Working Class Hero Johnny Franco Lays it Down

Native New Yorker was a Stand-up Guy and Good American

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This story has nothing to do with Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian or any other shameless politician or celebrity. Instead, it's about a working class hero named Johnny Franco who died last week at the age of 76 and was buried Tuesday after leading an awesome life.

If you didn't know him you have my condolences.

Johnny was a friend of mine, a U.S. Amy veteran, proud liberal, and a hard-working, middle class guy who did what he could to make the United States of America a better place to live. He's about as different from our nation's current crop of toxic elites as can be in that respect and I want to write about him today. Not them.

Why?

Because I'm weary of the knowing lies of the silver spoons who were born on third base and think they hit a home run. The painful truth is these fame whores pale in comparison to real blue collar Americans like Johnny Franco, who are now all but invisible in the public forum.

Johnny was a scrappy little dude with a loving spouse and two great sons. A native New Yorker who paid the bills as a "thrower" at LaGuardia Airport for decades. As in luggage handler.

There was no rich daddy to grease the skids for him or help him escape the draft. So he served with the Third Armored Division in Germany at the height of the Cold War.

When I met Johnny in the 1980s he was a senior member in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). That's the Air Force auxiliary program whose volunteer members search for missing planes and the like.

The focus in New York City was on CAP's youth program at a time when life was so cheap The Bronx Press Review wouldn't write a stand-alone article about anything less than a double murder. Everything else got briefed.

Franco and his fellow seniors used the program to help young people like me in a city on the verge of collapse. They made more than 150 of our lives better and didn't ask for a nickel for their trouble.

Their primary vehicle was a competitive unit called The Bronx Group Drill Team, which dominated CAP's National Cadet Competition in the 80s. It was more like the annual "Best Ranger" endurance competitions you see on television today than the flag waving cheerleaders typically associated with the term "drill team."

Many of our members have gone on to long careers in the military and in public service. We're good Americans.

When you see a Marine drill instructor on television or an Air Force flight nurse caring for wounded soldiers, there's a chance they're one of our guys. Same goes for the New York City police officer you pass on the street, the bus driver who takes you to work, and the journalism lifer writing this column.

One of our former cadets ran the cleanup at Ground Zero after 9/11 as one of our former seniors coordinated the air cover overhead. Another one of our guys led the first body count inside St. Rita's Nursing Home after Hurricane Katrina.

It's blue collar Americans like us who make America a great place to live. Not silver spoons like Donnie Trump and George Steinbrenner, who didn't get beaten up nearly enough in junior high school.

We do it all. We're the salt of the earth. Just like Johnny Franco and the other men and women who helped form us on their own dime.

None of our guys has been a prison inmate, drug addict, or been "booted" out of a military boot camp to my knowledge. That's a pretty good record considering the dismal state of New York City at the time of our youth and the high frequency with which New York kids are usually booted.

There was no weapons training and no political or religious indoctrination on The Team. Its former members run the gamut today from proud liberals to raging conservatives, but we still love each other thanks to Franco and his fellow seniors. 

We do that by focusing on what we have in common instead of what separates us.

For decades, Franco has been one of those commonalities. He was a core member of The Team's senior training staff when the city was struggling with limited resources, drugs, crime, and lawlessness. Instead of tossing their hands up in despair, they used the team to help shape us into good citizens.

Most team members were products of broken homes. Some didn't eat regularly or have bedrooms of their own, except when they were on the road with The Team.

The seniors spent their vacations, weekends, and evenings training us at a time when the city routinely had more than 2,000 homicides a year in the 1980s. Crack was sweeping through the five boros like a biblical plague and causing an average of six murders a day. The average is less than two today.

What these big-hearted men were really doing was helping to raise us right in a time of chaos. We are their living legacy in that respect.

They didn't have to do it. They were raising families of their own in places like New Jersey, Westchester County, Queens and Long Island. They came back strictly to help us.

To understand what they accomplished you have to understand how desperate life was in the Bronx in the 1980s. New York City was struggling with massive debts which had nearly caused it to default in 1975 and the Bronx was at the bottom of the food chain among the five boros.

It wasn't a safe time to be a working class New Yorker.

It was normal to see the smoke from several insurance fires curling simultaneously into the Bronx sky each afternoon and to wait four hours in a hospital emergency room with a broken leg. If your vehicle broke down on the highway you had to stay with it until the cops arrived, lest it be "stripped" in your absence.

