Billy Joe Ramirez was born in the South Bronx on Christmas Eve 1949, the second of what would ultimately be seven children, and the oldest male. His father, Manuel Ramirez, had moved to New York City from Puerto Rico with his family in 1928. Manny was just five years old when he arrived, and he grew up fast, tough, and mean.
Like countless other 18-year-olds, Manny enlisted in 1941, and was promptly sent to some hellhole in the Pacific that he never subsequently discussed. While overseas, somewhat improbably, he became friendly with a white boy named Earl Hickock who lived in the hills outside Lynch, Kentucky, and was a third-generation coalminer.
After the war, Manny went to visit Earl in Kentucky, and met his family, which included Earl’s younger sister Mary Lou. Mary Lou was instantaneously infatuated with Manny’s rapid-fire New York prosody, his gangster attitude, and, most importantly, his swarthy, compact body. They were married less than two months after they first met.
After a brief honeymoon spent touring the hills of Kentucky in Earl’s dilapidated pickup, they moved into a dingy apartment off East Tremont Avenue, within easy walking distance of the small garage where Manny worked as a mechanic.
Money was tight, and they deferred having children, for a while. Then it seemed like Mary Lou was pregnant for the next eight years. She insisted that all the kids be named after one of her relatives. So there was Betty, Hattie, Ruby, Mason, Beau, Bobby, and, of course, Billy Joe. He was pretty sure that they were the only Spics in the South Bronx with redneck first names. And, for good measure, his was double barreled.
Manny’s two main vices were women and whiskey, which he often indulged simultaneously. Unfortunately for many, he was not a happy drunk. This proved to be particularly true at home, and most particularly when Mary Lou would question him about why he had returned home late again, reeking of bourbon and cheap perfume.
An inordinately large portion of Billy Joe’s childhood memories was stained by visions of his father methodically bouncing his mother off their tenement’s walls. For some reason, his father never yelled, cursed, or even spoke at all during these beatings. He would just keep going until he got tired, after which he would sit on the couch in front of the TV and fall asleep, usually with a drink in his hand.
Sometime around the age of four or five, Billy Joe began trying to protect his mom. It did not work out well. Manny began to make sure that he had enough energy left over after bludgeoning Mary Lou to his satisfaction that he could then turn his attention to Billy Joe. As time went by, Manny expanded his pugilistic repertoire to include any and all children old enough to walk.
When he was fourteen, Billy Joe decided that he had had enough. By then, he was only a couple of inches shorter than Manny who still however enjoyed a significant power and weight advantage. What Manny had not entirely accounted for though was that his oldest son had inherited all of his own ruthlessness and malice. And Billy Joe had accumulated plenty more of both all by himself.
It was an unusually warm night in late April when Manny was heard shuffling in the third floor hallway, jingling his keys as he approached the apartment door. It was after midnight, and Mary Lou and all the other children were asleep. For the past two hours Billy Joe had been sitting silently in the dark on a chair placed close to the front door. He had been listening intently to any and all sounds emanating from the hallway outside. There was a medium weight Louisville slugger on the floor near his feet.
Just before his father began fumbling with the lock, Billy Joe stood up soundlessly, grabbed the bat firmly with both hands, and positioned himself so that he would be hidden behind the door as it opened. Softly, he spread his feet apart, bent his knees a little, and wiggled gently into a stance that Mickey Mantle would have been proud of. He knew that his father would pause after opening the door, locate and flip the light switch on the wall to his left, and then move forward into the apartment. His father would therefore come level with the outer edge of the open door somewhere between his second and third step into the apartment. Billy Joe closed his eyes and focused on his father’s footsteps. One…two…
Billy Joe unwound like he was trying to hit a ball over the roof of Yankee Stadium. He aimed the bat at a point about eighteen inches off the ground. Knee level.
The sound and feel of the bat hitting exploding bone was savagely satisfying, but not as much as the bloodcurdling screams that erupted instantaneously thereafter. The next sound Billy Joe heard was that of his father’s back and head hitting the outside hallway floor. Billy Joe realized that he had essentially batted his father clean out of the apartment. He heard an inner voice say: “Nice shot Billy Joe, looks like a home run.” It made him grin.
He dragged his father’s screaming crumpled body back into the apartment and slammed the door shut. By now everyone else in the family was awake, and running around screaming themselves.
