A Brief History of the Oliveri Family

December 7, 2010 at 12:06 am (Uncategorized)

I have very little recollection of my Oliveri ancestors. My grandmother Angela (Angelina) Carestia Oliveri passed away at age 47 ten years before I was born. Grandpa Eugenio (John) survived until 1951, when he died at age 69. I don’t recall us having much contact with my grandfather, even though he lived nearby on Long Island. I’ve heard that after Grandma passed away he married a woman named Marcelle without the blessings of his family. That could be the reason why there was a disconnect.

I do have one memory of my grandfather shortly before he passed on. I guess I was six or seven years old at the time. Grandpa was visiting Aunt Florence, Uncle Bill and Cousin Natalie across the street on Summit Avenue, and my Dad brought me over to see him. I had a loose front tooth at the time, and Grandpa wanted to take a look at it. Then, much to my shock, he snapped it right out of my mouth! Of course, I immediately burst into tears. Not a very pleasant memory to be sure, but it’s the only one I have of him.

Both Grandma Angela and Grandpa Eugenio (see photos in library) are buried in St. Mary Star of the Sea Cemetery in Lawrence, alongside my sister Carol Ann, who died in 1948 at the age of just six months.

Several years ago, I became interested in genealogy and began researching our family heritage. I didn’t find much. Then, with the help of cousins Fran Mollo DeNicolo, Lisa Mollo, and some input from Aunt Mary Mollo, I began to come up with bits of information.

Grandma and Grandpa Oliveri originally came from the village of Manoppelo in Chieti Province located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy near the Adriatic Sea. Manoppelo is a town of 5600 people located on a hillside overlooking the Pescara River. It became part of Pescara Province in 1927. Its patron saints are Pancrazio, Rocco and Nicola (more on this later).

Manoppelo is renowned as the sanctuary of the “Volto Santo” (Holy Face), a veil with an image on it of a man alleged to be Jesus Christ. It is the only religious icon where the image is visible on both sides of the cloth, and is said to have a connection to the famed Shroud of Turin, which many consider to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Also known as the “Veil of Veronica”, the icon is believed to have been created when a woman named Veronica wiped Jesus’ face with the veil during his terrible journey to Calvary. Christ’s image is said to have remained on the cloth. Residents of the Pescara area have worshipped the Volto Santo for more than 400 years, although its authenticity has never been confirmed.

The current telephone records of Manoppelo show that there are still seven OLIVIERI families living there, who are most likely our distant relatives. For some reason, Grandpa Eugenio changed the spelling of our name to OLIVERI after emigrating to America.

Eugenio Olivieri arrived in the United States on March 27th, 1907 aboard the S.S. Cretic from Naples. The records I found indicated that he had made a previous trip in 1903. According to the ship’s manifest, Grandpa was described as 23 years of age, 5 feet 3 inches in height, with brown hair and brown eyes. Apparently he traveled as a steerage passenger and had $6 on his person when he boarded the ship, leaving behind his wife Angela and infant son Italino (Uncle Tally). His destination was listed as Madison Street, Inwood, NY. There is another notation that is difficult to read, but appears to show that he had a brother, Nicola (named after one of the patron saints of Manoppelo?) living in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I have no further information on him.

Grandpa also had another brother, Michael Olivieri (he never changed the spelling of the family name), who lived in Cedarhurst, NY. Uncle Mike had five children, but I only know the names of Mary, Tootsie, Rosie and Michael. Unfortunately, Uncle Michael was killed in an accident one Christmas eve coming home from work. I never knew any of his children when I was growing up, but met Mary later when she reconnected with my parents. She was a teacher at NYU, and passed away shortly after my parents died. But despite living in close proximity to one another, the families did not communicate. Evidently Uncle Mike disapproved of Grandpa Eugenio’s lifestyle and did not regard him as a good family man. I recall my Dad telling me that Grandpa at one time was a rumrunner between Brooklyn and Long Island. In one of the stories, he told of being in a car with his father on the Belt Parkway when the police started chasing them. The police opened fire, and Dad claimed to remember being pushed to the floor of the car as bullets whizzed past. Knowing Dad, he may have embellished this tale a bit, but the pieces do seem to fit the puzzle.

Grandma Angela arrived in New York City on June 11, 1909 as a steerage passenger aboard the S.S. Antonio Lopez sailing from Naples. She is listed on the manifest as Angela Carestia, and was 24 years old upon arrival. With her was her two and a half year-old son Italino (Uncle Tally), later to be known as Italo, or Jimmy. Their residence in Manoppelo was listed as the home of Grandma’s father, Amadio Carestia, who escorted them to the ship. Angela is described in the ship’s manifest as four feet, 11 inches in height, with brown hair, blue eyes and a scar on her right temple. But if I remember correctly, I think Dad once told me that she had one blue eye and one green one. Her destination was listed as c/o Smeriglio at the corner of Mott Avenue and Madison Street in Inwood, NY.

After settling in Inwood, Grandma and Grandpa Oliveri had five more children, William, Dominick, Dinnio (who was a twin; the other child was stillborn), Augustine (my Dad) and Mary, the youngest and only girl. They all eventually married, Tally to Helen, William to Florence Suhusky, Dominick to Stella (Sally) Nastick, Dinnio to Lucille Teasdale, Augustine to Jennie Bevilacqua, and Mary to John Mollo.

Uncle Tally and Aunt Helen had several children. I only knew one, Jimmy, who lived on Long Island.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Florence were the parents of Bill Jr., who lived in upstate New York and just passed away recently, and Natalie Gordon, presently living in California.

Uncle Dominick and Aunt Stella (Sally) lived in Havre de Grace, MD, and had two children, Michael and Angelina. They later adopted a third, June Marie Oliveri Spangler, who now lives in Spout Spring, VA.

Uncle Dinnio and Aunt Lucille lived on Long Island and had two daughters, Jean McDonald and Joyce Palchynsky. Ironically, Uncle Din (my godfather) passed away in July of 2009 on my birthday.

Augustine (Augie) and Jennie, my parents, had five children: James (me), Carol Ann, Suzanne, Denise and Augie Jr.

The extended family seems to have grown quite large in recent years. We have countless cousins from the various unions listed above, many of whom, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never met. Perhaps it’s time to think about some form of reunion where we can all become acquainted, or reacquainted as the case may be. We may all regret not having done so in the future. I’ll give that some thought and get back to you. In the meantime, if you have any information to be added to this history, I would welcome hearing from you.

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Incident at Ta Bat

June 27, 2019 at 2:58 am (Uncategorized)

Camp Ta Bat was a primitive outpost in the remote A Shau Valley adjacent to the Laotian border. The Vietnamese 36th Ranger Battalion, advised by an American officer, called Ta Bat home. The A Shau was probably the most wildly beautiful and severely contoured area in South Vietnam. It contained some of the most impassable terrain in Southeast Asia. Elephants were known to roam there, and an occasional tiger sometimes came down from the hills in search of prey.

The South Vietnamese Army maintained two outposts in The Valley, and American Special Forces manned another. Small units of the Viet Cong operated freely throughout the area. During 1964, the opposing forces had reached a virtual stand-off. The Allies enjoyed superior firepower, while the VC were more lightly armed but more mobile.