The good news?

Most Bronx families couldn't afford vehicles.

We were the place former President Ronald Reagan would visit every four years to gloat about how messed-up America's mostly Democratic cities were. The place New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wanted to abandon for Tampa, Fla.

Unlike those fat cats, the people of the Bronx didn't have a publicist to toot their horn for them or revise history. Which is why Hollywood was able to exploit us with impunity via films like "Fort Apache, The Bronx" and "Rumble in the Bronx."

When Tom Hanks shot a scene for the film "Bonfire of the Vanities" in the Bronx in 1990 his producers didn't even hire a single local for catering or traffic control. They didn't really know anything about the fantastic people who live there and they didn't want to know.

When New York City bought new buses from GMC, it would be five years before they trickled down to the potholed streets of our neglected boro.

The only time the Bronx made the news was when a bunch of people died, one of our elected officials was arrested on corruption charges, or some stockbroker got jumped outside Yankee Stadium.

Most Bronx residents were poor, but we were surrounded by the trappings of wealth. Wall Street professionals would zoom through the Bronx in 10 minutes on their way to Manhattan aboard limousines and Metro North trains. While we spent hours on local subway trains covered in graffiti.

We'd stare up at those Metro North trains and wonder "what train is that and how can I get on it?"

So yeah, it kind of sucked to be from the Bronx in the 80s. Unless you were a member of the Bronx Group Drill Team, which dominated Civil Air Patrol's National Cadet Competition by winning five championships and finishing second three times.

We almost always competed against all-white teams from wealthier communities in annual wing, region and national competitions involving more than 200 squads around the country. It was a helluva boost for our confidence to beat them.

Even more so, because we typically won by a lot.

We helped New York Wing win more National Cadet Competitions than any other state. Not that it mattered to the city we called home.

Our youthful exploits received no coverage whatsoever from the New York media in the 1980s, at least partly due to lingering mistrust of the military and the government after The Vietnam War. Even though our informal program was far more successful than any government funded program for at-risk kids with paid staffers.

It wasn't a good time to be seen in uniform. Especially as part of a peaceful program with no weapons or combat training. 

One cadet took to carrying two knives after he was jumped while walking in uniform in the South Bronx and lost two of his front teeth. Another carried an unlicensed revolver with no safety in his waistband when he rode the subway to practice. 

We were rough kids, but there was never any doubt who was in charge.

There was no shortage of tough love and the pushup was the  seniors' tool of choice. They gave us lots and lots of friggin pushups.

We got them for everything from talking too much (my personal favorite), to screwing up too much during drill routines, to being late. The seniors even had a kind of sign language they employed in public settings to communicate their displeasure.

They'd catch your eye across a crowded room and discreetly flash the count with their fingers, then look away. At which point the offending cadet would hit the floor and begin pumping out their assigned penance as the people around them looked on in puzzlement. 

We responded quickly and wordlessly. Lest we receive an additional set for "playing dumb."

Each finger represented five pushups. When both hands were open wide you owed 50 pushups.

Thirty-five was considered routine. The only problem was you could easily get that amount 10 times a day with a big mouth. Trust me, I know.

John Franco is the second core member from the 1980s senior training staff to die. The first was his friend and fellow Puerto Roc Charles Chaulisan (right), who passed in 1990 or so. They are survived by core seniors Henry Juan and Patrick Magee. 

Every year the seniors would train a new 16-member competition team, drawn from the five CAP squadrons in the Bronx, which often shared the city's armories with its homeless population.

We were "squadrons" in name only. Sans planes.

Being in a CAP squadron was a once a week experience, akin to being in the Boy Scouts. Whereas, being on the Bronx Group Drill Team was like playing Division I basketball in the sense that our whole world revolved around the team.

Our relative poverty made it hard to hurt us.

We literally had 200 or 300 trophies at The Kingsbridge Armory - maybe 500 - but not one aircraft, vehicle, copier or computer to our name. This was undoubtedly a source of some frustration to the folks who routinely broke into our offices there. 

When terrorists bombed the Army Reserve Center on 238th Street in 1983 the Francos' CAP squadron there didn't miss a beat.  It just met somewhere else for a bit. Same thing for The Team.

Our people were the key. Not our stuff.

Our philosophy was the complete opposite of Wall Street's "Profits Over People" mantra. When a cadet couldn't afford a uniform or shoes, the seniors went in their pockets for them. Discreetly.

