Arts & Culture
Book Excerpt—Johnny Cash: The Life
Published: October 23, 2013
The Current is pleased to present this exclusive excerpt from Robert Hilburn’s biography Johnny Cash: The Life, which will be released Tuesday, October 29. See here for an interview with Hilburn, longtime chief music critic for the Los Angeles Times as well as the only music journalist present at Cash’s iconic 1968 Folsom Prison concert.
In 1950, J.R. Cash enlisted in the Air Force just six weeks after graduating high school in his hometown of Dyess, Ark. Previously, Cash had left home only once before, for a disastrous stint working at an auto factory in Michigan. He headed to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Cash did well there, later reporting to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., and returning to San Antonio by way of Brooks Air Force Base for more training. His time in San Antonio, when he was just 19, helped him land his first wife and re-form his identity as “John,” and later “Johnny” Cash.
As J.R. said good-bye to his family at the station in Memphis and boarded the train for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, the initial excitement of joining the service quickly gave way to nervousness. He found himself staring out the window, avoiding conversation with the other enlistees, some of whom seemed to relish the adventures ahead. One of his worries when he’d signed up had been getting sent into battle in Korea. He was now fretting over another kind of survival.
As with the trip to Michigan, he soon began asking himself if he hadn’t made a mistake. If anything, the failure of the Pontiac experience made him even more apprehensive. Would this trip, too, end in disaster? Was he smart enough to compete with the boys from the big city? Would the recruits from the North treat him with contempt like the doctor in Pontiac?
What about his spiritual values? He wasn’t used to being around alcohol, and he had never had a serious relationship with a girl. Would he be able to stay on the right path, or would he let Jack and his mother down? Could he actually flunk out? Would the Air Force send him home if he didn’t measure up?
The thought of that possible humiliation numbed him. He couldn’t shake his fear of what lay ahead. J.R. finally just laid his head against the seat and hoped, as he often did in moments of stress, to find that comfort in the escape of sleep.
John R. Cash, as he was now starting to think of himself, was one of thousands of men rushed through the revolving door of basic training at Lackland in the late summer of 1950, the normal thirteen-week training schedule cut to seven as the country mobilized for war in Korea. For someone whose high school class had numbered just twenty-two, the size of the operation was overwhelming.