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I pick her up in the Fairlane and we go up on this hill overlookin’ town, by this old castle that is like a fort, back when folks lived off the land.

by Dell Franklin

Verona, Italy 1966

I figure somebody lookin’ after Paladin Johnson when they send his black ass to the 25th Army field hospital in Verona, Italy, the summer of l966, when troops is gettin’ bumped off by the bushel in ‘Nam.

I don’t know nothin’ about Italy. I only know my ghetto in Cleveland, Hough. I runnin’ in the streets, always in trouble, a mess for my momma to deal with, a bigger mess for my teachers to deal with, so finally they kick my ass out of school and judge tell me either I get my ass in the army or go to the slammer.

In the army, I bring with me some cocky street jive, wantin’ everybody know I’m a bad dude, but it ain’t long ‘fore them drill sergeants beat my ass down like I some kind of turkey, though I would never be a punk.

First time I get off post I just walk. It’s nothin’ like I picture in my head. So old, and crumbly, some places still broken up from bombs in the war. And the folks, these Italians, they like to sit around these cafes called TRATTORIAS and gabble and wave they hands, getting ’all riled, like everything a big deal.

Walkin’ through Verona nothin’ like walkin’ through white Cleveland, or downtown, where niggers all over the place and everybody look at you like you gon pull a job, snatch a purse, you know, bad news dude. In Verona, I one of the only black dudes walkin’ around, and Italians gawk at me like they curious, not scared, like they maybe wanna find out who I am and what I’m about.

Ain’t long before First Sergeant McCray got me trained all over the dispensary and put me in charge of the shot room, and that’s where I meet new trooper Thomas, we bros right off, he difficult, always scowlin’, actin’ bad, angry at white folks, readin’ Malcolm X. He bitch to McCray about honkies getting’ better duty and promotion, thinkin’ cuz McCray black he gonna give him a break, but Top don’t stand for no jive. Top treat me good, and he treat my white buds, Ruffner and DeSimone, good, too, cuz they stand-up and cool.

In fact, I got to know Maria DeRia, little lady work the post snack bar and bowlin’ alley, through these two honkies. When I go to the snack bar with Ruff and Dee for a burger, I got my eye on DeRia, workin’ behind the counter. She what you call pixie-cute, so tiny, not 5-foot-tall, older lady, maybe 30, but got her a fine little ass in that white uniform, and I always practice my Italian on DeRia, try and impress her, and I guess cuz I butcherin’ the language she think it funny, you know, cute, and she laugh, and give me extra fries with my burger, and when she smile and laugh them little lines around her eyes crinkle up and her whole face light up. She ain’t got perfect features, and she got a crooked tooth, but she beautiful and I know she sweet inside.

DeRia married, got her a 12-year-old girl. I find this out askin’ in my Italian. I don’t ever speak English to DeRia, though she speak some cuz she been workin’ this post snack bar 10 years.

Sometime Tom join me and Ruff and Dee at the bowlin’ alley, where they got dime beers. None of us bowl. Only four lanes. We go cuz DeRia workin’ at night. She give out bowlin’ shoes and sell beer and pop and snacks and make burgers. Only four stools at her little bar, and some time we all talkin’ to DeRia at the same time, butcherin’ Italian, teasin’ her, tellin’ her she sexy, and beautiful, I love you, caro mia, bella amore, and she laugh and tease back, she wear a nice skirt and sweater when she work the alley, and comb her short black hair and put on make-up, she know we like her a lot and all want her and we all bettin’ who gon sleep with her first, though ain’t no GI slept with this fine lady, so is the word on post. She a church woman. Catholic.

Well, one night I come in alone while everybody else working and bring her roses. DeRia look at these flowers, sniff them, hold them to her heart, and almost cry, and she say, “Johnson, you really love me, caro bello?”

“Si, Maria DeRia, mi bella.” I say. “Amore molto.” Then I make her laugh. She glowin’. I make her laugh again, and she still smellin’ them roses, and she look deep in me, and she say, “We make love tonight, Paladin. I like you very much. You are nicest American boy I know in all my time I work here.”

