Tag Archives: U.S. Army




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.

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.

Life on the Mississippi, 1969


The Delta Queen is a sister ship of the Delta King, which sits on the Sacramento River; both were shipped over here in parts from Scotland and reassembled. The Queen plies the Mississippi. Painting by Rose Franklin.


by Dell Franklin


The cheap whiskey and beer still in my gut after a week of nonstop partying during Mardi Gras, I stand on the quay just off the French Market in New Orleans gazing at the Delta Queen, majestic and freshly painted following two months in dry-dock repair. I am broke, having spent my last $100 on a fleabag hotel across from Lafayette Park and burgers from White Castle and shellfish in Martin’s bar in the French Quarter, where I ran into some Vietnam vet ex-Marines who still owned the 1,000-mile stare and informed me the Queen, last paddle-wheel passenger vessel to ply the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, was hiring.

On the bow of the Queen, a chalkboard is perched with chicken scratches: WANTED: DECK HANDS AND PORTERS. Several black deckhands in blue work shirts lounge or piddle with brooms and mops or chisel away rust on the bow and along railings. They pause to fix me with stares as I try and work up the courage to cross the gangway onto the bow, where a massive barrel of a man, perhaps 60, in black captain’s uniform and cap, his face broad and flat, narrows his already narrow squint on me.

It is mid-morning, breezy, clear, birds swooping and diving around the Jax Brewery like participants in an air war. At the French Market, above the seawall, a man in an apron drops bags of day-old pastries to hobos assembled below him near a deserted box car adjacent the murky sea of a river. A few days back I shared a pint of whiskey with these men but soon left when the whiskey was gone and it became evident they regarded me resentfully as not yet accomplished enough to share their company.

The deckhands pick up their pace from slow-motion to listless, still keeping an eye on me, possibly wondering where this white man came from—he wears his only remnant of a three-year Army hitch, a faded flimsy field jacket, baggy work pants, sneakers, a second-hand Army surplus backpack stuffed with a few changes of underwear, extra flannel shirt, two paperbacks, two pens, a pocket-size writing pad, and a second-hand sleeping bag attached to the pack.

Though broke, I do not fear starving and am exhilarated by my situation because I am free, trekking across the fractured and bleeding carcass of America with thumb out, unencumbered by wife, girlfriend, job, career, ambition. In a way, I feel a smug advantage over all those who possess these rewards, because there are no complications in my life, no burdens or pressures in a country addicted to striving, stress, security, and the stockpiling of what is to me junk.

From the start, I had no idea where I was going, still do not as the black deckhands slow down to a near standstill, keeping a closer eye on me as I try to work up my courage to face the formidable man whose narrow flinty eyes seem to take me in as an intruder. The deckhands are all glinting gold teeth and ropey arms with knots in the middle. One wears a watch cap. They begin to nod at each other and giggle and smirk as the big man folds his enormous arms across his chest and seems to challenge me with those eyes, which say, “Well, boy, you comin’ aboard, or you gonna stand there shittin’ your pants?” Like an old white cracker terrifying the slaves.

I take a deep breath and stride over the gangway as the big man unfolds his arms and stands planted on the bow like a 200-year-old oak. I stop directly before him and unstrap my pack as if I mean to stay.

“I see you need help,” I say. “I’m looking for work. Would you be the captain, sir?”

“Yessuh.” Gruff, guttural growl from deep within, the man seeming to spit the words at me likes he’s trying to dislodge tobacco from his tongue. “We need deckhands.”

“I’ll do that.”

The man refolds his arms across his chest, gazes briefly at the deckhands; then he scrutinizes me with a flicker of interest. He takes in everything, and I look him in the eye, almost grinning—like we’re in a movie. Then his voice suddenly booms at me. “What ah need is a gawdamn sto’keepah!”

Quickly I reply, “I’ll do that, too, captain.”

“What y’all know ‘bout sto’keepin’?” he challenges me.

“I’ve worked in warehouses as a stock boy and order writer, sir.”

