Black is beautiful

A young American lieutenant, his leg burned by an exploding Viet Cong white phosphorus booby trap, is treated by a medic.  1966.

A black medic treats a young American lieutenant, his leg burned by an exploding Viet Cong white phosphorus booby trap in Vietnam in 1966. http://bit.ly/1CBinSv

by Dell Franklin

Willie Green come into the 25th Army field hospital in Verona, Italy, and he green all right, he so country he don’t know it, he don’t know what to do, he don’t know what to do with himself, and he slow, Georgia slow, don’t wanna talk, and you can’t tell if he don’t wanna talk cuz he so shy, or he ashamed of bein’ slow and dumb.

Top-kick McCray can’t do nothin’ with this skinny kid, he ain’t but 18, and he all hands, got these big old hands, always wavin’ ‘em around, like he don’t know what to do with ‘em. They send him everywhere in the dispensary, and he useless, he go to mutterin’ you ask him do anything and mope in the corner like a dog been whupped up on with a switch.

McCray, he say Johnson, you got to look out after that poor dumb nigger, take him under your wing, like his big brother, or he ain’t gon make it, they send his sorry ass to goddam Nam in the infantry, fight Charlie.

I talk to my bud Thomas, tell him we got to take care of doofus Green, and Thomas mutter how he from south Philly and don’t like no country nigger, a country nigger from the south nothin’ but Uncle Tom slave bait, Whitey gon fuck him over big time and the dumb country nigger gon kiss his ass while he gettin’ fucked over, and I tell Thomas McCray want us to look out for Green so he don’t get his ass killed in Nam like the rest of us poor niggers.

By this time my good buds are gone—Ruffner, DeSimone, Mills, Lamb, Robbie. I been here longer than any of these troops and officers and doctors, they like me, Top-kick McCray got me runnin’ the shot room and emergency and sterilization rooms, got me a promotion to Spec.4 and damn near runnin’ the dispensary, cuz I know what to do, I surprise myself, knowin’ so much stuff, I can suture, I save a Colonel’s life when he have a heart attack, doctor Stein come in after I pound his chest and give him mouth-to-mouth, and say Johnson, you save his life, you ask questions and are prepared, we trust you with the lives of folks, which is most important. Yes.

I don’t try and teach Green the shot room stuff, cuz he too shaky with that needle. He ain’t no good behind the desk with sick folks and their records, so I take him to sterilization. We got suture kits, minor surgery kits, instruments. I pack and sterilize all kits and instruments in the big steel autoclave, hemostats, forceps, probes, scissors, clamps, I wrap ’em and put ’em in the cabinets in the emergency room, and when a doctor prepare to work on somebody, I do what the docs tell me to do, and if it real busy they tell me go ahead and suture up a dude, or wrap a plaster cast, or splint, or bandage folks, I’m good at it, like a pro. Oh yes.

Now Green, he listen but he don’t listen. He won’t look at you. He look down. I say, “Green, look at me. Don’t be lookin’ down like some whupped up nigger. I be your bud. Come on now.”

Thomas and me, we try and explain that hey, Green, you got you a boss gig here, but he mumble and mope, like he don’t care, like he got no life, and we ask him what he do on the outside and he mumble he a “bree-lay since he 12, and it take a while understand he mean a “brick layer,” work with his daddy and nine brothers, and you see why he got them big strong hands, he wiry from layin’ them bricks, he ain’t muscle-strong like me or lanky big like Thomas, but the dude got some powerful grip, and he got ants in his pants, he ain’t lazy, just confused, so first thing I do, I pick up a little wire probe, and I say, “Green, this here a probe. It don’t look like much, but it important, docs use it to dig poison out of folks, rub out cysts, like a knife got no point. Now it got to be sterilized, cuz if it ain’t and doc go gougin’ around in folks, they gon get a nasty infection and maybe croak, so we got to be careful sterilizing this probe, and all the other stuff in this room, it’s powerful important, most especially to the docs, and the docs, they God around here, Green. God!”

Thomas watchin’, arms folded in his whites, pens in his pocket, cuz he runnin’ the front desk and helpin’ me in the shot room, and he know how to handle himself, despite bein’ a stubborn, contrary ghetto nigger angry alla time, ain’t gon catch him smilin’ at Whitey ‘less he got a trick in store.

I show Green how to wrap a probe. Then I let him do it. He do it all wrong. I say, “Green, watch me do it, you got to pay attention, or you do it all wrong and piss off the docs!”