I go to the dispensary and get hold of Ruff and Dee, workin’ the graveyard, ask can I borrow the Ford Fairlane they own together and Dee flip me the keys. They don’t believe I got DeRia. I been in Verona a year and only been to two whores, both downtown. Ain’t no Italian chick goin’ out with me less I take the whole family along and they watchin’ like a hawk I don’t touch her.

So after DeRia close the alley she walk off post and I pick her up in the Fairlane and we go up on this hill overlookin’ town, by this old castle that is like a fort, back when folks lived off the land, and we got out two army blankets my two buds keep for such occasions, and DeRia and me make love. Man, she is a biddy thing, but all woman, and one hot kisser, she kiss me like no woman has, no tongue or anything like that, but just kissin’ and holdin’ and scratchin’ and bitin’ my lips, and when I inside her and kissin’ her pretty face she talkin’ to me, she yell AMORE, AMORE, oh, Paladin, AMORE, screamin’ that word when I come, and I know DeRia love me and I love her.

We start talkin’. She say her husband over 40 and fat, all he do is go to soccer games and argue soccer and drink espresso all day and vino at night and eat pasta in the little trattoria they own in their neighborhood. He too lazy work the trattoria. DeRia work days and nights on post and then she work the trattoria nights off while fatty drink and argue soccer, like this kind-a carryin’ on better than a woman.

Anyway, I drop DeRia off a block from home and I feelin’ so fine. I got my shot room where I boss. Topkick McCray in my corner. I get on with everybody, got two honkey friends like brothers. They slam my back and grinnin’ at me when I back after midnight, almost like family.

But Thomas, he angry, and scowlin’, sulkin’, say DeRia nothin’ but a white bitch, and we got at it, I pin his ass and wag a finger and he know I fuck him up, so he sag, and he angry with me, but that’s okay, cuz if he ain’t got nothin’ good to say, well, stay away.

Dee and Ruff, they let me borrow the Fairlane when I got nights off and DeRia sneak off, and we go to our hill and sip some vino from her bar and she cuddle right up to me, like she mine, and she is sweet, and so clean, and she love me and ain’t afraid to say so, she love me so much she cry every time after we make love, cuz she got to go home to old fatty, don’t touch her, don’t care about nothin’ but hangin’ out with his soccer buds.


So now I diggin’ Verona. It is beautiful. A river run through it, and there’s this old coliseum downtown been bombed in the war. Across from this big old wide street with all kind-a traffic, you can sit at a café or trattoria on the Piazza Bra, which is like a promenade, and look at the coliseum, and hear the opera on summer nights. Piazza Bra go for blocks and ain’t nothin’ on it but cafes and trattorias with tables and chairs outside, and folks crowded up in ‘em. Folks walkin’ up and down the Piazza Bra past the tables, like they frontin’ at a parade. Girls arm and arm, girls and moms arm and arm, old folks and young folks arm in arm, even men arm and arm, jabberin’, wavin’ they hands. Back and forth.

Sometime, when the weather nice in the evening, I walk back and forth, only black dude, they all watchin’, but I don’t care, I diggin’ the ALFRESCO VIDA, big time, lookin’ for an empty table, though I can’t afford one, and one evening, when I paradin’, I hear a voice I know callin’ out: “Hey you, heroic and knightly champion, get your ass over here!”

I look over and it’s Dee and Ruff drinkin’ vino. They know me so well they call me heroic and knightly champion, which mean Paladin, the reason momma name me so.

I sit down. They drinkin’ Bardolino red vino cuz they makin’ cash on the side sellin’ smokes and gas and oil and whatever they get their hands on to Italians on the black market. I am their guest. A stiff waiter, all proper and dressed, puts a glass in front of me and pours me some vino. I am a black dude with two honkies and ain’t nobody else like us here and ain’t nobody got a problem with us. We are tight and cool. We talk and carry on. We get another bottle and feel the buzz and decide to visit DeRia half a mile away at her trattoria in the poor part of town.