Allied intelligence indicated that The Valley was a primary infiltration point for the North Vietnamese regulars just beginning to travel south on the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Laos. ARVN and American units relied on a ten to one manpower advantage to deny this route to the enemy. Unknown to Allied command, however, plans were being put into motion in Hanoi that would not only alter that ratio, but would dramatically escalate the conflict from a modest counter-insurgency effort to a full-scale war. The A Shau Valley rested precariously on an anvil of vulnerability, and the hammer was already falling.

It was June of 1964, and I was scheduled to fly out from Advisory Team #3 headquarters in the city of Hue to Ta Bat for two weeks of duty as radio operator there. CHOP (Chief Operator) Kane drove me to Tay Loc airstrip inside the Hue Citadel early in the morning, where a Caribou resupply plane waited on the runway. A squad of ARVN soldiers was loading the cargo: several dozen huge burlap bags of rice, numerous bamboo coops crammed with live chickens and ducks, three or four massive hogs whose legs had been tied to prevent them from moving around during the flight, and a shipment of ammunition for the Rangers at Ta Bat. I was the lone passenger.

I marveled at the crude but effective method of resupply. The birds and hogs would remain alive at the outpost until needed. Then the soldiers would kill just enough to prepare a meal. It was a simple means of storage that negated the need for complex refrigeration systems.

When the Vietnamese finished loading, I climbed up the open tailgate into the plane. There were no seats, so I perched atop a stack of rice bags and hooked one arm through a webbed cargo strap. There were no windows either. I wouldn’t be able to see much, but it was a short flight from Hue to Ta Bat.

The tailgate closed, and the twin props roared to life. The olive green plane taxied slowly to the far end of the runway where it then turned into the wind. As the pilot gunned the engines, the Caribou began rolling rapidly down the strip. We lifted off and rose swiftly at a steep angle.

I glanced across at the rows of bamboo coops. The sudden ascent had alarmed the birds. They now squawked and flapped their wings in outrage, sending swirls of tiny white feathers along the deck of the cargo bay. I chuckled at the sight. Nothing like traveling first class.

Twenty minutes later, the aircraft banked left, floated across a line of green, rolling mountain peaks, and entered the A Shau Valley. By craning my neck to peer through the cockpit windows, I caught a glimpse of the terrain below. Its smooth, billiard table appearance was marred only by some intermittent shell craters resembling open sores on the surface. As the triangular outpost loomed in the distance, the Caribou descended sharply and then headed straight in toward the runway.

The plane touched down on the crude landing strip of perforated steel plate (PSP) laid over packed earth, vibrating madly as the engines roared into reverse. Prop wash sent a sandstorm of red dust swirling in the craft’s wake. The Caribou bobbed violently up and down on the uneven surface as the pilot literally stood on the brakes. He brought us to a halt about two hundred yards from the end of the runway, then turned and rolled slowly back toward the main compound. The tailgate motors began to whine just before the aircraft lurched to a complete stop. The ramp cracked open and swung down quickly to ground level. A blast of hot, dry air swept into the interior. I blinked rapidly as dust peppered my face, then shuffled to the rear of the plane and hopped down into the blinding afternoon glare.

A hatless American officer with dark hair and black bushy eyebrows was standing nearby with the Vietnamese cargo crew. He strode over to me and glanced at my name tag. I tossed him a salute that he didn’t return. “Hello, Oliveri,” he said. “Welcome to Ta Bat. I’m Captain Vincent. Come on, I’ll show you to your hooch.”

I shouldered my bag and followed the captain through the main gate. An ARVN soldier stood inside a log and sandbag guard post within the entrance. Barriers of crossed logs strung with barbed wire had been swung aside to form a narrow passageway. We turned to the left and clomped alongside a meandering trench network that appeared to be about four feet deep. Clumps of spindly trees grew from small mounds of red earth surrounding the ditches.

Vincent led me to a point where two trenched intersected and a dilapidated bunker constructed of wooden logs lay. It had a flimsy screen door, and there were patches of weeds growing from its dirt roof. A battered tin basin rested on an old ammunition box outside the entrance. Vincent pulled the screen open. “Get yourself settled in. I’ll be back for you later. We’re having dinner with the camp commander.”

I stepped inside, swung my duffel bag down, and glanced around. It was pretty grim. The bunker was octagon-shaped, about fifteen feet in diameter, with a dirt floor. Corrugated metal sheets nailed to the roof formed a crude ceiling. Woven grass mats covered the walls. A narrow alcove served as the entrance, with three broad steps of notched logs and earth fill leading down to the interior. The fragile-looking screen door was the only barrier to the elements.

To the left of the entrance was the “radio room”, for lack of a better term. It was just a small area set off by two vertical logs that supported the roof. An “Angry-9” radio sat on a rough plank table against one wall. Static popped and hissed from its receiver. A snake-like power cable led from the radio through a small hole in the bunker wall to a portable gasoline generator outside. A telegraph key and a set of black plastic earphones lay on the table.

A PRC-10 radio was strapped to one of the roof support posts with green web belts. The “Prick-10” was used to contact aircraft and also served as an alternate means of communication with A Luoi, our sister camp four miles to the north. The ARVN 36th Ranger Battalion used the two outposts as a base of operations.

The battalion was split at the time, with two companies of rangers manning each of the locations. Highway 548, an ill-defined dirt road, meandered through the valley, passing close to both Ta Bat and A Luoi. But it was seldom used due to its poor condition. And anyone traveling the road was almost certain to be ambushed. As a result, the two camps were virtually isolated from one another.

Thompson had warned me about the grim conditions, so I was not particularly surprised by what I found. A single cot sat against the opposite wall. It reeked of must. I dropped my gear there beneath a sputtering gasoline lantern that hung from a nail. A battered kerosene refrigerator stood at the far end of the structure. Out of curiosity, I looked inside and found only half a dozen rusted Coca-Cola cans.

Opposite the “radio room” was a small kitchen area. A compact, single burner gasoline stove sat on a rough wooden bench. Beside it was a tarnished coffee pot with a long, dented spout. A white metal shelf above the bench held a collection of unmatched aluminum plates, glass jars, square saltine cans, and tin cups. Several blackened pots and pans hung from nails embedded in the wall. That was about it. Pretty primitive, but I hadn’t been expecting the Hilton.

Vincent returned several hours later, and we strolled across the compound to where Captain Ninh and his staff officers sat beneath a grass canopy. Captain Vincent introduced me to everyone in fluent Vietnamese. Each of the officers smiled and stood to offer a handshake. Then we sat down to dinner as two enlisted men served up heaping bowls of steaming rice, boiled greens, and the foul-smelling sauce known as nuoc mam. I helped myself to the rice and greens, but passed on the nuoc mam, which was made by fermenting fish in the hot sun for weeks.

I marveled at the dexterity of the Vietnamese as they easily shoveled mounds of rice into their mouths with chopsticks. I tried doing the same, but only succeeded in spraying rice across my lap, much to the delight of the group. I grinned sheepishly as a considerate soldier handed me a fork.

Vincent chatted amiably with the Vietnamese as we ate. My knowledge of the language was still rather sketchy, so I just listened quietly throughout the meal. Dai Uy Ninh, the camp commander, and the Bac Si, or medical officer, spoke passable English. They were neat, professional looking, and seemed to be well-educated. I was impressed. As the meal progressed they questioned Vincent about General William Westmoreland, who was in the process of replacing General Paul Harkins as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Ninh asked, “Captain Vincent, what kind of man is General Westmoreland?”