“Where y’all work as a stock boy?” he demands to know.

“In Los Angeles, sir, that’s where I’m from.”

He takes in more of me, top to bottom. A sudden yellow-stained horsey grin rips across his meaty face. “Y’all har’d!” he announces and offers his enormous paw, and we shake. “Cap’n Ernest Wagnah.”

“Dell Franklin, sir.”

A spindly, bespectacled, old-time looking black man, whose been lurking in the background since I approached the captain, steps right up. He wears baggy check pants and a white smock and tall toque drooping ludicrously to his ear, lending him a buffoonish air; but then he smiles, and he is a handsome old guy, dark chocolate, not even five-and-a-half-feet tall, no more than 130 pounds, and in his incandescent puppy-friendly eyes is resolution, and when I look into those eyes I feel an instant rush of warmth and trust. I find myself exchanging smiles with the man, whose forearms could belong to a 200-pound blacksmith, his hands as big as those of the captain, who dwarfs him, and now addresses the old man.

“Chef Jawnah, look like we got us a sto’keepah. Say he run a warehouse.” He glances at me. “Chef Jawnah, he yore boss, son.”

His name tag says Henry Joyner. I offer my hand and the old man lunges at me and grips my hand with a vise-like manacle, veins bulging along those forearms. “Playshuh t’ shake yo’ hand,” he says in a slow, rich drawl, and a smile of false teeth blazes across his small oval face, those eyes shining with such genuine sincerity that I am disarmed. “Son, ah sho’ nuff hope y’all the man ah been lookin’ fo’. We gone troo a bunch-a sto’keepahs, and they drunk up mah cookin’ wines, an’ mah vanilla extrack…they sniffin’ up mah sterno, ‘bout druve Jawnah plum lowdown loco.”

Another black man, in uniform and cap, perhaps 35, tall, erect, with a neat mustache, ambles up. His name tag reads FRANKLIN MYLES, STEWARD.

“Franklin,” says the captain. “We got us a new sto’keepah name of Franklin.” He chortles at the coincidence.

The steward shakes my hand weakly, gazes past me. “Well, cap’n,” he says in a squeaky falsetto. “Ah sho nuff hope he work out better’n them jive turkeys been roonin’ the chef’s sto’rooms.”

The chef smiles at me in a manner indicating we’re already on amiable terms. “Franklin, ah ‘speck this young man be jes’ fine. Ah got a good feelin’ ‘bout him.” The trust in his eyes is fathomless. He nods. “He gwin be jes’ fine.”

I figure I got no choice not to be. Old Joyner, he’s hooked me like a trout.


Myles, the steward, leads me through the Queen on a bit of a tour—a floating antique. An articulate man, he explains that the Queen is a sister ship of the Delta King, which sits on the Sacramento River; both were shipped over here in parts from Scotland and reassembled. The King passed through the Panama Canal. The stairway leading to the passenger dining room is composed of the finest woods, brass and chandeliers. He takes me below to the laundry room which is stacked with a mountain of linen and uniforms, and working atop it is a familiar looking person, a gangly fellow around my age with a hatchet face that seems to have been hastily reconstructed after severe damage. His dark hair sprouts straight up like a woodpecker’s mane. Where have I seen this character?

Then I remember—on Canal Street. The hood of a battered ’51 Ford coupe was up, and this guy was working on the engine. Later he was beneath the car, tinkering. Then the Ford was gone and I saw him wobbling drunkenly down Bourbon Street, Dixie beer in hand, clad in mismatching over-sized plaid attire, mere rags, grinning goofily. He now wears a blue work shirt and white checked kitchen pants.

Myles introduces him to me as Kachefski, Laundry Man. He issues me a tentative shake, looking sheepishly away, and he might be wall-eyed. He hands me linen, Army blanket, two blue short-sleeve work shirts. “That’s a nice jacket,” he says shyly. “You been in the Army?” When I nod, he says, “They wouldn’t take me. I got pins in my legs from a car wreck. Hit a tree going ninety miles an hour. Half the guys I went to school with are dead—from car crashes and Vietnam.”