The trattoria jammed with soccer crazies screamin’ at each other and wavin’ at the TV. DeRia see us and she look unhappy and worried, shake her head, but we go on up and order Bordolino and she ignore us. We see her hubby, fat, bald, loud, need a shave. We leave and DeRia won’t look at us, so next night at the alley I bring her red roses and she cry and that night we go to our hill and make love and she tell me she love me so much it break her heart. I feel the same. I wonder if when I go home there will ever be another woman in my heart like DeRia. I don’t think so, cuz there ain’t no woman in America like these Italian women. When they love you there ain’t no maybe so and it run deep, they don’t care about your color or how much bread you make or how cool your threads are or what you drivin’ down the street, they don’t be frettin’ over circumstances, they just love your ass forever.

Couple months before my discharge I’m thinkin’ about DeRia. She is my true love but she ain’t leavin’ her husband and kid. She a Catholic. I can’t take her home and I can’t stay here cuz there’s nothin’ in Italy if I ain’t in the army. Dee go home and Ruff go home and they GIVE me the Fairlane, cuz it ain’t worth much and they can’t afford take across the ocean. So DeRia and me, we goin’ hot and heavy. She get a day off and I get a day off and we take the Fairlane out to Lake Garda and drive all around this beautiful romantic lake, hills and mountains and terraces with vineyards all around us, stop and have vino in little towns like Riva and Garda City and Sermione, sit outside at cafes on the lake, everybody nice to us, and we take a blanket on some hill above the lake and make love under the sun, and DeRia, she cry and tell me, “Paladin, caro mio, you so bello, you like a Michelangelo statue in Rome, mi vida.” She cryin’, and cryin’, cuz I got to go home to America, and when I think about leavin’ Verona, and my gig in the shot room, and my car, and Lake Garda, and DeRia, it bust up my heart, cuz there ain’t nothin’ go home to that I like in Hough but momma, and family, but that’s all, ain’t nothin’back there but trouble, but I got no choice.

What I gon do? I can stay in the army, but then I go to Nam and get my ass shot, and I ain’t stayin’ in the army anyhow, cuz you got to kiss too many asses and they own your ass, all they do is fuck with you, like Topkick McCray tell me.

Top and Doc Graves, they say I should go back to school and be a nurse. “Use the GI bill,’ says Graves. “You are a smart man, Paladin. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Week before I leave I got no duties and DeRia cryin’ all the time. She cry when she see me in the snack bar, she cry when I come in the bowlin’ alley, she got to leave work and go cry, won’t come back ‘til I’m gone. We make love the night before I leave and she cryin’, hug me so hard it hurt, tellin’ me her life was rotten before she met me and since we been lovers she happy all the time, and now she got to be unhappy again, and she think her life be lonely and sad from here on, like there nothin’ to look forward to anymore, just her fat old husband don’t touch her, and I feel so bad for DeRia, cuz there ain’t nothin’ I can say make her stop cryin’, and I’m cryin’, too, cuz I know what I feel for her ain’t gon happen again the way it happen with us. Oh, it will happen again, but it won’t be so perfect and funny and peaceful and deep like it is with DeRia, who I call my “poverina.” Poor little thing.

But I got to leave. Next day I’m gone. Everybody I know well gone home, just Thomas hangin’ around, got four months left, still grumblin’ and scowlin’ and bitchin’ about how he from South Philly and he a bad-ass. He carry my duffel bag and walk me to the bus take me to Milano for the airplane to America.

“My car is yours, good bud,” I tell him. “Y’all start smilin’ an’ get yo’ sorry ass some leg and sweet lovin’, good brother.”

“I do that now I got the pussy-mobile. Thank you, my man. Love.”

“Love you too.”