He make a face and grumble and walk out the sterilization room and go trampin’ around post. I guess he angry and hurt. I run his ass down and bring him back, tell him cool down. I tell him they gon get his ass killed in Nam he don’t shape up. Doin’ all this stuff ain’t that hard if y’all pay attention. So I lay the probe on the cotton wrapper and show him how to wrap it, and then I unwrap it and have Green wrap it, and he do so, like I show him, and I say, “Now Green, keep doin’ it the way I doin’ it, you gon be okay, my man.” He grin, sleepy-like, like he proud, he wrap a little old probe, big deal, yeh, but it a big deal to him, so now I show him how to wrap a forceps, and he do it right, and then I got him wrappin’ all the other instruments, and when he finished we lay ‘em in a row in the big steel autoclave tank, got levers and dials and gauges, and then I show him how to operate the autoclave.

I go step by step, then start over. Green do the first step, and we start over. Green do the first and second and third steps, and I see he getting’ a bit fretful, this is enough for now, I do the rest and get the autoclave workin’, so then I take him to the operating room for minor surgery and emergencies and show him the glass cabinets hold all the stuff doctors need—disposable syringes, needles, gloves, swabs, band-aids, compresses, thread, gauze, ointments, peroxide, soaps, instruments a doc use look in a guys’ ear, or up his nose, look up a guys’ ass, his throat, everything in the cabinets I show Green, and I say, “Green, you doin’ fine, you learnin’ MOLTO BENI, my man, now let’s go eat chow.”

This boy, he eat like he ain’t been fed before, and he stuff apples and oranges in his field jacket after we finish. We go back to the sterilization room, and I say, “Green, wrap me a hemostat.” He do it. Then we check the autoclave. Everything in it warm and sterilized. Then I got him wrappin’ instruments all afternoon and tell him what they used for. He get them all down, he learnin’ now, and when the dispensary close we go to chow and he eat seconds and then in the barracks I tell him he got to keep his area clean and neat, like me, not like Thomas. I learn that from McCray, who can’t stand a dirty troop, most especially a black troop, cuz McCray the cleanest nigger in the U.S. Army. Green nod, say okay, boss.

 “These Italians cool with us, they got nothin’ against us black folk, they don’t care if we peep at them white chicks, they ain’t gon lynch our asses. It ain’t like back home. These folks, they like to talk to us, like we mothafuckin’ human bein’s.”

Next day I say, “Green, run the first three steps of the autoclave.” He look at it. “Go on now.” He place all the wrapped instruments in the tank like I show him, nice and snug, and he do step one, step two, step three, and look at me. I show him the rest, real slow. We keep goin’, and Green go through all seven steps and got the autoclave hummin’. He stand back and listen to it workin’ up steam, cookin’ them instruments, and he got that little grin, and I say, “Green, you bad-ass, yessir, you a bad man with that autoclave machine.”

Thomas come by and I got Green wrappin’ suture kits and minor surgery kits. He goin’ at it like a pro. He ain’t dumb at all.

I say, “Green, the army give us niggers a chance to be somebody. Look at me. I’m a boss. Run the dispensary for the docs and top. Look at big ol’ south Philly nigger Thomas, he boss, too. Top-kick McCray, he boss of this outfit, tell officers what to do. We all bad-ass niggers in this white man’s army.”

“Sheee-it,” Thomas say, but he grinnin’, like he done a trick.

Green, he grin, like he one of us.

Next day I stand back and watch Green wrappin’, runnin’ the autoclave, stockin’ cabinets, he dustin’ and moppin’, without bein’ told like Thomas, and I tell captain doctor Stein, this new dude, he ready for a little on-the-job-training, so when Stein cut a sebaceous cyst out a GI’s neck, I got the gloves on and I swab and sponge up goo and blood, and when Stein say “forceps,” Green hand him the forceps. “Probe.” Green hand him the probe. Green hand him the scalpel cut the cyst open and ooze blood and pus. When doc done he let me suture the dude up like he taught me, and then I bandage the dude, and Green help me like I help doc. Green, he serious, likin’ this business, likin’ it big time.

Pretty soon McCray say, “Green lookin’ good, Johnson. You keep workin’ with that kid, cuz he takin’ your place.”

A week later Green don’t need me in sterilization or emergency. He askin’ docs Stein and Graves questions like crazy. He want know everything. I tell him keep askin’ questions, so he prepared for emergencies. Green, he walkin’ around like a pro now, so I figure, he got THAT down, now I got to teach him be a man.

***

Come pay day, me and Green and Thomas walk downtown on a Saturday afternoon. Me and Thomas dressed cool, but since Green got no proper threads, we get him some nice pants and shirt in the PX, and he wear the only shoes he own, army-issue low-quarters. We walk along the river to the Piazza Bra, by the ancient Coliseum been here since Roman days, been bombed by the USA durin’ the war. Everybody sittin’ at cafes outside and sippin’ vino or espresso or they paradin’ up and down arm in arm, and I explain to Green Italian customs and what they call ALFRESCO.

