The Shrewd Operator

Staff Sergeant William McNally, 1974
I can’t look back on 1974 without wincing. It was a rough year for me. But I got through it with the help of one of the shrewdest, most savvy leaders I’ve ever known.

Let me set the stage for this tale.
In 1974 I was involved with a woman who was not good for me, and I was only beginning the painful realization of how bad for me she really was. And I was not living in an especially uplifting place. I was an Army medic stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I had about a year to go before my discharge, and I was not yet old enough to realize how quickly a year passes.
Now, the good townsfolk of Fayetteville have worked hard for the past few decades to make their city a safe, pleasant place to live. But in 1974, that work had yet to begin and the city was, to put it plainly, a cesspool of crime and sleaze.

By 1974, the U.S. had withdrawn most of its troops from its ill-fated proxy war in Vietnam, and Fort Bragg was the first stateside stop for GIs who had been “in country” for tours of combat duty. These troops brought with them many skills, habits and deeply ingrained reactions that had kept them alive during their fight against a clever, ruthless enemy in the jungles of southeast Asia.

But some of these men were haunted and deeply troubled by their experiences, and those skills and habits so necessary in combat were sometimes misapplied in Fayetteville. Strange and unusually violent crimes were being committed—especially on Gillespie Street, which had become so dangerous that it was nicknamed “Combat Alley.”

And then there was downtown Fayetteville’s infamous 500 block of Hay Street—a gaudy, sleazy celebration of youthful testosterone and a testament to how many eyes local government officials were willing to close to avoid interfering with a shady but lucrative form of commerce. The block was a nearly unbroken strip of topless bars whose names—Pop-A-Top Lounge, Pump House, Rick’s Lounge, Seven Dwarfs, King’s Den, Nite Cap, Oasis—blazed above the sidewalk in neon, so that at night from a distance the glow almost made it seem like Hay Street was on fire.
Inside these bars, well-endowed young women removed nearly all their clothing while lonely young men guzzled overpriced beer and tucked folded currency behind the dancers’ G-strings. Even the historic and once-dignified Prince Charles Hotel at 450 Hay Street had topless dancers displaying their charms in its lounge.

A portion of the 500 block of Hay Street, downtown Fayetteville,
North Carolina, circa 1974. Photo by Fayetteville Observer
Bragg Boulevard, the four-lane thoroughfare that bisected Fort Bragg and ended at Hay Street, was lined with businesses that thrived on the impulsive decisions and poor judgement of young men eager to separate themselves from their monthly pay and fat reenlistment bonuses in exchange for something fast, shiny and loud. Used car lots offered hot, low-mileage cars—the previous owners hadn’t kept up payments long enough to pile on too many miles—on credit to anyone who’d reached the rank of private first class. The harsh, grating chant of a radio commercial hawking Hondas for Meridian Motorcycle is still imbedded in my memory like a fishhook. And interspersed among the used car lots, motorcycle dealers and still more topless bars were, of course, the pawn shops.
The city’s wholehearted embrace of trashy vulgarity as an economic anchor and its reputation for violent crime had earned it some unflattering but well-deserved nicknames—among them Fatalburg and Fayette Nam. A thoughtful fellow medic from Oregon noted that everything about Fayetteville in 1974 seemed geared toward stimulating the gonads and engaging the libidos of 20-year-old males.

I was in charge of the small pharmacy at Troop Medical Clinic 22 at Simmons Army Airfield, which provided health care for several airborne units. One of my most important duties was to remember to order extra massive doses of penicillin injections when the monthly payday happened to fall on a Friday. On those weekends, Hay Street was swarming with young GIs seeking that most primal of satisfactions. It was said that when a Fort Bragg payday fell on a Friday, hookers were bused in from as far away as Baltimore and Dallas.
The author at Troop Medical Clinic 22, Fort Bragg,
North Carolina, 1974
I knew I’d be needing those extra penicillin injections around Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week. It was as predictable as the sunrise and as certain as an incubation period.

I’d been expecting to see a bit of the world while I was in the Army. But I’d landed in the grimmest, most joyless environment I’d ever encountered. Things could have been far worse for me, of course, but I was still young and naïve, and a year at Fort Bragg seemed like a life sentence.

