Moore is in a plane in the state of Georgia, being trained by a group of instructors called Black Hats. He has 50 pounds of equipment strapped to him, and is about to jump out of the plane; he is “about to become a paratrooper.” It has been just over a year since Moore decided to join the Army after high school. Although he had continued to be aggressively recruited by colleges for basketball, he soon began to realize that there was a stark difference in talent between himself and the guys who had a chance of going professional.
When he was younger, Moore fantasized about the glamour and glory of playing basketball professionally. However, thanks to his own pragmatic perspective (and the advice of Uncle Howard), he was able to realistically assess the limits of his talent and reorient his goals. Yet while perhaps not as glitzy as the NBA, training as a paratrooper is hardly an unimpressive or unexciting vocation.
At the same time, Moore has grown to enjoy academic life and is now an enthusiastic reader. He reads Colin Powell’s autobiography, in which Powell describes the Army as “living the democratic ideal ahead of the rest of America.” This argument is a stark contrast to the view contained within other major texts of the black autobiographical canon, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X. However, Moore is drawn to Powell’s message. Rather than the revolution that Malcolm X describes, Moore simply wants “a fair shot,” a chance to develop himself and find a sense of purpose in life. One of his high school teachers, Lieutenant Colonel Murnane, has inspired him to dedicate his life to public service. Meanwhile, the commandant of cadets, Colonel Billy Murphy, teaches Moore to make his time on earth “matter.” In the past, Moore witnessed the knowledge of life’s “transience” causing kids in the Bronx to act with recklessness and indifference; however, this same knowledge now makes Moore see life as “precious.”
Moore is sympathetic to the anger and apathy expressed by Malcolm X and the kids in the Bronx who feel marginalized and forgotten by American society at large. However, due to his time at Valley Forge, Moore no longer feels that sense of alienation himself. He has found a sense of purpose, community, and direction, which in turn creates in him a desire to serve a greater good. This change of heart suggests that, in order for young people to develop constructive ambitions, they must not only have opportunities and resources but feel like valued members of a broader community. If Moore had not been sent to military school, would he have found this sense of purpose, or would he have ended up listless and destructive?
Moore decides to attend the Valley Forge junior college, receive his associate’s degree, and become a second lieutenant in the Army. Back in the plane, he looks around at the other paratrooper trainees around him. For some, it is their first time in a plane, as well as their first time jumping out of one. Moore has recently been selected as the regimental commander for the 70th Corps of Cadets, the highest-ranking position in a group of 700. He is now responsible for the safety, well-being, and efficacy of the whole corps. He is only 18, one of the youngest officers in the entire American military. The Black Hats yell at him to prepare, and Moore asks God to protect him and the others in the plane. Moore flings himself into the air, flailing in the long three seconds before his parachute opens. Suddenly, he is lifted up by his perfectly functional, symmetrical parachute, and is overwhelmed by feelings of peace and gratitude.
Despite Moore’s rigorous training, he knows that there is always a chance that something could go wrong. No matter how prepared he is, he relies on faith in order to have a final level of assurance that everything will be ok. This passage highlights a shift in Moore’s attitude to authority. When he was younger, authority figures such as teachers and the police were more of an oppressive presence than a protective or encouraging one. During his time at Valley Forge, however, Moore has begun to see authority in a different light. He now places complete trust in the hierarchical structure of the military, as well as the greater authority of God.
Cheryl, the mother of Wes’s third and fourth children, is lying on the couch in a heroin-induced stupor. Horrified, Wes splashes a glass of water over her face. Soon after having two children with Alicia, Wes had another two with Cheryl. Wes furiously asks Cheryl where she got the drugs, thinking of the fact that she and her friends have been stealing from him. Until this point, his love for her and their kids have kept him in a state of denial about her addiction. Wes has grown tired of witnessing the devastating impact of constant violence, incarceration, and addiction on his community. He thinks of his friend Levy, who managed to get out of the drug game and live “straight.” At first Wes thought Levy was crazy, but now he feels that Levy made the right decision.
This passage certainly supports Wes’s point that we eventually “lose control” over our own fates. While Wes originally chose to get involved in the drug game, he is feeling increasingly disillusioned and trapped by it. Meanwhile, addiction is perhaps the best example of losing control over your life. While using a drug like heroin is (usually) voluntary the first few times a person does it, after that point the physical effects of addiction are so strong that the addict all but completely loses their ability to control their use of the drug.
