuit worn by the inmates of the county work farm he showed up at the recruiting office without regard or knowledge of the perils that straddled the 38th parallel.

Private Henry Horowitz was the detachment’s bespectacled clerk typist. While Burns and the squad were in the field he spent his days reading loaners from the base library’s 100 Best Novels list, making it to number 87, The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, before his tour of duty expired. An apathetic draftee with little chance of landing a job from any of the corporations reluctant to hire graduates facing a two year stint in the military, he had exchanged his master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business for a private’s stripe and a monumentally boring desk job that kept him from harm’s way as long as the daily reports he typed made their way past the regiment’s Inspector General’s office without error or comment.

The two conscripts were oddities in a squad of good ole boys with heavily slurred accents who had enlisted in the army for God and country. Burnsie the Negra and Horowitz the Jew boy, as their rowdy bunkmates from the tobacco and cotton farms of the Deep South dubbed them, sought support and sanity each from the other and tolerated their contemptible nicknames with a nod to prudence and survival. Belying their disparate backgrounds, the grandsons of shetl dwellers and sharecroppers had more in common than generally thought. They became close friends, battling boredom as the truce slowly gelled into a permanent standoff. By the time they were eligible for discharge and transferred to Fort Dix for their final days as warriors in Uncle Sam’s brigades they had become inseparable.

It took one night in neighboring Wrightstown, however, to remind the men that the U.S. of A. was more Kansas than Oz. Although too many Negro soldiers had died in Korea to permit the bars and dancehalls lining the entrance to the base to advertise their prejudices publicly, it was clear that Ronnie and Henry were not a welcomed twosome in the predominately all-black or all-white joints that served shots of Lord Calvert with beer chasers from a half hour before reveille until 4am.

A squat, stewpot non-com talking trash from the corner of his mouth, jostled Henry. “This ain’t Korea, why you hangin’ out with that coon?” Henry clenched his fists, anticipating the hate-spewed blood libel bullshit he had dealt with so often, “Jew boy fagot. Nigger loving kike…”

Burnsie saw a similar malevolence in the narrowed eyes of the crackers firing their boom boxes like howitzers, blasting twanging country music to drown out the 140-decibel blues riffs being lobbed in a deadly artillery battle of cultures and contempt. ‘Nigger’ was the least of the slurs hurled his way. If not for the fortunate appearance of a pair of brawny MPs their encounter with the heavy boozing peckerwoods was a sneer away from turning violent.

The following evening, Ronnie offered up a tentative suggestion. “Hey, Henry, watta ya say, shall we hit the post canteen tonight rather than go into town? It’s up to you. I’ll go if you wanna.”

If Ronnie was waiting for an answer that went something like, Bet yer ass we’re going, we got as much right to hang out in those local joints as any goddamn cracker, it was not forthcoming. Henry immediately echoed the idea. “Why put up with shit from a bunch of bigoted assholes?” was his response, the relief in his voice evident.

That night the friends drank insipid 2-point-2 beer at the post canteen and continued their long-running gin game at the sparsely attended USO club tucked behind the post commissary. They continued to trade war stories and punch lines, but both knew something in their relationship was not quite the same. Unable or unwilling to define their discomfort, they simply didn’t talk about it. At their discharge ceremony, they hugged, promised to stay in touch, and vowed they would be friends forever. Sixty years passed before Henry picked up the phone to call his army buddy.

The letter from the local Elks Club had taken Henry by surprise. He guessed they had found his name on an archived list of Korean War veterans and cross-matched it with residents of Chicago. He was invited to take part in a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of “the forgotten conflict,” a description that Henry had done nothing to refute since his discharge (neither his grandchildren nor his former colleagues knew he was a veteran). The observance was scheduled to take place at the fraternal order’s magnificent, domed monument on Cannon Drive, an architectural wonder built in the late twenties to honor the fallen heroes of the War to End All Wars.

Taken aback by the rush of emotions set free by the unexpected invitation, Henry retrieved a dusty box of mementos from the condo’s basement storage area and pored through the black and white photographs from half a lifetime earlier. On the back of the snapshot of him and Ronnie holding their discharge papers was a scrawled caption, Burnsie the Negra and Henry the Jew boy.