So I probably drank a little more than I should have, saw an Army shrink for a while to try to get a handle on my frustrations with Fort Bragg and the emotional pain being inflicted on me by the woman I mentioned earlier, and made plans for the big day when I’d be discharged. Basically, I did my job and stayed out of trouble. But I was moody, sometimes mildly depressed, and always a bit annoyed.
And this is where Staff Sergeant William McNally enters the story.

If I remember correctly, Mac was from Kansas. He was an Army lifer in his mid-40s who’d done a tour or two in Vietnam, brought home a Vietnamese wife, and now was the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of TMC 22. And he was a genius, in his own way, at leading young soldiers.

No army in history, from Caesar’s Legions and Napoleon’s Grand Armée to Hitler’s Wehrmacht and MacArthur’s Battling Bastards of Bataan, has ever been able to function effectively without thousands of McNallys in its ranks. It's been said that an army’s commissioned officers are responsible only for two things—where the troops are supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there. NCOs are responsible for everything else, and it’s also been said that if an NCO doesn’t tell a commissioned officer how he got something done, the officer shouldn’t ask because there’s probably a good reason why the NCO didn’t tell him.
Mac knew how to maneuver in this world of strict written rules and even stricter unwritten rules. He understood the nuts and bolts of the Army’s organizational structure, and no shrink has ever had a more practical and insightful understanding of human psychology. Watching him work the system to accomplish both military objectives and personal favors for the troops under him was watching a master plying his craft.

He knew when to follow Army regulations to the letter, and when to wink and sidestep the book. When he needed a favor, he knew who to ask and how to reward him when the favor was done. And he understood the going rate for exchanging favors, so that if another smoothly operating NCO asked him for a favor, he knew exactly what he could reasonably request in return.

I can’t recall all his skillful manipulations of the system that I witnessed, and of course I have no idea how many schemes he hatched that I wasn't aware of. But I never knew of him abusing his remarkable powers, and I do recall his personal motto that he often repeated: “Take care of the troops, and the troops will take care of you.”

And I clearly recall one time in particular when he took care of me.
During one week, I was going through an especially rough stretch. I was glum, sullen and simply a pain to be around. To make matters worse, payday was still a week away and I was broke.

After a couple days of my crankiness, Mac had had enough. Late one afternoon he confronted me in one of the treatment rooms in the clinic. “Drye, you got any money?” he asked.

“Geez, Mac, what do you think?” I growled, thinking he was going to hit me up for a loan. “Payday’s a week away. Hell no, I don’t have any money.”

He nodded, pulled out his billfold, and slapped a $10 bill on a table. For perspective, a ten-spot in 1974 would have the buying power of more than $50 today.

“I want you to go downtown tonight and get drunk,” he said. “That’s a direct order. If you come in here tomorrow morning without a hangover, I’m gonna have the MPs haul you in for disobeying orders.”

Then he turned and walked out, closing the door behind him.
What else could I do? I picked up the $10, and the following morning I reported for duty with a scorching hangover. My head was pounding, but the snotty mood was gone. Mac never said another word about it and didn't even ask me to repay the ten bucks.

A few months later, I had my Honorable Discharge. I said goodbye to Mac and left Fort Bragg like it was a burning building. I haven’t seen Mac since then. But I’ve never forgotten him.



Ruth and Arnold

You never know what you're going to come across in a thrift store in Florida. That's because so many people move there every year to run out the clock, so to speak.

Ruth and Arnold, September 1954
They've made it to retirement. They load their furniture and their favorite possessions into a van in Stamford or Albany or Montclair or Scranton. Things like their favorite vinyl Dave Brubeck and Jackie Gleason albums they've been carrying around since they graduated from Villanova in 1961. The silverware from B. Altman in White Plains that they received as a wedding gift. The camera equipment and slide projector they've had since that first big raise. The slightly vulgar but somehow irresistable porcelain hillbilly frog they found in a roadside tourist trap during a memorable vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains one summer.

Everything into the van, and we'll see you in Vero Beach or Fort Myers or Sarasota or Stuart.