“What happened to your ‘51 Ford?”

He’s surprised. “How’d you know about my Ford?”

“Saw you working on it on Canal.”

“Yeh, that was my all-time favorite jalopy. It really had guts. It’s dead now. They towed it away and I woke up in the back seat in the junk yard. I had to sell the jalopy and my tools to pay for towing, or they were gonna put me in jail for vagrancy. I had just enough money left to do some drinking, but I sure am glad I got this job. What’s your job?”

“Sto’keepah.” Myles is looking back and forth at us like, what we got HERE? These white folks! I do declare! “Where you from, Kachefski?”

“Hart, Michigan. Where you from?”

“L.A. Where the hell’s Hart, Michigan?”

“Near Lake Michigan, by the giant dunes, south of Luddington, north of Muskegon. We’re pretty small.”

Myles has me by the arm. “Come on, Mr. Sto’keepah, I show you where you gonna live.”


Myles leads me to a warren of rooms below deck—cramped, four to a room, a faint whiff of musk reminiscent of barracks life. My quarters are at the end of the hallway directly under the bow, farthest from the shower area. There is a porthole and two Army-like cots, and the one away from the door is covered neatly with a colorful comforter. A simple wooden dresser is in a far corner, and atop it, lined up in perfect juxtaposition beside a toilet kit are brush, hair pick, baby powder, witch hazel, bicarbonate of soda, peroxide, tiny scissors. Above the dresser, tacked to the wall, is a small, gleaming mirror. No dust anywhere. Three rows of leather shoes, variously colored, stuffed with trees, polished to a high gloss, are arranged under the cot beside foot powder. Two flawlessly pressed white shirts and black waiter jackets rest on wooden hangers on pegs in the wall. Beside the cot is a single plastic milk crate on which stands an alarm clock, goose-neck reading lamp, and a book—“The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Name tags on the waiter jackets read, JEROME DAVIS. I drop my bedding and shirts on the narrow mattress. A fresh fragrance and slight breeze from the porthole offsets the mustiness of the hallway.

The steward says, “Most-a these rooms are noisy, four to a room. Davis, he likes to be alone. He won’t like this. Most waiters are two to a room. Now Davis, he’s quiet, and he won’t stand for no jive. You seem like a mature young man. I think you’ll like Davis.” He flashes an uncertain and mischievous smile. “Once y’all get to know him.”


Myles takes me down to the storeroom, which borders the crew dining room, where the chef awaits me, ants in his pants, raring to go. He opens the main storeroom—the size of a large bedroom and looking like a tornado swept through it. I stand outside the doorway while he confides how a steady stream of no-accounts wrecked the storeroom, the meat locker, bakery, cold storage, and produce room. He had to come down and scavenge through the mess for items to send up to the galley on the dumbwaiter in the crew dining room so they could cook.

“Day’uhl, it hard t’ find a good man nowadays. Young men, they ain’t hongry. When ah’z a young man wuzn’t nobody keep up with Jawnah, an’ ‘at’s why ah got har’d. These young folks, they don’t wanna work.”

Two men stand near the serving counter in the dining room and observe me. There are three long tables parallel to one another, a small card table off by itself, a smaller condiment table, all on a linoleum floor. One of the observers, slender, charcoal-colored and sleepy-looking, sporting a crushed, shapeless hat, slouches against a wall as if he has no spine, cigarette dangling from his lips, broom in hand. Behind the serving table, busying himself in a noisy huff, is a black man around 40 with a huge solid belly, broad shoulders, square head, and a short neck with a hump at the base. His face and nose are flat, nostrils like holes in a double-barrel shotgun, lips pursed in a severe pout, hooded eyes lifting to appraise me with unmasked suspicion and disapproval, as if I am a stray dog in HIS backyard. The chef introduces him to me as Jessie, the man in charge of the crew dining room. The other, low-key man is his assistant, Emmet. While Jessie continues scowling at me, Emmet nods, almost smirking, like he knows something I don’t know that will not turn out well.

