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By 1974, the U.S. had withdrawn most of its troops from its ill-fated proxy war in Vietnam, and Fort Bragg was the first stateside stop for GIs who had been “in country” for tours of combat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.