The golden years pass, and then, of course, the inevitable happens, and the adult kids come down to sort through their parents' belongings. Some of the obviously valuable stuff they keep, along with a few things for sentiment's sake. But the rest--who wants 40-year-old technology, or chipped tchotchke, or VHS videos? But we can't just throw it away, it belonged to mom and dad. What the hell do we do with it?

And that's where Florida's thrift stores come into the picture--stores that support worthy causes such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill, local PTAs and churches. Every day, carloads of stuff are unloaded at hundreds of thrift stores in the Sunshine State. Some of it comes through the front door during regular business hours and is welcomed. A lot of it just shows up in the dead of night, left in the alley by "donors" who don't want to be told that their stuff isn't wanted.

That's how I came across a small slice of the lives of Ruth and Arnold.

Ruth and Arnold, October 1954

I loved poking around thrift stores when we lived in Florida in the '90s. Never knew what I'd find. There always was the possibility, however remote, that I might uncover a dusty, ridiculously undervalued treasure. But what really drew me to the thrift stores was that browsing through them was like visiting an uncurated museum. And then there often was cheap stuff I could use.

I was taking a lot of photos in those days, using a Nikon 35 mm camera and shooting mostly slide film in the days before digital cameras were commonplace. I was always looking for storage containers for my slides. One day--I think it was at a store in Stuart--I found a metal slide storage case for a couple bucks. I took it home and discovered that there were 10 slides in the case. They were unusual, framed in metal. They showed a 40-ish couple, identified by small labels on the slides as Ruth and Arnold.

The labels also said the slides had been shot during the late summer and early fall of 1954. The locations of the photos weren't given, but they had a definite urban northeastern town-and-country vibe.

Ruth and Arnold at the shore, 1954
Arnold was an attractive man with a Tony Soprano-like physique. He was a snappy dresser who seemed to me to project an attitude of competence and no-nonsense.

Arnold clearly was very successful at whatever he did for a living. Maybe he was a lawyer. Or a broker. Or maybe he was a "Mad Man" who worked for an advertising agency on Madison Avenue. However he earned his daily bread, in October 1954 he was photographed proudly propped on his elbow, leaning on a sleek, low-slung 1954 Ford Thunderbird. The license tag on the car was issued in Essex County, New Jersey, which I assume is where Ruth and Arnold lived.

Arnold leaning on a 1954 Ford Thunderbird
Ruth during the shore outing

When Ruth wore heels, she was a couple inches taller than Arnold. The photos show a stylish woman with finishing-school poise. Arnold bought her a mink jacket that she wore on an outing to the seashore, presumably when the weather was starting to turn cooler. She and Arnold are photographed together on a boardwalk. During that same outing, they posed for separate photos in the courtyard of a large building, perhaps a hotel. Arnold looks sharp in a topcoat and fedora. Ruth is wearing the mink and the same shoes as she wears in the boardwalk photo.

My favorite photo is the one at the top of this post. It shows Ruth and Arnold in what I assume is their living room. There's a vase of flowers on a sidetable. Ruth is seated, smiling at the photographer, who, judging from the angle of the shot, is crouching a few feet away. Arnold, natty in a bowtie and sports jacket, is looking down at his wife with a beaming smile on his face. He's standing erect, heels together, arms at his sides, like an ex-soldier standing at attention. He's clearly a happy man.

I've still got those curious slides of Ruth and Arnold, stashed somewhere in storage with the piles of other junk that I hauled out of Florida thrift stores and lugged back to North Carolina--the Jackie Gleason vinyl albums I got for a quarter each in Vero Beach, the 1950s-vintage slide projecter (still works!) that I paid $10 for somewhere on US 1 near Melbourne, the bizzare mug with a flip-top lid that's a plastic head of St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith that I think I found in Fort Pierce for a buck or two.

Someday they're going to be going through my stuff, and they're going to wonder why I have these ancient slides labeled "Ruth and Arnold." The answer is, I don't know, they just looked interesting.


So (At Last) We're Back . . .

So after a layoff that was a lot longer than I intended, Drye Goods is back with a new look, coming to you from a new city.