I tell him, “Green, these Italians cool with us, they got nothin’ against us black folk, they don’t care if we peep at them white chicks, they ain’t gon lynch our asses. It ain’t like back home. These folks, they like to talk to us, like we mothafuckin’ human bein’s.”

We mosey down to Piazza Erbe, little square where tourists snappin’ cameras at Romeo and Juliet balcony, and we find Bruno’s bar, where dudes from post millin’ around, waitin’ for the whores, so we sip some vino, sit at a table, chum with dudes from the air force base in Aviano. By and by the whores come, and Tom got his regular, Roselee, and he gone, and me and Green watch big blonde Carla come in, she got some fine tittiies and dye her hair cuz GIs like blondes, and she make a big fuss over me, ask why I don’t come around no more, and I tell her I got me an Italian sweetie in town, so then she glance at Green, and he starin’ at her real shy like, and I introduce them, and go off to the bar sit by myself, and soon Green gone with Carla.

I wait. Tom come back with Roselee. We wait for Green, and wait. He gone over an hour. Then when he come out they holdin’ hands, Green grinnin’, Carla grinnin’, noddin’ at me, and alla way back to post Green skippin’ along and say he got a steady woman, he say Carla say she like him and love him somethin’ powerful.

“Green,” I say, “Y’all got to watch out for whores. They don’t love no man. They love money. They love the U.S.A., where it rich, but they ain’t gon like no place a poor nigger live.”

He ain’t listenin’. He get back to post and take his night shower like I train him and next day he gone ‘til midnight, take his shower, and Monday morning he ready to go, waitin’ for me in the sterilization room. He follow me around like a puppy, little brother, friskin’, slappin’ at me with them big old hands. Now I can’t get rid of him. He even come to the gym and play buckets with me and Thomas and though he ain’t played much before he good right off with them hands and the ants in his pants, he everywhere at once, and he got big time hop.

In a month Green a bad-ass medic and a bad-ass bucket man. He growin’ and puttin’ on weight and eatin’ everything and seein’ Carla at night, which mean he getting’ it free. All right! My man.

One day docs Stein and Graves come up to me. Stein say, “Green, he is quite a medic, Paladin. I think he wants to operate next.”

“He has strange powers,” says Graves. “I’ve never seen such hands. Very deft, quite a touch, steady. He retains everything you tell him. He’s amazingly intelligent and a very nice kid.”

“He’s perhaps…an idiot savant,” says Stein. “You know what that is, Paladin?”

“No sir.”

“It’s a person with genius qualities who is backward in most other ways.”

“That sound like Willie Green.”

Stein look at me. He ain’t some dude hand out compliments. “Paladin,” he say. “You’ve done a good job of mentoring Willie. We are all very proud of both of you.” He point a finger at me. “Now you know what doctor Graves and I have been telling you—go to school on the GI bill when you get discharged, and follow up in the medical profession. You can be an excellent nurse. You will earn a good living, you can raise a family, and Paladin, you will be a helper of mankind. I want you to continue with this. Willie, too.”

“Okay, sir,” I say. Because these docs, they are God.

By this time I’m ready to leave the army and go home to my ghetto in Cleveland, Green runnin’ the whole damn dispensary. He givin’ shots, takin’ blood, runnin’ sterilization and emergency, work the front desk, he know how to suture and take an X-ray, he already promoted, and he engaged to Carla.

Night before I leave me and Thomas and Willie party, I already said good byes to my sweetie and friends in Verona I do black market business with, and Willie give me this little beret he buy downtown, hand-made, beautiful beret, he know I want it, and we soul shake and hug, and I say, “Willie Green, you my main man, I so proud of you, love brother.”

He so shy, he just look down and grin, and then he gone to the sterilization room, got work to do, and I leave post and Italy and the army and go home.

Doc Stein write me, cuz he keepin’ tabs on me, make sure I stay outta trouble, go to school. I do. He say Willie marry Carla and re-up. When Stein get discharged he write me from Chicago and say Willie back in the states goin’ to airborne school cuz he wanna be a paramedic, and I write Stein back, tell him I’m drivin’ an ambulance nights and goin’ to nursin’ school durin’ the day on the GI bill. I don’t hear from Stein for a while and then he call me on the phone one night and say Paladin, sit down, I got terrible news, Willie Green killed in Nam. I sit down. Stein, he don’t sound too good, and I ain’t hearin’ too good, but I guess Willie save a bunch-a lives and get a silver star and buried with honors. Shit, that don’t do me no good. I find that beret and wear it for a month. Then I put it in plastic and wear it on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, 4th of July, remember Willie Green. Ain’t nobody allowed to touch that beret, just me. My little brother. §

Dell Franklin is a writer living in Cayucos, Calif., and is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice.

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