When compared to most of his acquaintances and associates, Henry was well in front when tallying his relationships with people of color. During his bachelor days in there were forays deep into the pre-dawn hours with the tawny-skinned actress who lived down the hall, hopping a taxi to East 64th and Cottage Grove to hear Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing Club, the smoky room comfortably colorblind, dozens of interracial couples grooving on the jazz. He had enrolled his kids in a multi-racial magnet school and taken on the formidable task of restructuring the city’s lone minority-owned ice cream company working with a bare bones staff in a shabby office across the street from a dilapidated crack house. Awarded a plaque at the company’s annual dinner For Meritorious and Outstanding Service to the African-American community, Henry joked he “felt like a scoop of vanilla in a tub of chocolate.”

The impressive list of liberal credentials, however, did nothing to ease the discomfort he experienced as he stared at the faded photograph. A wave of guilt swept over him. Why hadn’t he kept in touch with his friend? It was a question that forced its way into his consciousness with every handshake from a congenial black colleague and every inspiring speech from the former community worker from Chicago who had accomplished the impossible. And it remained unanswered.

The invitation from the Elks stayed on Henry’s desk for several days before he responded. He decided he would not attend. The waist size on his old uniform had not changed, but something else did not fit right. On July 27, the anniversary of the 1953 truce, Harold followed the Mapquest directions to the south side’s Kennedy Park and stood quietly in front of the city’s sole monument to the Korean War, dedicated in 1988, thirty-five years after the truce was signed and shockingly, the country’s first memorial to those who served and died in the war against the red menace. He was the site’s only visitor. Staring in solitude at the modest granite headstone, he drifted back in time to the barren outpost of Panmunjom where life was stripped to its essentials: survive as best as one could and do not piss into the wind. It was easy to be Ronnie’s friend when they were in Korea. They were in the shit together, drawn even tighter when the Bubbas stumbled in from a night of booze and paid sex, sucking fumes from a dope bowl that could turn a Southern Baptist into a White Knight of the Confederacy faster than shit off a shovel.

It was different stateside. Back home, if Henry dressed right and said the right things he could pass through the gate of the white picket fence on Main Street, America. That was not the case for Ronnie Burns. His road led to a dead end. When he and Henry were mustered out of the army, only twenty percent of America’s Negro population was registered to vote and it had been eighty-two years since civil rights legislation had been passed. Henry felt deeply for his disadvantaged friend. But back in the states, he and Ronnie lived in dissimilar ecosystems. The races mixed at their peril.

Yes, he was performing good deeds; making it a point to live in an integrated condominium with a mail list that read like a United Nations directory, but at heart, his commitment came with the undermining subtext, Hey, look at me. Aren’t I a tolerant fellow? Some of my best friends are black, in case you didn’t know. Perhaps he was being too harsh on himself. But standing in front of the neglected monument in a corner of the weed-strewn park, Henry could not let himself off the hook. He wished he had been able to talk with Ronnie. There was so much he wanted to say to his friend.

Ronnie recognized the voice instantly. It was as if time had suddenly reeled backwards to the tremulous goodbye at the Fort Dix bus station. Why hadn’t he responded the way his thumping heart had cried out? Henry, how great to hear from you! It’s been way too long, my friend. I missed you! Instead, he had held the receiver in his hand as if it were an itinerant laborer’s grub hoe. He couldn’t believe the sound of his own voice, talking ghetto street jive that made him sound like some illiterate gangsta punk: Yo, you got da wrong number, bro. What the hell was that all about? What had kept him from acknowledging his friend’s call?

Ronnie felt the stares drilling into the back of his head as he and Henry walked past the neon lit joints lining both sides of Wrightstown’s Main Street, the painted center line of the blacktop road a de facto Mason-Dixon Line crossed only by naïve recruits unaware that desegregation ended at the main gate of the sprawling army post. Would it be any different if they met in Chicago, perhaps with their wives and kids in tow, the ebonies and the ivories seated in some restaurant, conversing, laughing, and passing the bread basket without a tsk tsk or uplifted eyebrow? Had the world really changed?