We're now in Wilmington, recently chosen as North Carolina's favorite city in an online survey. The blog's slick new look was designed by our slick young nephew Mike Morrow, a recent UVa grad who's now working in Washington, D.C. We have fond memories of Mike as a nine-year-old kid doing standup comedy on the porch of a vacation rental at Sunset Beach some years ago. Now he's an ambitious, multi-talented young man with a bright future. He's out to make his mark on the world as an entrepreneur. We think he'll soon reach that goal.

I don't know how scientific the survey was that designated Wilmington the state's favorite city, but it's always been high on my list of cities where I'd like to live. For starters, it's a seaport, and seaports seem to me to always be more interesting than most inland cities.

As a seaport, Wilmington has had the world coming and going since 1739--walking its streets and hoisting mugs in its saloons, pursuing hopes and coping with disappointments, chasing the future and running from the past, raising families and burying the dead. During those 278 years, the cultures, cuisines, languages and habits of the world have been deposited here, and while all those influences may not be apparent to the naked eye, they're all part of the city's character, all part of its social archaeology, its ambience.
Wilmington's downtown waterfront on the Cape Fear
River. (Photo from Seagate Boating website)

There are some beautiful neighborhoods--so very Southern--with graceful, lovely old homes on streets lined with oaks dripping Spanish moss. Some of the houses, of course, were built with slave labor. Wilmington has had a few moments of infamy during its long history. And it's not without some modern problems. While the city has the allure of being a seaport and a gateway to the world, it also has a problem common to seaports--drug trafficking.

So it's not a gated community where the bad is shut out. It has beauty and blemishes, charm and ugliness.

We're in a good neighborhood with good neighbors, not far from downtown. And the downtown is lively--in fact I haven't lived in a town with a downtown like this since the old days in Chapel Hill back in the '80s. Front Street is lined with restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops, bookstores. There are restaurants that specialize in the old-style Southern cooking I grew up with, and others offering trendy haute cuisine. The grocery stores run the gamut from Food Lion to the more exotic (and expensive) Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. There are two colleges providing plenty of young, tattooed, pierced and dreadlocked hipsters for the street scene.

There are museums, including the Cape Fear Museum, which features an exhibit about the early days of Wilmington's most famous native son, basketball superstar Michael Jordan. There's also a remnant of the movie industry that was thriving here until the newly conservative state legislature revoked their tax breaks and sent most of the producers and technicians scurrying off to Atlanta, which welcomed them with open arms. Our friends in Raleigh never really explained why they were eager to hand out tax breaks for just about everybody except the movie studios.

I'm getting settled into my Marvin Spencer-designed office, converted from a garage. I'm sharing it with two cats. We get on each other's nerves sometimes and I think they still expect to be going back to Plymouth any day now. But for the most part we've learned to co-exist.

New city, new life, new (sort of) blog. I promise at least a few updates every month. So we're back in business. Stop by again soon.