It's natural to associate the military with conservative politics now, but that wasn't the case in the 1980s. Fox News hadn't arrived yet to program working class Americans to hate their own, view "liberal" as a dirty word, and treat forever war as a natural state.

The seniors were compassionate people, who believed in public service and helping the needy. Johnny wasn't shy about thinking for himself and made no bones about being a liberal.

Neither do I.

There was a central group of five to seven cadets who stayed with the team year-after-year. Which means Johnny and his fellow seniors probably touched the lives of 150 kids in the 1980s on the team alone and another 400 or so in the squadrons. 

I got the full treatment as a cadet from 1981 to 1985 and a senior from 1986 to 1990. I loved the program and the seniors, who were father figures to us all. Albeit, smartass father figures and demanding taskmasters.

They asked a lot and they gave a lot. Once you made the cut and became a member of our "Marching 12," you were absolutely engulfed in tough love. The 16 member teams also had a team commander and three alternates.

There were only two or three white kids on The Team in the 80s. I was the only Jew, but I never felt like an outsider. I was known simply as "Epa," a nickname my former teammates still use today. 

Chaulisan and Franco enjoyed reminding me of the frequent gang fights between Jews and Puerto Ricans which occurred in their youth, back in prehistoric times, when the team was at attention. They would loudly punctuate the end of each story with the refrain: "And the Jews lost."

I could not have cared less as I tried not to smile.

Why?

Four reasons.

First, I was family and I knew I was family.

Second, New York City was a racial powder-keg at that time thanks to Ed Koch and Al Sharpton. So much so that simply talking normally about race in mixed company was a way of making the point it didn't matter to you.

Third, when someone is good to a young man that's all that really matters to them.

And fourth, because I'd caught glimpses of Chaulisan and Franco pumping their fists, jumping around in excitement, and shouting "Super Jew," as I chugged through the timed mile during cadet competitions.

Our team average was 5:40. My best time was 5:12 and I paid for it. Most of our opponents averaged between seven and eight minutes.

The mile was one of seven events at the National Cadet Competition back in the 80s, when it was held at the U.S. Air Force Air University in Montgomery, Ala. The other six were standard drill, innovative drill, inspection, volleyball, written exam, and panel quiz. 

The two drill events lasted about five minutes each and were comprised of hundreds of precision marching maneuvers. They had to be remembered and executed simultaneously by each member of our Marching 12, while maintaining perfect "guide and cover." That's military parlance for being perfectly aligned with the other marchers around you so that each row in a formation looks like a single person from the side.

One of the things Franco and his fellow seniors taught us was that we could usually outwork and out-suffer kids from nicer areas. All other factors being the same.

We just had a greater appetite for discomfort than they did.

We probably spent more than 500 hours training each year, which is equivalent to about three months of full-time work. From April to December, we typically practiced every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We added additional practices on Wednesday and Thursday nights as we got closer to nationals. Fridays were for squadron. We'd go away for a training weekend before each wing, regional and national competition.

The program taught us time management, self discipline, how to work as a team, and creative problem solving.

The people who came out of The Team are all what I call "Get it Done Guys." We're people who find a way get things done, instead of making excuses. Mostly because the seniors had a very limited appetite for excuses.

If you screwed up at school, you were out. No exceptions.

If you missed too many practices, you were out. No exceptions.

If you were in a gang, you were out. No excuses.

If you were late more than three times, you were out. Theoretically.

Everything we did was geared toward being the best and winning the championship in practice. Long before the actual competitions were held.

I attended John and Millie Franco's 50th anniversary Sept. 16 in Queens. Millie was also a senior member and the two of them are dear enough to me that I sometimes playfully describe them as "my Puerto Rican mom and dad."

This husband and wife were so close that it often seemed as if they were in perfect guide and cover with one another as a couple, too.

John is survived by Millie, their boys Michael and Richie, grandson Gio, a train-load of friends and relatives, and the men and women he helped form on the Bronx Group Drill Team. Almost all of them Black or Hispanic.