Vincent thought for a moment and then said, “Well, Dai Uy, I don’t know too much about him other than he’s known as a more aggressive soldier than General Harkins. And he certainly looks like a general.”

Ninh held his chopsticks poised over his bowl as he contemplated that. “Do you think more American soldiers will come to our country?”

Now it was Vincent’s turn to reflect. He knitted his brow. “I believe that would depend on your government’s wishes, Dai Uy.”

Ninh nodded in understanding and scooped more rice into his mouth. The Bac Si glanced up from his bowl. “Tell me, Dai Uy Vincent, what do the American people think of our war?”

“Well, Theiu Uy Tranh, I honestly don’t think many of them know much about it. The ones who do assume my government must know what it’s doing.”

Tranh pursued the point. “My father fought for the Viet Minh against the French. I know the determination of the Communists. Even now they are building up their strength in the South. Do you think America will stand by us if the war grows?”

Vincent pondered this momentarily. “That is a difficult question to answer. I think yes, but I cannot be sure. In my country the people tell the government what to do. They will make the final decision.” Tranh seemed satisfied with that answer.

As we finished our meal, the mess boys brought several pots of strong Vietnamese tea. We drank it plain from small china cups, and the conversation continued in a lighter vein. “Dai Uy,” said Ninh, “in Vietnam very few have automobiles. How many Americans do?”

“I’d say just about everyone.”

The group seated around the table murmured in admiration. Bac Si Tranh seemed skeptical. “And how many have television?”

Vincent answered, “Again, just about everyone.”

Ninh sat wistfully with his chin resting on his hand, mulling Vincent’s reply. “I think that this America of yours must be a truly wonderful place.”

After dinner I returned to the bunker to settle down. My first day in Ta Bat had been fairly pleasant. “This won’t be so bad,” I said aloud to myself. I had no idea how wrong I was.

Two mornings later I had just cranked up the generator behind the bunker and turned to head back inside. Suddenly I heard a CRAAACK! and dirt shot up from near my feet. Someone was shooting at me! I took off running with bullets raising dust at my heels, and dived into the trench, crash-landing with a thud and wrenching my shoulder. My white t-shirt was smeared with mud. For some strange reason I found this hilarious and roared with laughter despite the fright and pain of my injury. I guess you never really know how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens.

I had left the generator running, so I limped into the bunker and sent a message to Hue about what had just taken place. Captain Vincent wasn’t in camp, so I knew he wouldn’t be coming to check on me. But what amazed me was that NOBODY responded. The Vietnamese must have figured that the shooting was just some soldier taking target practice at the small firing range nearby where we occasionally went to test our weapons. I still shake my head in annoyance when I think about that. I could have been lying badly-wounded in the bottom of that trench with no help coming. Unbelievable. I sent the brief report to Hue, but never heard anything back, which wasn’t unusual.

I waited about half an hour before venturing tentatively outside to shut down the generator. There was no further gunfire. Whoever had taken the potshots at me was probably long gone by then. My shoulder ached for several days afterward, but I had learned a valuable lesson. Never again would I step outside the bunker wearing a white, easily-visible t-shirt.

After a week, I began to settle into a regular routine. There was little to do other than to send or receive an occasional message or just listen to chatter on the net. Sometimes the enemy would try to jam us by transmitting on the same frequency. It was almost impossible to complete a message under those circumstances, but we continued on anyway to make the culprits think that they weren’t affecting us. Then we would simply re-send traffic later when the interference was gone. I spent most of my day reading one or another of the paperback novels stored in a box under my bunk. When I got bored of that, I took a walk around the camp. That soon ended as the weather deteriorated.

Most mornings started out sunny, but angry black clouds often boiled up by midday. Wild thunderstorms punctuated by violent flashes of lightning swept rapidly down the valley. Sheets of blowing rain fell for about an hour and then abruptly ceased. The camp soon became a sea of mud. It was eerie, almost supernatural. The A Shau Valley was truly the most primeval place I had ever seen.

Before long the camp became a sodden mass of red mud. Were it not for the steel matting on the runway, no aircraft could have landed at Ta Bat to resupply us.

I seldom saw Vincent now except when he had a message to send. The captain spent most of his time with Ninh and then bedded down in the command bunker at night. I began spending more and more time in the commo bunker, living on the C- rations that Doug kept sending out. I hauled drinking water from the nearby stream in five gallon jerry cans. You had to treat it with a handful of iodine tablets before it was safe to drink.

Personal hygiene was another problem. The ARVN soldiers used an open slit trench as a latrine. They simply squatted over the narrow trough to do their business. I found this to be very uncomfortable. Americans, after all, were used to sitting down to take a crap. Someone had left a battered toilet seat beside the latrine. It was filthy and repulsive, but I decided to try it.

The only way to use the seat was to place it flat on the ground with the hole centered over the trench. As I lowered myself awkwardly onto it, I lost my balance and sat down heavily. I reached out reflexively to break my fall and thrust my hand into a pile of loose shit.

“Ahhh, Christ!” I gagged in disgust and jammed my hand into the trench dirt in a vain attempt to cleanse it. Glancing around to see if anyone had witnessed the humiliating incident, I pulled up my pants with my left hand. My face burned with embarrassment. I slinked back to the bunker where a bar of soap and a water can awaited. From that point on, I used the latrine only when absolutely necessary, and then it was in the Vietnamese manner.

I did my bathing in the stream. Ta Bat was situated on a small knoll overlooking the tiny Roa Loa River. A series of log and earth steps led from the barbed-wire perimeter down about a dozen feet to the water. The stream was about eight feet wide at this point, and perhaps two feet deep. Twin strips of perforated steel plate stretched across the two banks so that the rangers could reach mid-stream to fill their water cans.

A machine gun nest overlooked the water point. Several weeks earlier, the VC had snapped an ambush on a ranger water party in broad daylight, killing one and wounding two others. Since then the nest was always manned during the day. Somehow that gave me little comfort.

One morning when I could no longer live with myself, I went down to the stream to take a bath. Four rangers in faded green fatigues were already there, washing clothes or filling water cans. I stripped down to my shorts, then walked out onto the steel mat furthest upstream. I laid my towel on the makeshift bridge and stepped off into the gently gurgling water. The stream was icy cool and crystal clear. Oddly, it arose in the hills somewhere to the east, tumbled down past Ta Bat out into the lush, green A Shau Valley, and then turned westward into Laos. It struck me that the VC probably drank from its waters as well.

I had just begun to lather myself when one of the Vietnamese troopers whistled softly to catch my attention. The soldier made a drinking motion with his hand. When I realized what he was trying to tell me, I nodded in understanding. Apparently they took their water from this position and washed downstream. I snatched my towel and moved over to the other steel plank to finish my bath. The ranger flashed a good-natured smile. I winked at him.

I was developing a liking for the Vietnamese soldiers. Most were polite and somewhat shy, unlike many of the young civilians I had encountered in Hue and Saigon. In their over-sized American helmets, they reminded me of little boys playing army. Most of them seemed in awe of the huge Americans. I wondered how such benign and passive men could become competent soldiers. Yet, the 36th Ranger Battalion enjoyed an impressive reputation among the U.S. advisors.

When I had finished bathing in the chilly stream, I dried myself with the towel and then trudged back uphill to the bunker. As I dressed, the radio crackled. “Frost Weed Charlie, this is Frost Weed Alpha. I have one routine. Over.”