I take the lonely bus to Milano and I’m so sad. I already missin’ DeRia. I get to New York and then fly to Cleveland and go to the ghetto and it so strange, I wish I got me my DeRia. But I ain’t got no DeRia. I never will again. Italy is over for me. I get a job drivin’ an ambulance, pickin’ up the bleedin’ and broken folks, the dyin’ and the dead. I go to school nights and get my high school diploma and start nursin’ school, gon be a nurse, and do good, gon have a life, right here in Hough. It’s poorer, sadder, everybody angry, wantin’ burn the mothafucker down. I ain’t the same dude runnin’ in the streets, getting’ in trouble. I’m a man. Thank you, sergeant McCray, and all my cool buds I never forget, and thank you, Maria DeRia, I love you little thing, my poverina, ‘til they take me away. §

Dell Franklin worked many years as a bartender at Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay, once considered one of the roughest fishermen’s bars on the West Coast. He’s the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice, and author of The Ball Player’s Son.

Corporal Lavery

By Rick Kelso

Ft. Dix, New Jersey, 1964

i want you

I was a private in the US Army, 20 years old, fresh out of boot camp and medic training in Texas, having just arrived at a steamy double-bunked wooden transit barracks in Ft. Dix, New Jersey. I was lowest of the low, headed for Italy as soon as my orders came in, was told I’d be here between 10 days and 2 weeks. It was July—muggy, blazing misery. All around me in the barracks were fellow flunky privates and a scattering of NCOs in their perfectly starched uniforms who quickly made their bunks and locked up their trunks and headed to the PX snack bar to idle away their time playing cards or bullshitting.

Except for Lavery, a corporal in army-issue boxer shorts and wife-beater T-shirt who was probably around 35 but looked 50 with a scarred, seamed face and two inflamed eyes glinting with a depravity and danger I had not yet witnessed in my limited years but recognized instantly by instinct. He sipped from a pint of cheap bourbon. Lavery was my bunkmate. When I showed up with my duffel bag he sat on the bottom bunk and sized me up with those eyes and in a thick southern drawl told me, “Y’all got the top bunk. Toss yer shit up there.”

I did as told. Lavery was no more than 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds, stringy, concave, with a 5 o’clock shadow. He watched me assemble some of my gear on the top bunk and offered me a no-filter Camel. I shook my head, told him I didn’t smoke.

He looked me over—a fresh-faced ex jock Southern Californian without an ounce of fat, who scored the maximum on the physical fitness tests at my last two posts. “You will,” he said.

The barracks was nonstop noisy, with about 80 troops squashed together. Some privates, with no rank on their sleeves, knew each other from their last posts and gabbed or played cards. I sprawled on my bunk and read Steinbeck. Lavery sat on his bunk and studied nudie magazines and finally asked if I was reading a “crotch novel.” When I told him Steinbeck, he snorted derisively.

I swung over and sat on my bunk, legs dangling down. Lavery peered up. He had opened a large wooden box with about a dozen knives, one of which he began sharpening with a stone. Bowie blades, switch-blades, bayonets, a damn machete, etc.

“Come on down here,” Lavery said.

I jumped down.

“Sit down, troop. Lavery ain’t gonna bite yer ass or rape it.”

I sat down beside him, but not too close. He handed me a bayonet. “Got that from a dead Chinese in Korea. Seventeen years old and I’m on Pork Chop Hill. That’s no shit. Been busted eight times. Ain’t gonna get no rank til Veet Namb gets goin’. And it will—count on it. Y’all lucky you goin’ to Europe. I’m goin’ to Wurzburg, Germany. Ah prefer the Philippines. Almost married me a whore over thar. Got some fine whores in Copenhagen, too.” He finished off his bottle, dug into his duffel, withdrew another, opened it, handed it to me, issued me a look indicating I’d be on his bad side if I refused, so I took a welcome slug and thanked him and handed it over and he told me they would have kicked his ass out of the army a long time ago for brawling and drinking and punching out a lieutenant if he wasn’t a decorated combat vet who’d already done a tour in Viet Nam in 1962—a volunteer. “That motherfucker’s gonna bust wide open and be a damn sight worse’n Korea, trust me, boy.”