“Ain’t nothin’ but no-accounts and thieves been in these sto’rooms, boy,” Jessie snaps at me in a nasal singsong. “I done stick-whupped ‘em til they bleedin’ half t’ death. Y’all don’t take good care mah chef, y’all git the same, boy.”

The chef sags. “Jess, ah got a good feelin’ ‘bout this young man.”

Jessie huffs while Emmet smiles to himself. The chef and I enter the storeroom. I shed my field jacket. There is hardly an item on the unmarked shelves. Boxes and sacks are strewn about, cans, large and small, in scattered heaps. It is hard to move through the mess. I hoist a case and hurl it out into the dining room, where a snooping Jessie jumps out of the way. He and the chef exchange glances. Emmet puts down his broom, pours himself a cup of coffee, sits down at one of the tables and turns on a small transistor radio to some scratchy blues and watches me heave more cases and sacks out into the dining room as the chef and Jessie back away. The chef says he has work in the galley and moves up the winding stairway to the galley like he’s in a race, arms pumping, cap flopping back and forth.

Sweating, I clear the floor, sweep and mop it, and ask Jessie for masking tape. He hands me some as Emmet rolls a cigarette and lights up. After taping and marking shelves I begin stacking cases and sacks against a wall, open certain cases and stack shelves, finding room for every small and gallon can in the room. The chef scampers in, skids to a halt, does a double-take, and grins. “Why, y’all one workin’ sonofagun.”

“I’ve put in a system, chef, simplified the inventory. I’ll need my own key.”

He nods quickly. “Ain’t nobody gwin have a key but y’all and me.” He peers around. “Ah’m so pleased, son. Y’all sho is the man ah been lookin’ fo.’”

Then he shows me my other storerooms down the hall from the dining room, near quarters for waiters, cooks and engineers. Jessie stands in the doorway of the main storeroom, hands on hips, peering in. The other rooms are in disarray. I vow to the chef I will have them ship-shape by evening. He smacks my arm, grins, scampers up the stairway. Jessie steps out of my way as I return to my storerooms. Suddenly, the captain tramps up, halts abruptly at the doorway, peers around.

“Look pretty good,” he concedes with a grunt.

Jessie says, “He done worked like no man, cap’n.”

The captain continues appraising; then walks to a corner where I’ve stacked empty boxes. “No room fo’ these,” he snaps. There is a half-door opening and he grabs a box and flings it through the opening into the Mississippi. He starts to grab another and I snatch it away from him as Jessie recoils in mock-horror.

“What the hell you think you doin’?” snaps the captain, flustered.

“I need those boxes, sir. They’re part of my new system.”

“Part-a yore system? Hell!”

“I use ‘em to send supplies up to the galley, and I need ‘em for inventory, ordering, stocking. Everything in this room has a purpose, sir, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t pitch my boxes into the river.”

Jessie backs away from the door. Emmet perks up as the captain’s face and neck flush. Uh oh. His squinty eyes flash. “This mah gawdamn ship!” he bellows. “Y’all been on this yere ship two hours and you tellin’ me how t’ run mah sto’rooms!”

“Cap’n, sir, I’m the storekeeper. These are MY storerooms. I gotta run things my way, or you’ll have to find more worthless no-accounts to make a mess like I found here, if that’s what you want.”

Jessie shakes his head at me and rolls his eyes. Emmet grins. The captain sputters. “This mah goddam ship! Ev-a thing on this ship mine! These sto’rooms, they mine…”

“Then why’d you hire me if YOU wanna run ‘em? I’m busy, sir, tryna get things ship-shape for the chef, and you’re in here interfering with my system.”

He looks around for help, but Jessie and Emmet turn away. “Now he kickin’ me out mah sto’rooms,” he growls at them. “Ah jes’ har’d the sumbitch…ah’m talkin’ to mah chef ‘bout this crazy sumbitch.”