I dashed outside to crank up the generator. Returning to the bunker, I keyed the handset. “Frost Weed Alpha, this is Charlie. I’m ready to copy. Over.”

A short coded message followed. I copied it, rogered receipt, and decoded it using the current shackle sheets. Someone back in Hue wanted to know how many Americans slept in my bunker. What the hell kind of question was that? Without giving it much thought, I responded to net control. “Frost Weed Alpha, this is Charlie. The answer to your inquiry is one… I spell, Oscar-November-Echo. Over.”

“Roger, Charlie. Thank you. Out.”

The peculiar request puzzled me. One of the problems with being an outpost radio operator was that you seldom got any feedback on your messages. I knew that the information went back to the intelligence section at the Citadel, but I had no idea what became of it after that. I shrugged. Well, if didn’t seem very important.

I went outside to shut down the generator, and, out of boredom, kept walking along the camp perimeter. “Old” Ta Bat was gradually decomposing into the red clay of the valley floor. The rangers had begun construction of a new camp on the opposite side of the airstrip. In fact, the two 105mm howitzers had already been relocated there. When work was completed, the rangers were scheduled to abandon “old” Ta Bat and move across to their new home. For now, the original camp still contained most of the enlisted men’s quarters as well as two 60mm mortar positions and the single 81mm mortar pit.

I strolled through the open main gate out onto the landing strip. The air was heavy and still. I recalled Lansing mentioning that he liked to take late afternoon walks along the runway, but I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. This was still VC country, and it seemed a bit foolhardy to tempt fate, especially after the incident at the water point. I felt badly exposed and isolated away from the safety of the camp. I paused to study the heavily-jungled hillsides in the distance. They appeared ominously quiet. Was anyone out there? If so, were they planning to come for us soon? The longer I remained in the A Shau, the more I came to fear its almost supernatural presence. A chill swept down my spine. I shook my head and turned back toward the bunker.

Vincent stormed through the screen door the next morning as I was preparing a cup of tea. “Goddammit, Oliveri… Did you tell Hue that you were alone in here?”

I glanced up in surprise. “Yes, Sir. I did. They called and wanted to know how many Americans were in this bunker. It seemed like a strange question.”

Vincent was livid. “You caused me a lot of grief. I got a message through ARVN channels ordering me to move back into this bunker. Dai Uy Ninh is mad as hell.”

I was stunned. “I’m sorry, Captain. I didn’t realize it was anything important.”

Vincent grunted in disgust and then left, slamming the screen door behind him. He returned later carrying a small bag of his personal gear, and tossed it on the spare cot. From that point on he spent his days across the runway at “new” Ta Bat, returning each evening to our bunker. Our relationship remained frosty. We only spoke when necessary. It was a very uncomfortable situation.

One evening soon after, just at dusk, a twelve man ranger patrol slipped out of camp through the main gate and headed north off the end of the runway. I watched from atop a mound of earth outside the bunker until they disappeared into the gathering gloom. Then I returned to the bunker, where the Coleman lantern hissed softly on the table. I pumped up the gas tank, and the lamp flared higher. Vincent was still across at the new camp. Rummaging through the box of paperbacks, I found a recent best-seller and lay back on the cot to read.

Moments later a burst of automatic fire shattered the evening calm. I bolted upright. That was close! A fusillade of rifle shots followed almost immediately. I recognized the sharp crack of carbines and the huskier bark of M-1 rifles. The automatic fire had come from at least two Viet Cong AK-47 rifles that were trading rounds with the rangers.

I rushed outside and scrambled to the top of the trench. Just to the north of the runway, red tracers criss-crossed with green ones in the darkness. Three grenades exploded with vicious thumps and brilliant bursts of garish white light. Suddenly a wild round snapped by my head. I leaped back into the trench, raced into the bunker, and snatched up my .45 pistol. On the way out again I grabbed my steel pot and slapped it on my head. I didn’t realize until later that I had it on backward.

A Vietnamese mortar crew had already reached the nearby gun pit. They slid an illumination round down the tube as I watched. The shell thunked skyward in a shower of sparks and exploded overhead, bathing the perimeter in a lurid yellow glare. The gunners in the pit waited impatiently for further orders. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only a few seconds, the word came at last. “Ban! Ban!” (Fire! Fire!)

Three high explosive rounds rocketed out of the tube in rapid succession and burst in a tight pattern around the ambush site. The exchange of gunfire slowed almost immediately.

The mortar crew fired off another illumination round before resuming its bombardment. Three more heavy shell bursts effectively ended the fight. Within minutes I could make out a line of ghostly shadows approaching the end of the runway. It was the ranger patrol, and they were carrying a wounded comrade. I began to make my way toward the main gate with a squad of heavily-armed Vietnamese. We met three rangers hauling the injured soldier, who had been shot through the hip. Several of us grabbed on to the casualty and helped carry him through the barbed wire gate and down into the dispensary. We hoisted him onto a table.

A medic slit his trousers with a pair of surgical scissors, squinting in the feeble glow of a single lantern. The enemy bullet had drilled a neat round hole through the soldier’s pelvis. A thin stream of blood trickled from the bluish circle.

The medic leaned closer to examine the wound in the dim light. A second corpsman tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed to the faintly hissing lantern and whispered with some urgency, “Same-same?”

I nodded and set out for the commo bunker, followed closely by the corpsman. Once inside, I picked up the glowing lantern from beside my cot. Hell. It was almost empty. I handed it to the medic and we raced back to the dispensary.

To safely refuel a Coleman lantern, you were supposed to wait until the white-hot mantle cooled down. In retrospect, if I had given it any thought we might have avoided what happened next. But there was no time for delay. The wounded ranger was in terrible pain and might die if we couldn’t get some light on him. The corpsman grabbed a small can of gasoline from beneath the table and began pouring it into the base of the lamp. Suddenly there was a dull FOOMF as the fuel ignited. Burning gasoline splattered across the back of my left hand. I screamed in agony.

One of the rangers leaped forward and beat out the splash of flame on the bunker floor with a blanket. I was doubled over, gasping with pain. A corpsman appeared and took a look at my blackened hand. He smeared a dark, greasy ointment on it, and then wrapped it in a loose-fitting bandage. Satisfied that he had done all he could, the medic returned to treating the wounded ranger.

I reeled back to my bunker and sat heavily on my cot. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t sit still. I rocked back and forth in a vain effort to find relief. After a few minutes of this, I heard footsteps approaching down the trench line. Captain Vincent stepped into the bunker. He looked concerned. “Are you OK?”

I nodded wordlessly.

“The Bac Si, sent these over. They’ll help the pain.” He held out a couple of white capsules. “You know, we might be able to get you a Purple Heart for this since we were in contact with the enemy at the time.”

I was hurting too much to give a damn about that and just groaned in reply.

“Well, there’ll be a medevac in here first thing in tomorrow morning,” he said. “You’ll go back with the wounded ranger.”

I grimaced and mumbled a simple thank you.

Vincent left. I gulped the pain killers and stretched out on the cot. The hand seemed to hurt less if I held it on my chest. The capsules eased the pain enough that I could sleep for brief periods. When the throbbing became unbearable, I sat up and raised the hand over my head. This went on most of the night.

Shortly after dawn a UH-1B “Huey” helicopter swung down the valley and settled onto the runway just outside the main gate. The wounded soldier was loaded on board. I climbed awkwardly in beside him. The sight of the wounded man made me feel a bit embarrassed. He was obviously a lot worse off than I was.

