by Dell Franklin
Heading toward the mess hall in my still-rumpled fatigues, I noticed this big lumbering bear of an officer, a major, limping toward me across the walkway bordering the parade field, a man around 40, who did not even slightly resemble an officer, but whose gaze was so penetrating and fierce I snapped my salute in quaking fear. He did not slow down but his eyes told me everything as he snapped off his own salute—I was the lowest form of life, the most worthless piece of shit in the entire United States Army.
I’d only been on post at Verona, Italy, as a private in August of 1964 about two weeks, and was still in the process of getting squared away.
A couple of troops in our medical detachment, the 45th Field Hospital, clued me in: Major Stanley Adams had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea as an NCO and received a field commission. Nobody really knew just exactly what he’d done to get the award, but evidently it was beyond unbelievable, included leading his out-numbered, trapped platoon in a charge against some 250 North Koreans. He was shot in the lower leg and kept on charging. He went down four times from grenade concussions and kept on charging. He engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat, killing one after another with his bayonet and rifle stock in an hour of furious fighting. And then he stayed on to hold fire while what was left of his platoon and the rest of the company retreated to its battalion. His medical file was as thick as a small-town telephone book and dated back to WWII, where he’d also been in combat in North Africa and Italy.
The major worked in an office next to our commanding general, and, with the exception of Gen. Power, it seemed there was not a troop on post, enlisted man, NCO, or officer who did not tread carefully around his fearsome demeanor, including West Point colonels.
Then one day, about two months into my tour in Verona, I was manning the immunization room as a PFC when he came in for his annual smallpox shot. I quickly administered the shot as skillfully as possible and signed his card and, as he rolled down the sleeve of his shirt, he sized me up, and said, “You able to give me a rubdown, Franklin?”
Having no clue as to how to give a rubdown, I quickly said yes, and the major took off his shirt and walked over to the padded training table and lay on his belly. “Get with it, Franklin,” he snorted, “I got a goddamn crook in my neck and shoulder, won’t go away.”
I took out a liniment-smelling ointment called Logangesic balm and slathered it on his broad, meaty back. I began kneading the area between his shoulder blades. The major instructed me to go higher. I did as told, and then he roared, “Goddammit, don’t worry about hurting me, harder, goddammit, put some meat into it!”
I dug my fingers and thumbs deep into the area between his shoulder blades and pressed hard. I worked up to his trapezius muscles and down, my hands and forearms starting to burn. I did not dare cease. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I judo-chopped his spine, up and down, to the neck, then began digging into his shoulder blades when he sat up and said, “That’s enough.” I’d been at it a good 20 minutes.
He stood and pulled on his shirt, tied his tie, slipped into his green jacket, and nodded at me, as if I was no longer the lowest piece of shit in the entire US Army, but still nothing to brag about.
A week or so later he was in again. “Gimme a rubdown, Franklin,” he grunted, going straight to the training table. I quickly got out the balm and went to work. I really worked him over. Finally, as I kneaded his back, he decided I was worthy of conversation.
“Where you from, Franklin?”
“Los Angeles, sir.”
“You like the Army?”
I hesitated. “Uh…”
“I miss the NCO club. Miss my old pals…harder, Franklin, goddammit, don’t be afraid, dig in!”
He began showing up every two weeks or so, going straight to the training table. If I was busy, so what, everybody cleared out. What the major wanted, the major got; he’d earned it. Such was the Army way.
One night I was on graveyard CQ in the clinic, with the ambulance driver, PFC Alvin Callock, a black dude from Cleveland, and Major Adams came in with a cast on his arm, from knuckles to elbow. He had the cast on a week and wanted it off. He was pissed off at doctors who always wanted to put casts on him. I told him I had to consult a doctor before I could take it off. I went to the phone to get the doctor on call. The major shouted, “Hell with the goddamn doctors!” and ordered me to take the cast off. The glance Callock shot me said I’d better do as told. I got out the plug-in vibrating cast cutter and began sawing into the cast, making a racket. Major Adams growled at me to stop being timid and get the damn thing off, he was sick of it, hated it, “don’t worry about burning me or cutting me with that goddam thing, just get it off!”
When I’d cut through the entire cast, he reached down, tore it off, tossed it across the emergency room, stood, and walked out, still grumbling about casts and doctors. None of our doctors said a word to me about it when he showed up without his cast.
A couple weeks later he was back in the immunization room, needing a rubdown, and I hopped to it.
We had organized sports on post, and I participated in all of them, including tailback and defensive back in eight-man flag football, played without pads by pent up troops in a manner so bruising that generally we beat each other up. In one particular game, which was more like a vengeful war, our team of medics and MPs were battling an imposing headquarters team, and on a kickoff I was blindsided and knocked out for about 20 seconds, so teammates told me, and found myself crawling off the field, trying to stand up, my nose broken all over my face, bleeding profusely. Somebody hauled me to my feet and I kept right on going, staggered into the emergency room in the clinic, where our company commander, Captain Benincaso, placed me on a table, stanched the bleeding, and informed me he’d have to put about five stitches in my nose and set it.
At this point my mind, though still a buzzing fog, was starting to clear, even if my nose and head throbbed. I asked the captain if I could get back on the field, for the game was close and I really wanted to beat headquarters.
“You’re not going anywhere, Franklin,” the doctor said. “You’ve got a bad concussion, and your nose is a mess.”
I began pleading, telling the doc I was feeling fine, that I’d be careful, that my teammates needed me…but he continued to shake his head and had already called on a medic to sponge and hand him instruments to work on me when a deafening roar, like thunder, rocked the emergency room where I lay: “LET THE KID PLAY! THIS IS THE FUCKING ARMY! NOT SUMMER CAMP FOR GODDAMN PUSSIES!”
It was Major Stanley Adams, hovering near, holding an unlit cigar.
“Sir, I can’t let him play,” Captain Benincaso insisted.
“Bullshit!” The look on his face was beyond determination to get his way. Benincaso lowered his head, sighed, stood back; took off his latex gloves. “Okay, Franklin, go ahead,” he said.
I jumped off the table and tore through the clinic and onto the nearby grass field. I sneaked immediately into the game and resumed my position as deep defensive back. Nobody on the headquarters team saw me and I asked one of my teammates who’d cheap-shot me. It was a muscular troop, a buck sergeant named Small, a lifer. On the first play they ran the ball, and I slithered into the blocking interference Small was leading for their running back, accelerated and clobbered him on the side of the face with a forearm shiver. He staggered. I blasted him again, then again, drove him to the side lines and had him staggering toward the ground when one of the referees, a black staff sergeant pulled me off, and exclaimed, “You got your revenge, Franklin, now get back and start playing right!”
I watched Small, woozy, stare at me, and beyond his shoulder, on the sidelines, alone, imperious, arms folded, cigar in puss, stood Major Stanley Adams. He issued me the slightest of nods, and I found myself swelling up like never before. §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., and served in the U.S. Army as a medic in Italy.