He tromps out, huffing up the stairs. I gaze at Jessie and Emmet with my best imitation of the ghetto-glare. “Sometimes,” I tell them, “these white folks jes’ gotta be put in their proper place.” I turn and re-stack my empty boxes, then feel Jessie in the doorway.

“Mistah sto’keepah,” he oozes, very polite. “May ah puh-leeeeze have fo’ cans a sterno, so’s we-all can keep the chef’s vittles warm fo’ mah boys?”

I find four cans of sterno and hand them over.

“Thank Y’ALL, mistah sto’keepah.” He half bows and returns to his area behind the serving table, beaming a smile at me, as if he’s seen the light, while Emmet hums to his radio, nodding at me. I go back into my storerooms.


A few minutes later the chef storms into my storeroom, eyes ablaze. “Ah done kick the cap’n out mah kitchen,” he announces. “Y’all done good, kickin’ him out. He got no bizness meddlin’…ah got t’ kick him out mah kitchen half the time.” He flashes a smile. “Don’t let him meddle no mo’. Y’all a good man. Ah gwin talk to that ole cap’n an’ git y’all a raise. Ah got me a good man, an ah don’t aim t’ lose him nohow!”

He turns and scampers up those stairs. Jessie and Emmet are unloading steaming pots of food from the dumbwaiter and setting them up under sterno on the serving table. Jessie catches my eye.

“Chef Joyner, he cook the best peas ‘n ham in the South, mistah sto’keepah. Man work hard as y’all, he need to eat. Y’all lookin’ too skinny fo’ mah taste, though you got them man’s arms.” He winks. “Sit down now, chile, we goin’ feed y’all some soul food, put some meat on them bones.”

Crew members, mostly deck hands and porters, trickle in, line up at the serving counter, plates in hand, waiting for Jessie, who takes his time fussing over his pots of food, the aromas heady and heart-breaking. One of the bigger deckhands grouses at Jessie to hurry up, and Jessie fixes him with a stare of such chilling malevolence the man lowers his eyes, and now Jessie moves even slower, sulky. I drift to the rear of the room, and a few crew members glance at me as I lean arms-folded against a wall, trying to act comfortable with my newness.

When the line begins moving, Jessie appears rankled while he plops food on their plates, much like the surly, desultory Army cooks during basic training. “Do move along,” he chides in a whiny nasal voice rising to a strident singsong. “I say, DO move along.”

A tall, skinny, buck-toothed deckhand complains mildly about his portions, and Jessie stiffens, halts. “No sass from you-all, youngblood, or I stick-whup yo’ ugly black ass til it ain’t black no mo’.” There is grumbling among the men, but they are mostly resigned. “I say, DO move along. Y’all GIT seconds. Don’t wanna hear no cryin’ an’ whinin’ from no lazy ass niggers.”

The captain enters, followed by a small white-uniformed officer, perhaps 30, preppie, boyish-looking. Behind him is another officer, a thickset 40-year-old with a chiseled face and dark, engaging eyes; he smiles and nods at everybody, like an experienced social leader. The three men hang their hats on a rack and sit down. Jessie allows Emmet to take over the serving and flutters to these men, pouring ice teas as Franklin Myles joins them.

“How’s mah cap’n?” Jessie oozes.

“Jes’ fine, Jessuh.”

Jessie gushes over the officers, brings their food, then returns to wait on the last person in line, me, on whose plate he drops extra portions of rice, black-eyed peas, and collared greens, smiling at me as if we’re in cahoots. Emmet places a large wedge of cornbread on the mountain of food and the other crew members glance up to observe my outrageous bounty as I sit at the end of one of the deserted tables, away from the crowd.

I hear Jessie, “Cap’n…,” as he hands the officers linen napkins. “We got us a new sto’keepah, and he done OWN them sto’rooms, suh!”

The captain tucks his napkin at his throat. “Kick me out mah gawdamn sto’rooms!” he bleats, turning to his officers. “Been on the rivah all mah life, and nobody kick me out-a no sto’room befo’. Now this new sto’keepah tell me t’ git out his sto’rooms, cuz them sto’rooms HIS!”