The soldier had an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. A book of matches lay on the stretcher beside him. I fumbled with it and clumsily managed to light one. I held the flame to his cigarette. “You OK!” I shouted above the whine of the rotors. “Number one!” I patted his wrist and glanced down at the bloody bandage around his hip. He simply stared at me, his eyes glazed over from the combination of pain and medication.

When the “Huey” set down at the airfield in Hue, a Vietnamese ambulance whisked the wounded ranger away. The American crew chief helped me step out of the craft and then handed down my duffel bag. CHOP Kane was sitting nearby in the commo jeep, waiting to drive me back to the compound. I threw my bag in the back and then climbed into the passenger seat beside the chief operator.

Kane smirked. “Well, Oliveri… you may be a hot-shot radio operator, but you sure as hell ain’t much of a field soldier.”

I was too tired and in too much pain to let him provoke me. “Thanks, CHOP. You’re a real class act.”

We drove off to the dispensary in the advisors’ compound. My first contact with the enemy had ended, but not the way I had expected. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be my last.

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Christmas in Vietnam by Jim Oliveri

December 13, 2015 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

 

During 1964, I served with a military advisory team based in the city of Quang Tri, South Vietnam, although we seldom spent much time there. Many of us were assigned to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) outposts in the dreaded A Shau Valley. I was a radio operator, and usually just an American officer and I were attached to an ARVN unit, living in crude log bunkers along the Laotian border. We often spent weeks at a time in the Valley, subsisting on boiled rice and greens, and C-rations when we were lucky enough to get them.

The A Shau Valley was a primary infiltration point for North Vietnamese soldiers just beginning to travel south on the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Laos. Most mornings there started out sunny, but angry black clouds often boiled up by midday. Wild thunderstorms punctuated by violent flashes of lightning swept rapidly down the valley. Sheets of blowing rain fell for about an hour and then abruptly ceased. Afterward, the valley floor would literally steam for hours. It was eerie, almost supernatural. The A Shau was truly the most primeval place that I have ever seen.

And, of course, it didn’t help that we were subjected to frequent harassing attacks. Once I had been sent racing for the cover of a trench as bullets kicked up dust at my heels. Several times, in fact, I had ducked behind a mound of dirt to exchange fire with enemy snipers who blasted away at us from the cover of the thick undergrowth just outside the barbed-wire perimeter. I doubt that I ever hit anything, but it made me feel better to retaliate. On another occasion, an ARVN patrol was ambushed at sundown just outside the camp. I joined the relief team that extricated them from the trap, and helped carry a wounded soldier back to the medical bunker. By the time the holidays came, most of our group had endured seven or eight months of this sort of thing, and we were all looking forward to going home.

As Christmas week approached, it brought with it mixed emotions. We all came in from the field for a couple of days, one of the rare but much-cherished occasions when the entire team was together. Yet, this would be my first Yule away from my family, and I was feeling homesick. The penetrating heat of the dry season was gone, but it still seemed far too warm for Christmas. There was probably snow back home by now, I thought. To get everyone into the holiday spirit, we planned a big party for Christmas Eve.

My buddy Ken Keller and I went to the PX and bought beer, soda, pretzels, and a box of foot-long cigars that smelled like they were made from equal parts of stinkweed and horse manure. Two other radio operators, Richard Maxwell and Tony Thompson, purchased some hard liquor and additional snacks. We set up everything in the tiny cubicle that I shared with Thompson. The advisory team was housed in small, one story wooden barracks. Our room measured only about eight by ten feet, but that seldom mattered, since we were rarely there. It was going to be cramped, but we’d manage. We were all determined to make this a holiday to remember.

Just after dusk, we began to gather in the cubicle. We used Tony Thompson’s recorder to play a tape I’d recently received from my friend Richie, featuring many of the latest hit songs in the States. He used a clever disk-jockey style, complete with folksy chatter and one-liners. “And this song is dedicated to our boys in Vietnam,” it went. “Stay alert, guys, and don’t let any Viet Cong through the lines!” That drew a hearty laugh from us. If only Richie knew that there were no lines in Vietnam. The enemy was everywhere. That thought quickly flew out of my mind. There would be no time for negativity this night.

We enjoyed the tape so much that we played it over and over again. I opened the box of cigars and handed out a few. We lit up the unusual stogies and puffed away until the room filled with swirling clouds of rotten-smelling smoke. For some reason I found that hilarious and broke into uproarious laughter.

Keller opened a letter from his wife and read parts of it to us. We all savored this personal connection with home and normalcy. If anyone had a right to feel down that night it was certainly Ken, the only married man in the group. Yet here he was trying to cheer up the rest of us. I felt a glow of affection for the tall, lanky Ohio native. Thompson and Maxwell took out Christmas cards they had received from home and passed them around. It was a bittersweet moment, but we all felt better for sharing it. I guess maybe we were becoming a bit maudlin, because Keller finally cracked a joke to break the mood.

A knock on the door interrupted our raucous laughter. I opened it to find two Australian warrant officers, Dave Walner and Anthony Morrissey, standing in the hallway. Walner roared, “Merry Christmas, mate! Can we come in?”

I was delighted. “Hell, yes! Come on in and have a cigar! They stink so bad none of us want to smoke them anyway!”

We all liked the happy-go-lucky Aussies. They were always friendly and full of fun.  Although considered officers, many of them were actually career enlisted men, and felt more comfortable among us than with the American brass. Walner and Morrissey squeezed onto Tony’s bunk, opened cans of beer, and joined in the uproarious laughter. I sliced up a pepperoni I had gotten in a package from home and passed it around.

There was another rap on the door. Tony opened it this time and found a young Marine corporal and a PFC from the motor pool outside. “We heard you guys laughing,” said the Marine. “Sounds like you’re having a good time in here.”

Tony gestured toward the others. “Come on in!”

Between guffaws I bellowed across the room, “Hey Tony, you better leave the door open!”

Thompson brought out a fruitcake that his family had sent him and sliced it up with his bush knife. Nobody back home ever actually ate fruitcake, but here it was a welcome delicacy. I took a piece and thought that it was the best thing I had ever tasted. I guess Christmas can do that to you.

Before long, several more lonely advisors drifted in to share the holiday cheer. I looked around the room in disbelief. It was wall-to-wall GIs. I never would have imagined that our tiny cubicle could hold so many. Soldiers sat everywhere with their arms around each other’s shoulders, drinking beer, nibbling on the modest Yule fare, and just enjoying the fun. For one night, at least, the horrors of war were forgotten. At one point we spontaneously broke into a chorus of “Silent Night”. It was one of the most poignant Christmas moments I have ever experienced, before or since.

I reached over and grasped Ken’s hand. “Merry Christmas, buddy.”

He nodded gently.  “You, too, man. Let’s hope the next one will be in a better place.”

“Amen to that,” I replied.

As our party reached its peak, Viet Cong terrorists were carrying out an attack against U.S. personnel in Saigon. Two Communist agents disguised as ARVN soldiers drove an explosives-laden vehicle beneath the Brinks Hotel, where American officers were housed. A timing device triggered a powerful blast at 1745 hours, just when the building figured to be most crowded. Army personnel suffered two dead and fifty-eight wounded. When we heard about it the next day I felt quite guilty for having partied while that was happening. The war raged on, uninterrupted by the holiday or the humble celebration of a few homesick soldiers in Quang Tri thankful just to share some Christmas joy together.