When Ronnie arrived home in the fall of 1953, his view of the world beyond the Cuyahoga River had not expanded despite his tour in Korea and brief stay at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he made the rite of passage from disinclined draftee to reluctant soldier. He had learned quickly that the seven Army core values – loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage – was bullshit stuffed in an Eisenhower jacket. Inside the base with a couple of stripes on your arm, you might be giving a white boy an order, but outside the gate, you were back on the takin’ side, and don’t you forget it. Still, when Ronnie arrived home Cleveland offered a glimmer of the good life for its Negro residents. The Cleveland Browns ruled professional football, the population had grown to just under a million, and the city was advertising itself as “the best location in the nation.” Ronnie enrolled in the Academy of Court Reporting & Technology but wasn’t much good at it, and after several months of growing a substantial butt, he decided to sit on it behind the wheel of a Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority bus. He stayed out of trouble, married his high school girlfriend, had two daughters, and when the city’s white population took flight, he took advantage of the GI Bill and got an FHA mortgage for a tidy house in the Collinwood neighborhood down the block from the former home of the famous, Grammy award-winning accordion player Frankie Yankovic. In all that time, he couldn’t recall a single interaction with a white person other than small talk while making change for passengers boarding his bus as it circled the downtown business area at the end of his run. Ronnie’s life was detached but comfortable, until six nights of hell in July 1966 wrenched him abruptly from his complacency.

The race riots that erupted in Cleveland’s predominately black Hough neighborhood were a reflection of the conditions in big cities all across America: lost jobs; shrinking tax bases; unmet social needs; Police departments resistant to integration – only 165 of Cleveland’s 2,200 police officers were black. The result was a reeking potion of poverty, unemployment, and crime, a mix more volatile than the explosives Ronnie once detonated. And the black folks were not having it. Whitey was going to bleed.

For Ronnie, the concept of civil rights for blacks equal to those for whites was an idealist’s dream. Now the dream was echoing across America. Black Power was proving to be more than rhetoric from the pulpit. King’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the forced integration of schools were the tectonic plates of a shifting American landscape. Ronnie Burns couldn’t anticipate the personal impact of the 1968 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting interracial marriage is unconstitutional until his oldest daughter married a fair-haired mathematics teacher who was both color-blind and very much in love.

The years passed. Oil and waste on the surface set the Cuyahoga River on fire. Cleveland was dubbed the “mistake on the lake.” A succession of mayors alternately blundered and depleted the city’s resources. The chronicle of Ronnie Burns – he hadn’t been called “Burnsie” from the day he and Henry Horowitz had exchanged their last goodbyes – ebbed and flowed with the city’s fortunes. After twenty-five years driving a city bus, Ronnie took his pension, a vacation lasting all of two weeks and a part-time job driving a school bus for the Cleveland Municipal School District.

With his kids grown and out of the house, Ronnie and his wife had taken the trips they talked about for years. Wherever they traveled, they stayed at the Holiday Inn, feeling that African-Americans were welcomed there. Not infrequently, in the lobby or seated at the continental breakfast, white guests acknowledged them with a friendly hello, or “lovely day, isn’t it” and on one occasion, a kindly older man stepped aside to let his wife exit the elevator ahead of him. But for the most part, they stayed by themselves, careful to appear congenial, careful to avoid doing anything that might get them in any kind of trouble. They went to New York but scurried back one day earlier, feeling uncomfortable in the crush of people. They liked Washington, DC, where Ronnie spent half a day at the Korean War Memorial, the granite statues depicting a squad of soldiers on patrol, the figures so lifelike that Ronnie was overrun with memories he had kept buried for decades. Henry was very much on his mind. Serving in Korea, they were more than friends, more like brothers, really, each carrying one half of the pup tent they would button together and share, embraced in sleep like a spooning couple to keep out the bitter cold. We are in the shit together, brother, Burnsie the Negra and Henry the Jew boy. And then they were back home, and it was Ronnie Burns and Henry Horowitz, on opposite sides of the road. He had never admitted to anyone – perhaps not to himself most tellingly – how much it hurt.

Perhaps that’s why he answered the phone the way he did. The world had changed. Samsung and Hyundai had added their brand names to the list of global monoliths. But he was the same man, softened by time to an extent, but wary of the pain… so very tired of the pain. There was too much he could not say to his friend.