Billy Joe wasn’t done yet. He began systematically working his way up his father’s body with the bat. Abdomen, chest, arms, and finally the head. He remained focused on his work, completely ignoring both his father’s gradually diminishing piteous shrieks and the increasing wails and entreaties of the rest of his family. In a grim mirroring tribute, he kept totally silent. Finally, after the tip of the bat had made one last vicious contact with the right side of his father’s skull, Billy Joe felt satisfied. He dropped the bat on the ground next to his blood-soaked, inert father, and walked out of the house forever.
Years later he heard that his father did not in fact die as a result of the beating, but that it had left him with permanent brain damage and wheelchair bound. Either way, Billy Joe didn’t care.
For the next several years, Billy Joe Ramirez drifted somewhat aimlessly, mostly in the southwestern states because he liked the warmer climate, and there were plenty of people around who looked like him. He sustained himself with temporary odd jobs. Although he was young, his soul was already etching itself into his face, and he had no trouble convincing people he was old enough to work.
He also learned how to fight. More specifically, he learned how to fight and win. At only five foot six inches and weighing less than one hundred and forty-five pounds dripping wet, he was shorter and lighter than most. But he was wiry, fast, and very powerful for his size.
It turned out that the rules for winning were simple enough. The best fights are the shortest. So, strike first, strike fast, and strike for keeps. Fighting fair, as the word implies, is for fairies. And losers. And Billy Joe had no interest in being either.
He killed his first man shortly after his seventeenth birthday. Actually, it was two men. He had entered a dingy diner on the outskirts of Lubbock in East Texas after an unsuccessful day trying to find work. He was sitting alone at the counter, playing with a large glass of coke while trying to figure out what to order from the surprisingly extensive menu when he was approached from the rear by two cowboy types, both in their late twenties.
“ Hey boy. Dincha see the sign? No niggas, no kikes, and no Spics.”
“How did you know I was Jewish?”
“Well, well, Kyle. It looks like we got us a smart ass Spic. And the only thing I hate worse than a Spic is a smart ass Spic.”
“That’s not what your mama told me last night.”
Billy Joe had started to spin slowly around on his stool in order to face the two men. He knew that his wisecrack would elicit a response from the cowboy who was not named Kyle, so he focused his attention on him. As he turned, he planted both feet firmly on the diner floor, about eighteen inches apart. As he pivoted, he firmed up the grip on the glass of beer in his right hand. As his hand came level with the edge of the countertop, he brought the end of glass down sharply, breaking the end off into jagged shards. Simultaneously, he uncoiled his pre-tensed leg extensors and launched himself, right hand outstretched, towards non-Kyle’s exposed neck. Judging from the geyser of blood that erupted, he must have hit the guy’s carotid artery. There was no way that this dude was going to him any more trouble, so it was reasonable to now turn his attention to Kyle.
Sadly for Kyle, he was standing exactly in the path of the first few jets of gore that pulsated out of his now rapidly dying friend. The horror of the moment had caused him to temporarily lose his concentration, but he was now beginning to claw his right hand backwards to his waistband toward what Billy Joe believed was most likely a gun.
But Kyle’s momentary hesitation was all Billy Joe needed. He dove at Kyle, and thrust the remainder of the serrated front edges of his beer glass into the left side of Kyle’s chest. As Kyle fell backwards, still clutching wildly for the pistol tucked into his rear waistband, Billy Joe fell on top of him. The bottom of the beer glass was sticking out of Kyle’s chest like an unholy medal surrounded by an expanding ring of crimson. Billy Joe used the heel of his hand to repeatedly pound the glass deeper into Kyle’s chest. As he did so, he kept looking at Kyle’s eyes until the light went out of them.
The waitress and the owner of the diner subsequently testified that Billy Joe was minding his own business when he had been approached by the men. Given that there were two of them, and that one of them was armed, the double homicide was ruled an act of self-defense. The fact that they were both grown men and that he was a minor helped to add a tinge of local embarrassment to the proceedings.
God bless the state of Texas.
Either way, it had kind of felt good at the time.
At the age of eighteen, Billy Joe was drafted. Somewhat to his own surprise, he actually enjoyed the rigor of basic training, and was quickly identified as a promising recruit.
He arrived in Vietnam in 1967.
Shortly after, he found out about a special group of soldiers fighting in the Cu Chi District just outside Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Billy Joe volunteered to join them. These men became known as “The Tunnel Rats”.