The Long Journey Home

On February 24, 1865, a side wheel steamboat chuffed up the James River and eased alongside a makeshift dock at Aiken’s Landing, Virginia, a few miles, as the crow flies, from Richmond.
When the steamboat was secured, a gangplank was extended to the dock. Soon a long line of men – weary, ragged, emaciated – was shuffling slowly down the gangplank. They were Confederate soldiers who’d recently been released from a Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. They would later board a Confederate steamboat flying a white flag that would take them up the winding river and through Union lines to Richmond.
That’s how close General Ulysses Grant’s troops were to Richmond in February 1865 – a steamboat that left the Confederate capital was behind enemy lines only a few miles downriver. Although Confederate General Robert E. Lee had managed to keep Grant from taking Richmond, his days of working military miracles had passed. Soon Grant would break Lee’s defenses at nearby Petersburg, throwing the door to Richmond wide open.
The war would be over in about six weeks.
A few days earlier, a similar line of bedraggled, tired and alarmingly skinny young men had tramped wearily up a gangplank at Aiken’s Landing to board the steamer New York. They were Union solders who’d just been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.
Confederate leaders have long been justly criticized for the appalling conditions where Union prisoners were held. But what seems less known is that conditions for Confederate prisoners in Union POW camps were little, if any, better. And the POW camp for Confederates at Point Lookout was among the worst.
My great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, was one of those ragged Confederate soldiers who got off the steamboat at Aiken’s Landing on that February day 150 years ago. He’d been with the 52nd North Carolina Infantry when he was captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station in October 1863. He’d spent 16 months at Point Lookout. The camp was intended for 10,000 prisoners, but the population quickly swelled to 20,000.
The Confederate prisoners had had to endure two bitterly cold winters in tents, sleeping on the ground. Once in a while they were given a few scraps of wood for a fire, but mostly they shivered from November until March. There was never enough food, and the men often caught and cooked rats.
William’s brother Thomas, captured at Gettysburg and imprisoned at Point Lookout at the same time, died there of smallpox in January 1864.
William and the other former POWs were taken to Camp Winder Hospital, a sprawling complex of wooden buildings at the western edge of Richmond. The hospital was organized into divisions, and each division housed soldiers from one of the states in the Confederacy. William went to the Third Division, which cared for soldiers from North Carolina.
The conditions at Camp Winder Hospital were primitive by modern standards, but at least the men slept on cots in buildings heated by woodstoves. And they were fed. It was unappealing institutional food prepared in large quantities from whatever foodstuffs could be scrounged by the dying Confederate government. But it was better – anything was better – than rat soup at Point Lookout.
William hadn’t been paid since June 30, 1863 – the day before the first day’s fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg. On March 4, he received 20 months’ back pay – around $220. That would have been quite a bit of money in 1865, but the payment was in Confederate dollars, which were virtually worthless at that point. In 1907, James Roden, a Confederate soldier who was hospitalized at Camp Winder a few months before William, recalled that he’d spent two months’ pay for a dozen eggs during his hospitalization.
Robert Krick, historian for the Richmond National Battlefield Park, said that soldiers sent to Camp Winder after being released from POW camps typically were very weak from malnourishment. The usual procedure was to keep the men hospitalized until they’d rested and regained enough strength to travel, then send them home on a 30- or 60-day furlough to completely recover.
That’s probably the treatment William received at Winder, Krick said.
Even though William was only 25 years old in 1865, his stamina would have been greatly reduced by 16 months at Point Lookout. Simply getting out of bed and walking across a room could have been exhausting.
There’s no record of how long William was hospitalized. His service records end with his payday on March 4. So there’s no way of knowing for certain how long he was in Richmond, or when he left, or when he arrived at the family farm back home in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Nor is there any way of knowing how he traveled the 270 miles between Richmond and Cabarrus County.
It would have been weeks before William regained enough strength to travel. By March 24, he would have been recuperating at Camp Winder for one month. It seems unlikely that he would have left before then.
If he left before the end of March, he probably traveled on the Richmond & Danville Railroad (later the Southern Railway) from Richmond to the Cabarrus County seat of Concord. As the train left Greensboro and chugged through the rolling hills of the North Carolina piedmont, he undoubtedly was relieved to see the familiar landscape of his home.
But he was a changed young man after three years of war, and I wonder if that landscape didn’t bring back other memories. During a private guided tour of the Gettysburg battlefield a few years ago, I mentioned to tour guide Gary Kross how much the topography of southern Pennsylvania reminded me of back home. Kross smiled and said many North Carolinians who visit Gettysburg say exactly the same thing.
So as William approached Concord, the familiar landscape may have reminded him less of home than of the horrors of the Battle of Gettysburg, and of the death and gore of Pickett’s Charge. He was coming home to a family decimated by the Civil War. Two brothers, two uncles and a cousin had died. He may have thought that fate could not possibly deal another blow to his family.
But if that thought did cross William’s mind, he was wrong.
The engraving at the top of this post, from Harper's Weekly of March 18, 1865, shows Union soldiers who'd been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps boarding the steamboat New York at Aiken's Landing on the James River a few miles downriver from Richmond, Virginia. Three days later, Confederate solders released from the Union POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland would be unloaded from a steamboat at the same spot.