 

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Fifty Things I’ve Learned About Life

May 12, 2015 at 2:27 am (Uncategorized)

Now that I’m in my seventies, I realize that I’ve learned many things through experience, some of which I wish I had known at an earlier age. That knowledge, had I acquired it sooner, would have helped to make my life more rewarding and more enjoyable, as well as strengthened my relationships. As a youth I learned much from my older relatives on both sides of the family. When I left for the army, it was my first real experience away from home. My drill sergeant became a sort of surrogate father. He taught a group of mostly nineteen and twenty year-olds not only how to be soldiers, but how to deal with life situations as well. And I continue to learn from friends and relatives to this day. The following, in no particular order, are Jim’s “life lessons”:

1. You can never go wrong by doing what you think is right.
2. Always have a good reason for everything you do.
3. Never take yourself too seriously.
4. Laugh a lot. Have a sense of humor. You’ll not only live longer, but you’ll be happier.
5. Don’t be too hard on yourself for your mistakes. We all make lots of them. That’s how we learn.
6. Cherish sincere compliments. Ignore insults.
7. March to your own drummer. Going along with the crowd is frequently not a good idea. Recognize that the “m” in “masses” is often silent.
8. Always reach for the stars. You may never actually get one, but at least you won’t end up with a handful of mud.
9. Never live your life by what other people think.
10. Be thankful for family. They always have your best interests at heart.
11. Pay it forward. Help others as you would like to be helped in similar circumstances.
12. Always put your children’s needs before your own.
13. Never, ever give up on anything.
14. Don’t be lazy or cut corners. There’s always one more thing that you can do.
15. Never let anyone change your mind if you think that you’re right.
16. Always do your absolute best at everything. You’re just cheating yourself otherwise.
17. Use every resource to get a good education. It may not always help you, but it won’t hurt, and you can never lose it.
18. Never be ashamed to say, “I love you”.
19. Don’t retaliate against those who do you wrong. That’s why karma exists.
20. Some people are not going to like you no matter what. Don’t waste time trying to please them.
21. Try to accomplish something positive every day.
22. Your job may be important, but your family is more so. Be sure to spend plenty of quality time with them.
23. Don’t listen to those who say something can’t be done.
24. Take the time to appreciate the little things in life.
25. Spend a few moments every day looking closely at nature.
26. Be a dreamer. They’re the ones who create everything we have.
27. Love your country. It’s the greatest that ever existed. You are not required to love your government.
28. Do something to earn the privileges this country has provided you.
29. Respect everyone’s opinion, as long as they realize that it is not necessarily the law of the land.
30. If you don’t have any enemies, then you’ve probably never taken a stance on anything.
31. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. One day you may regret not having done so.
32. Always follow your heart, but bring your brain along.
33. Protect and be kind to all children. They are truly our future.
34. Surround yourself with good people. Cut ties with those who aren’t.
35. Teach yourself to become comfortable speaking with people of all statures.
36. Get enough exercise to stay in good physical condition, but don’t obsess over it.
37. Be a positive role model for your children and grandchildren.
38. Never compromise your values.
39. Be confident in yourself; look people straight in the eye. Never allow anyone to intimidate you.
40. When an opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate. You may not get another chance.
41. Always treat others as you would like to be treated. You can tell a lot about a person by the way he acts toward a waitress.
42. Never be ashamed to show your emotions.
43. Hug and kiss your loved ones often. We never know when it will be the last time.
44. Set clearly defined goals and work toward them regularly.
45. Take steps to save for the future. It will come much more quickly than you expect.
46. Always have a Plan A and a Plan B. People don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan.
47. Treasure your spouse. He or she will still be by your side when the nest is empty.
48. Find friends who make you laugh.
49. Be quick to praise, slow to condemn.
50. Be willing to concede that your ideas are not always the best ones.

I’m sure I’ll think of more, but that’s for another day.

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Karma or Divine Intervention?

May 7, 2014 at 4:34 am (Uncategorized)

 

In the spring of 1964 I was on my way out of Fort Dix for a thirty day leave before departing for Vietnam. As I left the barracks for the last time I noticed something lying on my bunk. Picking it up, I discovered that it was a religious card depicting Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. That was certainly appropriate, considering where I was headed. On the reverse side, my friend Eddie Naticha had written, “Jim, Best of luck till we meet again. Your friend, Eddie.”

Eddie and I had become buddies while attending radio school. He was about two years older than me, stocky with thinning blond hair and “Clark Kent” glasses. Eddie was a gentle soul with a warm smile who had served as an altar boy in his youth. I was in the class ahead of him, graduating about six weeks before he did. Eddie hadn’t gotten his new orders yet, but it was well known that most of us who completed the Intermediate Speed Radio Operators Course (ISROC) were destined for shipment to Vietnam.

Eddie’s thoughtful gesture touched me. He knew that I was headed into harm’s way and might need a bit of divine intervention at some point. However, I wasn’t able to thank him personally because he was in class that morning and I was leaving for home. I put the card in my pocket and later stored it in the duffle bag that would accompany me overseas.

Going off to war had created serious new concerns for me that pushed communication with my friends far down the list of priorities. As a result, I never saw or heard from Eddie again. However, the image of Saint Jude, along with my John F. Kennedy silver half dollar and my Saint Christopher medal may have played a part in bringing me back safely from war-torn Vietnam. Who am I to discount karma like that? Today, the coin and the “Mister” Christopher medal (he’s no longer celebrated as a saint on the church calendar) are long gone, but the Saint Jude card sits framed on the desk in my office. I even used it during my Dad’s eulogy to demonstrate how many of us believe we will again meet our loved ones who have passed on.

Recently I began wondering what had become of Eddie. I can’t explain why that was suddenly important to me after so many years. It may just be that as we grow older those things begin to matter to us once again. Anyway, I Googled Eddie’s name and found an Edward Naticha from Staten Island. That must be him, I thought. I recalled that Eddie had lived in New York when we were in the Army. Digging further, I was stunned to learn that Eddie Naticha had passed away in 1987 at the age of forty-seven.

Almost all my childhood friends have passed on, so I understand what it is to endure that sort of loss. Yet, Eddie’s death affected me for a far different reason. I had never reciprocated by thanking him for his thoughtful gift. Neither had I contacted him to wish him Godspeed in his own journey. I began to wonder if those actions could possibly have transmitted some form of negative karma to Eddie, contributing to his early demise. Unlikely, I suppose, but how can I ever prove otherwise? I had looked up to Eddie almost the way I would have to an older brother. Now here I was at an age twenty-four years beyond what he had reached. Life can certainly be strange that way.

I wrestled with those thoughts for a few nights until I was finally able to come to terms with them. Truth be told, I seem to have come to terms with many of the events from my military days. I now know that I believe in karma and divine intervention much more strongly than I did previously. Perhaps they’re even one and the same. I just wish that I could have reached those conclusions before my friend Eddie Naticha passed away. It would have been nice to have seen him one more time. Till we meet again, Eddie.

 

 

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Marital Bliss

September 25, 2013 at 2:46 am (Uncategorized)

After 47 years of matrimony, I’m now more convinced than ever that I know absolutely nothing about women. Let me explain why.