We shared another slug. He showed me each knife. Then he said, “Tomorra mornin’ they’ll wake yore ass for KP at three. Y’all be on KP til eve-nin’. Then y’all go on 24-hour guard duty, 4 on, 4 off, then back on KP, ’til you get yore orders. Y’all suppose t’ put yore fatigue jacket on the back of yore bunk so’s they kin see y’all a private and wake yore ass up. What I’d do, if I was y’all, is borra one of my jackets and put it on the back of yore bunk so’s they don’t wake yore ass. Nothin’ worse’n KP and guard in fuckin’ July.”

He handed me one of his faded fatigue jackets, the area where his staff sergeant stripes once were darkened. I placed it over the back of my bunk.

It was evening by the time we’d consumed over half the bottle, when suddenly a black buck sergeant with the wasp-waist of a welterweight and the shoulders and arms of a battleship jumped up on his foot locker and, shirt off, began ranting about black power and wanting to challenge any white motherfucker in the barracks to combat. He was in his boots and fatigue pants and as scary as Sonny Liston. While a handful of blacks chuckled, all white men paused from their card games, reading, and bullshitting, to stare silently at the black man until Lavery suddenly snatched his Bowie knife and sprung across the barracks quick as a cat and had this knife at the man’s throat, a wild gloating grin on Lavery’s face.

“You want it now, nigger boy.” he said evenly, calmly “I’ll slit yer fuckin’ throat ear to ear and sleep like a baby, motherfucker. Come on, say the word.”

The powerful and enraged black sergeant went limp as he towered over Laver. He swallowed. He blinked. He slowly shook his head. Lavery quickly withdrew his knife, stared at him. The sergeant sat down on his foot locker. And hung his head. Lavery turned around and walked back to sit beside me.

“Got nothin’ against niggers,” he told me. He was neither shaking or breathing hard. “Served with some good ones in Korea and Namb. One man’s good as another. Don’t know what got into that nigger, but I reckon he’s calmed on down.”

After finishing the bottle, Lavery took me to late chow and I passed out on my bunk. Around 3 in the morning I heard the barracks sergeant rousting privates for KP. They didn’t roust me. I went back to sleep and when I awakened around six, Lavery was up and freshly shaved and alert in his tailored fatigues. He grinned at me, held up his fatigue jacket with corporal stripes. I dressed, cleaned up, ate chow with Lavery and fell out at 7 with 15 or so NCOs to be accounted for. Right off, the barracks sergeant recognized me in my baggy, funky fatigues.

“Why the fuck ain’t you on KP, troop?” he yelled at me.

“Nobody woke me up, sergeant,” I retorted, while Lavery kept a straight face.

“So you’re a fuckin’ wise-ass, think you can out-smart the US Army, huh?”

“No, sergeant.”

“Well, we will fix your ass good, Kelso. We will find you a shit detail that’ll make KP and guard duty seem like child’s play.”

While NCOs scattered, Lavery winked at me and joined them. Half an hour later an MP jeep pulled up and a spec.4 walked in. The barracks sergeant pointed to me. “Take that cake-eating motherfucking goldbricking wise ass and work him ’til his cheesy faggot dick falls off.”

I followed the spec. 4 to his jeep. He took off and surveyed me as we sped along through the vast post. He was around 25, squeaky clean in tailored fatigues. His name tag read KEARNS.

“I’m company clerk,” he said. “We need somebody to clean the day room and mow our lawn. I belong to a special unit of MPs who do honor guard duties. Strictly crack troops. We got our own chef, so the chow’s first class. You won’t have to do much.” He glanced at me. “Anything’s better than KP and guard, especially in this heat.”

He pulled up to a barracks beside a wooden dayroom with orderly room attached. In the day room, he handed me a broom, mop and bucket. I swept and mopped the day room and was done in about an hour, pausing several times to toss darts and shoot pool balls. Kearns came back out and told me to mow the lawn, which was very small. Crack troops, immaculate in tailored fatigues, trickled in for chow. They ignored me as I ate with them and talked about softball. The chow was the best I’d eaten since joining the army back in January.