The 40ish man smiles at me and winks. I taste my food, and an elixir moves immediately through my system like a natural high. I eat, and eat, mopping up gravy with cornbread. Jessie smiles at me like an adoring matriarch as deckhands straggle up for seconds. “Aint nobody cook peas ‘n ham like our chef,” he chirps, simpering.

“Now this new sto’keepah say he gon quit he don’t get a raise…after he kick me out HIS sto’rooms! He think this gawdamn ship HIS. Gawdammit, ah guess ah ain’t got a damn thing t’ say “bout nothin’ no mo’.”

Myles giggles and the officers grin as Jessie refills their glasses of tea, the steward last, of course. He moseys by and fills my glass and returns to his station in prim, mincing steps. The crew shuffles along for seconds, and Jessie suddenly seems resigned and too depleted to scowl and wheedle, just plops food into their plates as if he’s got a dirty job and sees no way out but to trudge on, long-suffering, sweat streaming down his molten face and dripping from his chin and nose, saturating his neck.


My storerooms are squared away by mid-evening and I feel like celebrating my new job. Chef Joyner is only too happy to dig into his cigar box and loan me $20 when I ask for $10, a spot against my wage, which is to be $75 a week instead of $65 when the captain agrees to my raise. Damn, I found a home!

Kachefski comes along, and we manage to wedge into Martin’s, finding the Marines, who buy round after round of shots to toast my job. We get pretty smashed, say our goodbyes, and straggle back to the Queen. Kachefski eschews a cot in one of the rooms and rigs up a blanket/pallet atop the 15-foot-high mound of linen. It is dark in my quarters and I stand by my cot waiting for a little starlight to outline the room through the porthole. A long hump is under the covers of the other bunk. I’m sticky and rank, need a shower. I try to make my cot as quietly as possible so as not to awaken the sleeping hump, but bang around while doing so. I creep down to the shower room, where, alone, I soap up and rinse off and return to the room, where my room mate reads, his lamp shining.

Davis sits under his blanket, bifocals in place. He could be 50, hair neatly parted on one side and specked with gray. He is not as dark chocolate as the chef but with similar refined, handsome features, and his neatly clipped mustache is also graying. He glances at me with only his eyes, not moving his head as I stand like a lump, towel around my waist.

“If you’re going to get drunk,” Davis says, enunciating his words carefully like a college professor, which he resembles. “Please do not destroy the room.” His voice is strong, resonant, like a blues singer.

“Sorry. I couldn’t see. Didn’t mean to awaken you, sir.”

He shifts his eyes back to the book. I quickly rummage through my pack and change into briefs and climb under covers. I take out my current bible, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and stare at a page.

After a silence, I ask, “Do you like the porthole open?”

“Always, unless there’s a hurricane.”

“Good. I like the fresh air.”

Davis continues reading.

“Listen,” I find myself saying. “I hate to interrupt your reading, but I’m the new storekeeper, Franklin.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard, Mr. Franklin.”

“Well, I know you’re Mr.Davis. Just wanted to introduce myself.”

“Very well, Mr. Franklin. We are now formally introduced. I will be reading for a short time, until I feel sleep return. Then I will turn off my lamp. If it is your desire to read at night, I suggest you find a low-wattage lamp. You can plug it in my outlet.”

“Thanks, Mr. Davis. I appreciate that. Glad to meet you.”

He keeps his eyes on his book, turns a page with exceptionally long fingers, nails immaculate. His wrists are thick, and, like the chef, there is a natural bulge to his forearms. I turn back to my book. Very softly, the river laps against the hull below our porthole, and I feel safe and secure and adrift from the turbulence of the outside world. I am so tired. The book falls out of my hand. I curl up, turn away; a delicious cool draft from the porthole wafts over me. The reveling down town is finally expiring in the distance. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his chocolate lab, Wilbur, a rescue dog. He is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice and is currently working on a book about his dad who played professionally in the early days of baseball, 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.