One morning last weekend, I walked into the kitchen where Maureen was working and gave her a big hug and a kiss. She batted her eyelashes and smiled so happily that I was convinced I had earned some valuable brownie points. Alas, I had completely misread the situation, as usual. With an evil snicker she produced from behind her back… a toilet bowl brush! The “Sergeant Major” was assigning me to latrine duty! Dang. Properly chastened, I retreated to the master bathroom, where I sought out my friend John, hoping that he would take pity on me. Needless to say, there was no compassion forthcoming from that cold, heartless lump. I performed my custodial duties in silence and solitude.

Now believe me when I tell you that I’ve never quite understood how married women can often be so indifferent to their long-suffering husbands. Last week I said to Maureen, “I’ve gotta go to the VA tomorrow.”

She rolled her eyes and sighed. “What’s wrong with you this time?”

“Oh, nothing much. My left leg fell off and I have to get it reattached. I thought maybe you’d like to take a ride and keep me company.”

“Very funny,” she said with a scowl. “Do I have to?”

Now I had her. “Well, there’s a casino right across the road. We could stop there after my appointment,” I smirked proudly.

“OK,” she responded. “I’ll go.”

AHA! I knew it! My male superiority had finally triumphed! Who did she think she was dealing with, a child?

“But you’ll have to give me money to gamble.”

Egad! Disaster! Why in the world do I keep shooting myself in the foot like that? How does a mere female consistently outmaneuver me, a dues-paying member of the dominant sex?

In addition to being caring and very shrewd, my wife is also highly complimentary. The other morning we were going out to breakfast. As we got in the car she said casually, “Your deodorant smells like bug spray.”  Well excuuuuuuuse me! At least there wouldn’t be any flies circling my armpits as I dipped into the oatmeal.

While we ate she told me that I needed to get some new underwear. Isn’t that what all married couples talk about when they go out to eat? “What?” I whined. “But I just bought some two years ago.”

“They’re ‘golf’ shorts,” she sneered. “They’ve got 18 holes in them. And while we’re on the subject, you better replace your ‘baseball socks’ too. They’ve got 12 runs in them. Let’s go to Penney’s. I can buy some things, too, while we’re there.”

Nice. And guess who was expected to pick up that tab? What chance do I have against a steel-trap mind like that? And where the heck was I going to put the new stuff, considering that the only drawer in the bedroom not crammed with her things is a tiny one in the night stand? (I was tempted to write, in the “drawers drawer,” but you know how I hate inane puns!) Anyway, she said, “You’ll manage,” now obviously sympathetic to my plight. “There’s the desk in your office.” Oh. Great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

But after pouting, uh… racking my brain for several hours, I finally figured out how to get the best of her. She’s been after me to exercise more, so I started going to the gym three days a week. I don’t actually work out, mind you. I just hang around for a couple of hours and watch the women jiggle! Heh-heh. At long last I’ve gotten the upper hand over those blasted females! Er, what? I have to use a machine or leave? Hey, you can’t give me the bum’s rush! You don’t know who you’re dealing with! What the………….

 

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What If…

September 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm (Uncategorized)

Have you ever wondered what your life might have been like if you had made some different choices through the years? I’m not usually one to deal in hypotheticals, but this particular subject got me thinking, and it’s driving me bananas.

I sometimes wonder what I would be doing today if I hadn’t been ignominiously booted out of college and gone into the army. I often kid my family that I could have been a general by now if I had stayed in the service. That’s highly improbable, given my penchant for landing in hot water with my superior officers. General? Permanent duty as a latrine orderly would have been much more likely. But then again… you never know.

Now think about this. What if you hadn’t married that wonderful spouse you now have, or that miserable so-and-so you were only too happy to ditch? How would your life be different today? Choosing a fantastic wife was one thing I did right. Our four kids and their spouses have given us eight wonderful grandchildren so far. But what if I had gotten it all wrong? Maybe I wouldn’t have any of them, at least not as they are now. Sheesh. Thinking about this stuff can make you cagootz.

Career decisions can be sticky as well. Do you ever wonder if you might have left that last job right before you were due for a big promotion? Or what if you had been fortunate enough to quit not knowing that you were about to get the axe? How about that great offer you turned down to stay where you were? What if you missed out on a great opportunity? Aaargh… My head is starting to spin again.

Unfortunately, there’s no owner’s manual for life. It tends to come at us rather quickly, and as a result we all make some bad decisions. If you were very lucky, you may have had a caring mentor who gave you some good early guidance. I’m not sure that my kids always bought in to what I was selling, but there were three hackneyed old sayings I used regularly to advise them while they were growing up. One was, “Do the right thing”. Another was, (and they REALLY grew to hate this), “You wanna play, you gotta pay!” They still roll their eyes when they hear that one! But what if they hadn’t listened?

Much of what we learn comes through time-consuming and sometimes painful personal experience. When I was still in New York, I worked briefly in Boro Park, a Hasidic section of Brooklyn. I became friends with a local rabbi, who was one of my customers. We were having a discussion one day about life, and I’ll never forget the good rabbi’s words. Shaking his head sadly, he said, “You know, we grow too soon old and too late shmart.” How prophetic! It wasn’t until I reached retirement age and became perfect that I realized how right he was!

So make those decisions carefully, my friends. There are few mulligans in life. But don’t beat yourselves up if things don’t always turn out well. We all have some clunkers on our resumes. By the way, that third trite bit of wisdom I offered my children was “Never give up!” If life knocks you down, you must get back up and fight even harder. After all, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – – and better.

I learned the wisdom of those words by making my own bad decisions, and plenty of them. Many of those came about because in my youthful arrogance I ignored some good advice. As youngsters we tend to think we’re smarter than our elders and therefore many of us are doomed to endure agonizing mistakes that probably could have been avoided if we had just listened. Some of us eventually learn not to make the same bad choices again, and unfortunately, some don’t.

In reality, there’s no way to know what our lives would have been like had we done a few things differently. But it certainly can be interesting to wonder! In the long run we’re all probably better off just being content with the way things turned out. Hey, it could have been a lot worse.

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The Night I Almost Fought Ali

August 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm (Uncategorized)

This ranks way up there on my personal list of really dumb ideas.

During the mid-seventies Maureen and I attended a number of Kiwanis district conventions as representatives of my club. These were usually held during late summer in the upstate New York Catskill Mountains at one of the popular resorts that made up the “Borscht Belt.” This particular year, I think it was 1975, we were enjoying the food, fun and entertainment at the Concord Hotel. And, oh yes… I even found time to participate in several of the workshops held for the benefit of incoming Kiwanis officers.

It just so happened that while we were there heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was training at the Concord for his next title defense. Ali was then well past his prime and deep into his “Bum of the Month” campaign, during which he took frequent fights against badly over-matched challengers who represented very little physical threat and had no real chance of defeating him.

Anyway, one evening after dinner Maureen and I went down to the hotel basement where Ali’s entourage had set up a boxing ring in a large room that seated perhaps 200 curious spectators. Other training paraphernalia was clustered nearby. We found chairs along the left side of the ring and settled in to watch the workout, something probably few of us had ever seen before.

The Champ was in the midst of a spirited session on the speed bag, and the room echoed with the rat-a-tat of his punches. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, stood off to the side intently monitoring a stop watch. Dundee called out, “TIME!” and Ali immediately ceased jabbing the bag. The crowd applauded politely. The Champ rested briefly but remained on his feet, casually shadow boxing to keep from cooling down. After about five minutes of this, he resumed the workout by beginning to pound the heavy bag hanging in a corner. Now the room echoed with the THUD-THUD of his powerful punches. After a few minutes of this, the trainer again called “TIME!” and Ali backed away from the cumbersome bag. The spectators clapped warmly.