Wes arrives at Levy’s house and tells him he wants to get out of the game. Levy advises him that it won’t be easy, but Wes assures him that he is “ready to try something. Anything.” Levy tells him about Job Corps, which is helping Levy get his GED and train as a boiler repairman, but Wes is hesitant. His aunt started Job Corps but quit because it reminded her too much of prison. Meanwhile, Wes wonders how he will be able to support Mary, Alicia, Cheryl, and his four kids on the minuscule salary from Job Corps. Wes looks at his most recent tattoo, a black devil that symbolizes his conviction that he and his community have been abandoned by God.
To some extent, Wes has undergone a major shift in maturity and responsibility since the previous chapter. While before he acted in a short-tempered, reckless, and self-interested way, he now prioritizes the needs of his family and doesn’t wish to add to the destruction caused by drugs. However, Wes is also (rightfully) disillusioned with the world around him. Without optimism and faith, is it possible for Wes to change his life in a positive way?
Wes eventually decides to go the Job Corps interview, and soon afterward he packs his bag and joins Levy on the bus to the Woodland Job Corps Center. At the campus, Wes smiles as he notices there is a football field. Walking to his assigned room, Wes sees “manicured lawns,” a beach volleyball court, a basketball court, and a wooden gazebo. Wes is encouraged; this is what he imagines a college campus looks like, although he has never seen one personally. When training starts, Wes excels academically; he receives his GED within one month and is soon reading at the level of a college sophomore. Wes frames his GED certificate to display back home in Baltimore. Other Job Corps participants turn to him for help—Wes has become “a leader.”
For Wes, it is less the discipline of the Job Corps campus than the support, resources, and sense of community that allow him to flourish. He is clearly naturally gifted, a fact that has been obscured so far in his life by lack of encouragement and opportunities. From this perspective, it is tempting to agree with Wes’s assessment that we are products of our environments. As soon as Wes’s environment changes, he begins to excel. Is it thus fair to blame him for the direction his life has taken before this point?
For the vocational element of Job Corps, Wes chooses to train as a carpenter. He enjoys the feeling of building and perfecting something, and vows to build a house for his five-year-old daughter “to protect her.” Although a little surprised by the level of Wes’s ambition, his carpentry teacher is encouraging. Over the course of seven months, Wes completes the house; when finished, it is five feet high, with a door and even window shutters. These months have been the happiest of Wes’s life. He is inspired by his desire to provide a better life for his children and Mary, and not to end up like Tony, who is perpetually in and out of prison. When graduation comes, Wes is excited but also nervous, uncertain of what lies beyond the supportive confines of the Job Corps campus.
For the first time, Wes has a positive sense of control over his life. He is able to choose his vocational training, choose what to build, and complete the project himself. With these options in front of him, Wes chooses to do something constructive, ambitious, and selfless, suggesting that Wes is not inherently destructive or irresponsible. Rather, he simply responds to the options available to him. At the same time, it is also clear that Wes has natural talent. Would a less skilled person in his position be able to make the same positive change?
After graduating from the Job Corps, Wes takes on a series of temporary jobs, first as a landscaper, then a construction worker, and then a food preparer at a mall. Each pays only $9 an hour and leaves Wes exhausted after 10 hour shifts; he has no energy to play with his children and insufficient money to take care of them. One day, Wes walks through his old neighborhood and is stunned by how little the game has changed. He picks up a package of cocaine and brings it home. Sitting in his kitchen, Wes despairs; Cheryl is still using drugs and Alicia and Mary don’t have enough money to look after the kids. At the Job Corps campus it seemed like all these problems had disappeared, but in reality Wes had simply escaped them. Now they are very real again. Despondent, Wes dumps the baking soda and cocaine in the pot to start cooking up crack.
On the Job Corpus campus, Wes is treated like an important, valuable, and talented citizen who has much to contribute to society. However, once he graduates and returns to Baltimore, he is placed on the bottom rung of the social ladder. He earns minimum wage, is forced to switch between a series of temporary jobs, and in his role as a food preparer at the mall isn’t even able to utilize his construction skills. It is perhaps unsurprising that Wes then ends up turning back to the drug game. As a dealer, he is at least treated with respect and is able to provide for his family.