When chow was done, I wandered into the orderly room to ask Kearns if there was anything else he wanted me to do. He and the burly old first sergeant, with 6 stripes and diamond in the middle, drank coffee. The top smoked a cigar. He asked if I wanted coffee. I had some coffee. The first surveyed me as I stood studying several softball trophies in a case behind glass.

He said, “We got a tough softball league on post. Very competitive.” He continued to appraise me—a kid who had his own share of baseball trophies in my old bedroom in Southern California. “You a ball player?” He puffed his cigar, lifted his feet onto his desk. He had hash marks from two wars and the combat infantry badge at the pocket of his khakis. When I nodded, he said, “You look like a ball player. You any good?”

“Played college, sir. I was a prospect. Had offers to sign a pro contract.”

“So what happened to put you in this piss hole like this when you could be playin’ ball?”

“I’d rather not talk about it, sir.”

He took two puffs. “Where’d you play?”

“Southern California, sir.”

“What position?”

“Short, second, centerfield in college.

“What about softball?

“It’s all the same. Gotta hit it and catch and run the bases.”

He glanced at his clerk, who’d been following our conversation with sly amusement. “We’re in the tournament right now, for post championship. We won it two years back. Right now our centerfielder’s on emergency leave for two weeks. You got your gear?”

“Spikes and glove are in my duffel, sir.”

He slipped his feet off the desk and turned to Kearns. “Write him up a ‘permanent day room orderly’ slip, Kearns. I think we got a ringer.” He turned back to me. “You a ringer, Kelso?”

I nodded.

That afternoon, Kearns drove me back to the barracks where I handed the ‘permanent dayroom orderly’ slip to the barracks sergeant. He read it, shook his head slowly, then nodded, peered up at me with a single probing eye. “Looks like you’re learning,” he said.

Kearns waited in the jeep while I rushed in to grab my spikes, socks and glove. Lavery was on his bunk, gazing at a nudie magazine, nipping. I informed him of my good fortune. He was not in a good mood. “Told yah so, kid.” He was nipping from a bottle of terpin hydrate—military cough medicine. He held it up. “When y’all run out-a cash, y’all can always get this cough medicine from the dispensary—it’s got ten per cent alcohol.”

That night, my first time up, I decided to hit left-handed. I’d never played fast pitch softball. A natural right-handed hitter, I always hit batting practice left-handed and was a better low-ball hitter with much more power. On the third pitch, batting seventh, with a man on and no score, I connected and drove a boomer that took off to dead right field like a golf tee shot, kept soaring. The right fielder never turned around as it landed 20 feet over the fence. As I rounded the bases, my new and temporary teammates went wild, greeting me at the plate like a hero. We won the game. I hit a line-drive-double, right-handed, later on and scored. I glided around easily in the outfield. I realized right off I was the best player on the field. We played four games and won the championship and I ripped shots all over the field from both sides of the plate and stayed on as permanent dayroom orderly until I got my orders, eating chow and hanging out with the top and Kearns.  I was an equal, one of the boys.

I had joined the army because of complicated circumstances of disillusion and self-imposed defeat as a major league ballplayer’s son, developing, when I quit, a phobia of being on a ball field ever again, my heart broken by baseball, my once great dreams replaced by the infantile impulse of becoming a writer.

During this time Lavery continued to suck down cough medicine and grew morose and ragged. When I tried to thank him and inform him of my good fortune, he snorted and muttered as he lay sideways on his bunk, “Baseball, softball…none of it means shit to me, even if it means shit to y’all and everybody else.”

I shipped out a day before he did and he was passed out when I came to say good bye. §

Rick Kelso is a former boxer and drinking companion with Dell Franklin. He doesn’t get out much, so you’re not likely to see him anywhere, and if you did, you wouldn’t want to meet him. He’s a washed up, suicidal liberal who sits at home all day, writing and dreaming of better times.