They include Lt. Col Jesus Figueroa (USAF Retired), a former project manager in the F-22 development program; Major Felix Alicea (USAF), a flight nurse who is a big wheel in the medical evacuation program; Master Sgt. Carlos Feliciano Jr. (USMC); Master Sgt. Michael Petty (USMC); Capt. Miguel Arroyo (U.S. Army); Capt. Hector Marcayda (USMC Retired); Capt. Paulo Pacheco (USMC Retired); retired Airman Mark Springer; retired Naval Aviator Paul Tanks; New York Police Officers Sammy Irrizarry and Carlos Lora; Teaneck Fire Chief Anthony Verley; and Professor Anthony DeJesus, former director of the Puerto Rican Studies Center at Hunter College.

The members of the team were nobodies in New York City, but we were somebodies when we traveled elsewhere for competitions or summer encampments. The local TV stations and newspapers in other communities would often do a story of some sort and the other cadets treated us like rock stars.

The Civil Air Patrol flew us down to Washington, D.C., after each championship. They'd put us up at Andrews Air Force Base while we distributed CAP's annual report to Congress. 

We got to spend time with the members of the Old Guard in their barracks under The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during our visits to DC, toured the warehouses associated with The National Air and Space Museum with aviation historian Paul Garber, and spent some time at the Pentagon.

New members of the Old Guard are not allowed to speak for six months. This restriction created a humorous standoff at first as we peppered some of the new guys with friendly questions in their basement barracks and they looked around sheepishly for help. We compared shoeshine and uniform tips with those who could speak, and were dismayed to learn they use a lot of padding.

The Old Guard was still plenty cool though. We were entranced with the idea of joining them afterward. So much so that they could have signed us all up right then and there as a group.

Sadly, just about every New York elected official we met on Capitol Hill was either imprisoned afterward or left in disgrace - from former U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-NY) to former U.S. Sen. Al D'Amato (R-NY) and Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY). Our Congressional delegation was comprised of one garbage loser after another.

None of them could hold a candle to men like John Franco when it came to personal honor, integrity, impulse control, sacrifice and community service. They had the money and social status, but they'll never know what it's like to have the heartfelt respect of fellow New Yorkers like that.

The team represented a demographic cross section of Urban America the U.S. Department of Defense was very interested in.

On one occasion, the commander of the Air University personally intervened when some non-commissioned officers in Alabama tried to cheat us out of the National Cadet Championship. They had rigged the 1983 panel quiz so that every time we buzzed in first we were wrong. No matter what we said.

If a question began with the phrase "the nickname of the F-16 fighter jet is" and we buzzed in with the correct answer, they'd say we were wrong. They would then claim to be restating the entire question for our adversaries by saying something like "the nickname of the F-16 fighter jet is the Fighting Falcon, what is the nickname of the C-5?"

We finished second that year. When we regained the championship the next year the biased judges were gone. Never to be seen again.

On another occasion, an Army helo pilot who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam took a personal interest in one of us and offered him a military academy slot.

When I think of Franco and the Bronx Group Drill Team I'm often reminded of what the fictional George Bailey said to a snooty banker in the film "It's A Wonderful Life.

"This rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community," Bailey said. "Is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be."

We were Johnny Franco's "rabble" and he was definitely a richer man than the "Profits over People" crowd. One who treated his fellow working class Americans from the Bronx like lords.

I have a lot of personal memories of Johnny and the freshest ones might not make sense to those who didn't know him. They're more about his lovingly cranky demeanor than anything else.

It sometimes seemed as if Johnnie blustered and talked smack to conceal what a softie he was, and how much he cared and loved.

I was an entertaining kid and Franco's preferred gopher during our remote training weekends at Camp Smith, in upstate New York. The seniors had a thing for chicken drumsticks with the thigh attached and we would fill a shopping cart with them. He'd cook them up for everyone back at the barracks, along with a platter of plantains.

For many of my fellow cadets, those meals were the best meals they had all year.

When we practiced in Lower Manhattan, Franco would take me with him to Katz's Deli, a Jewish deli with a Hispanic service team. He'd push a dollar across the counter to a fellow Puerto Roc as we awaited our order and discreetly ask "is the pastrami lean" with a knowing look.

A saucer full of hot pastrami would miraculously appear before him a few seconds later. Johnnie didn't always remember me after its arrival.

Being a mouthy kid, I would cough or bump into him kind of accidentally on purpose. On one occasion he was so busy stuffing himself that I literally had to say, "come on Lt. Franco, what the fuck?" to snag a piece.

"Oh shit Epa," he said in embarrassment.

Catching the deli man's eye like a spy passing microfilm, Franco slid another dollar onto the counter. 

"Is the pastrami lean?" he whispered again, looking both ways.

The team was holding tryouts for new cadets during a training weekend on Governor's Island in 1983 when Franco really rejoined. I say "rejoined" because he'd been a cadet himself back in the 60s, when a slightly less stellar generation of Bronx cadets wore our colors.

(blank stare)

If Johnnie were here right now he'd be getting unduly excited over this playful jab, which is why baiting him was a past-time for many who loved him. He didn't tolerate fools, but he loved to goof around.

Johnnie's eyes would bulge and his voice would rise in mock outrage after a perceived slight.

"Actually," he'd bellow, taking over the conversation. "Actually... Actually... Actually... The competitions were a lot harder back in the day because the teams were larger. You guys wouldn't have enough cadets who knew what they're doing to even field a team."

The older cadets were forcibly stripping the new guys down one by one on Governor's Island in the summer of 1983 and literally heaving them into the school gymnasium where the seniors had set up their sleeping bags. Just like the little assholes we were.

Our primary target was a cocky kid with a big mouth named Carlos Feliciano, who went on to become a Marine Master sergeant.  We didn't want to hurt him, but we needed him to understand who was running things.

So we each grabbed an arm and a leg and swung him back and forth, before releasing him into the air like a bag of rice. It was as if we were telling the seniors "this new guy is way too much trouble."

This activity represented a new low for us. And I was more than a little apprehensive about it when I was summoned to the gym afterward.

I wasn't the cadet commander, but I was perceived to be a kind of all-around fixer. Like when we needed someone to repurpose volleyballs from Hunter College or scrounge a volleyball net from The National Youth Sport Program at CCNY.

Franco was sitting between fellow seniors Pat Magee, Charles Chaulisan, and Henry Juan when I reported. He was visibly peeved.

"How come you didn't haze my kids?" he barked, looking up at me as I stood at attention.

His boys Richie and Michael were only 13 and 14 at the time. Whereas most of the cadets on the team were between the ages of 16 and 21. I was 18.

We had only known "The Francos" (right) a few hours and it was too soon to know whether they would want to be a part of our thing or not.

"Uh, they're kinda small sir," I replied nervously.

The other seniors looked from me to Franco, knowing we were in uncharted waters. Officially, we weren't supposed to be hazing anyone. The seniors generally turned a blind eye to such things.

"I don't want no special treatment for my kids," Franco bellowed.

Everybody's eyebrows shot up. Clearly, the new guy had some brass. He wound up fitting in perfectly.

And so we stripped his boys naked and tossed them into the gym like bags of rice. Michael and Richie wound up being on the team for the next four years. We remain friends today.

They literally grew up on The Team, and they grew up strong. We all did, which is saying something for the time and place where we grew from boys to men.

Johnny was a great guy. Reliable when it mattered. Crazy and unpredictable when it didn't. A fearless and entertaining rascal who doted on his wife and boys.

HIs first task as a senior was the kind of unenviable job that goes to the low man on the training staff totem pole: teaching the team to sing. This was necessary because we sang as we marched during some of the drill competitions at places like Westover Air Force Base, in Massachusetts, and Maxwell Air Force Base, in Alabama.

After a while Franco reached the conclusion that I lacked both pitch and rhythm. Another cadet named Raphael Cappas (a future jarhead) was even worse, croaking like a toad as his adolescent voice broke.

"OK Epstein, Cappas," Franco snapped in exasperation. "You two are hopeless. From now on you don't sing. You just move your lips. You got it?"

Johnny sometimes pulled long hours working Saturday nights at LaGuardia Airport and would arrive at Team practice the next morning without sleeping. He had this crazy theory that a 20 minute power nap was as good as eight hours of real sleep.

It seemed to work for him. Homeboy was so sure of himself I decided to give it a try.

Turned out Johnny was crazy, and 20 minutes of sleep is actually worth 20 minutes of sleep. Maybe less.

It was the only time he ever steered me wrong.

I stayed friends with the Francos over the ensuring 30 years and enjoyed some wonderful parties in their tiny Queens apartments. They always knew how to have a good time.

Stand-up guys like John Franco and Charles Chaluisan, and their fellow core seniors Pat Magee and Henry Juan, don't get the spotlight in this country. That's too bad. Because they deserve it.

Franco was a good guy, he led a good life, and we're all better for having known him. He will be missed, and remembered.

If you didn't know him, you missed out on someone special.

 


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