Next followed a routine with Ali passing a medicine ball back and forth to assistant trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown, a bear of a man who wrote many of the humorous phrases Ali used to taunt his opponents. The most famous of these was, Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee. Each man grunted loudly as the medicine ball whacked into his midsection. After several minutes of this they dropped the heavy ball to the floor and The Champ briefly rested again without sitting. To me it seemed that Ali’s ample stomach still needed lots more attention.

Truthfully, he didn’t appear to be working all that hard. Considering the caliber of his next opponent, maybe he didn’t have to. I can’t recall who was coming up on the schedule, but I’m sure it was some inept “tomato can”, the type of opponent that Ali was so fond of fighting near the end of his career as his skills began to fade.

That seemed to be the end of the formal workout. Here’s where things began to get really interesting. Angelo Dundee turned to the crowd with a broad grin on his face and announced, “Would anyone like to come up and spar with The Champ?”

I was on my feet in a flash. What an opportunity! Someday I could tell my awestruck grandchildren that Poppy had once gotten into the ring with the great Muhammad Ali! I began to step toward the aisle but suddenly felt myself yanked violently backward. I turned to find Maureen with a death grip on my belt and a “Where do you think you’re going?” look on her face. By the time I regained my balance a young waiter had jumped ahead of me and climbed through the ropes to face Ali. Sadly, the waiter would now be the one with a great tale to tell HIS grandchildren while I was left to ponder what might have been. I turned, glared at my wife and sat down with a pout.

A healthy ego might dictate at this point that I offer something macho about how bitterly disappointed I was. Fortunately, my ego is just a little one. While there may have been a bit of regret, I quickly realized after a moment’s consideration that I actually felt relieved. What the hell had I been thinking? I wasn’t looking to be humiliated, and I certainly didn’t want Ali to kill me! With that in mind, I turned back to see what was happening in the ring.

Ali smiled as the waiter assumed an awkward boxing stance. Mine would have been far better, of course! The Champ made a great pretense of winding up to throw a haymaker, carefully keeping his distance from the young man, who looked like he might take a swing at Ali if he could get close enough. They circled around the middle of the ring several times without actually doing anything before a laughing Bundini finally rang the bell and an amused Dundee stepped in to raise the young man’s hand in victory. The crowd went wild.

Looking back, I like to laughingly delude myself that I “woulda moidered da bum.” But in truth I’m quite grateful that Maureen kept me from making an ass of myself, at least on that occasion. Recalling this incident never fails to bring a smile to my face even all these years later. And I’m still pondering what, if anything, I can tell my grandkids about the zany night I almost got to fight Muhammad Ali.

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Memorial Day Remembrances

May 23, 2012 at 3:47 pm (Uncategorized)

 

Each year at this time as we pause to celebrate Memorial Day, my many vivid recollections of Vietnam resurface once again.  With them comes the understanding that perhaps we as a nation are losing sight of the true significance of this solemn holiday.  First conceived as “Decoration Day” in 1868 to honor our Civil War dead, Memorial Day has more recently come to be recognized as the unofficial beginning of the summer barbecue season.  My own memories, however, tend to leave me somewhat subdued rather than celebratory on the last Monday in May, at least until the parade is over and the first hamburger begins to sizzle on the grill.

Going off to the military is something of a tradition in my family.  I was born while my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  My father-in-law flew fifty missions as a B-17 tail gunner over Europe and North Africa.  One of my uncles fought at the “Battle of the Bulge”, and another in Korea.  In fact, most of my male relatives served “Uncle Sam” at one time or another in various corners of the globe.  And we weren’t always good soldiers, either.  During World War I, one of my uncles was slapped into a ball and chain by the Navy for desertion.  But the unspoken rule was that we had to show up.  So when the growing conflict in Southeast Asia drew me in during the mid-sixties, I grudgingly shouldered my share of the burden in keeping with the family custom.

I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in the spring of 1964 as an apprehensive twenty-year-old Army private.  There were just 16,000 Americans in-country at the time, and I was not particularly enthusiastic about being one of them.  That May, a one year tour of duty seemed like an eternity, with the end a lifetime away.

The Army immediately assigned me to an advisory team located in the I Corps tactical area, which comprised the provinces lying directly below the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam.  I was based in the peaceful and beautiful city of Hue, but spent relatively little time there.  My primary duty was to serve as a radio operator at the remote outposts along the Laotian border manned by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).  Most of them had little-known and exotic names. But vicious fighting in the coming years would soon make Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, and the A Shau Valley practically household words.

I was fortunate to have missed most of the heaviest fighting.  Much of my combat experience consisted of brief sniping engagements or small unit actions.  However, I was part of the relief force sent to secure the shattered Special Forces camp at Nam Dong, where Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor awarded in Vietnam.  I helped build sandbag emplacements after North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked American destroyers at sea, precipitating the now-controversial Tonkin Gulf incident that led to a widened war.  I saw the first Allied aircraft fly low overhead on their way to bomb North Vietnam.  And I watched the initial U.S. Marine combat units come ashore, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them in the bloody days ahead.

Many have questioned the value of what we did in Vietnam.  For me, there was never any doubt.  I saw the relief etched on the faces of simple people who appreciated the security our presence provided.  I delighted in the laughing children who followed the Americans everywhere, begging for money, food, and cigarettes.  I watched groups of primitive montagnards wait patiently in remote villages to be examined by teams of Green Beret medics.  For most of them this was the first and only medical treatment they would ever receive.

I have always taken special pride in my Vietnam service, even when it was not fashionable to do so.  Unfortunately, that pride was all too often met with indifference.  I never experienced the outright hostility reserved for those who followed me, but, like them, I seldom spoke much about the war or my views on it.  Today, my intense disdain for anti-war protesters is long gone, with one or two notable exceptions.  And I am mightily pleased to see how well our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are treated. The attitude toward Vietnam vets is now so different, too. Not a day passes when I go out wearing my “Vietnam Veteran” hat that someone doesn’t stop me to say, “Thanks for your service,” or “Welcome home”. Those moments to me are golden, and they never grow old.

I still cherish the memories of the American, Vietnamese, and Australian friends I made in Southeast Asia.  My closest Vietnamese pal was a young corporal named Troung, who served as an aide to the American advisors at camp Lang Vei.  We took great delight in playing practical jokes on Troung, and teasing him about his distaste for American food.  Troung openly admired my blue and silver Combat Infantry Badge, so I gave it to him when I finally left for home.  Lang Vei was subsequently overrun by North Vietnamese tanks during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  I often wonder if Troung was among the handful of survivors.  And I still regret that in the rush to go home I neglected to get the addresses of my good Australian buddy, Dave Walner, or my captain, Ed Walsh.

Many of the finest people I have ever known are Vietnam veterans.  Most went off to do their duty, and then returned home to lead full and productive lives.  Our society today is laced with “Nam” vets whose achievements should thoroughly debunk the once-commonly accepted image of them as “baby-killers” and drug addicts.  In truth, the only baby-killers I ever saw were on the other side.  Oh, there’s no denying that there were some rotten apples in the barrel, as there are in all armies.  The horror of My Lai attests to that.  But the vast majority of our Vietnam veterans represent the best America has to offer.

As for those who did not return, I have personal memories of them as well.  There was my young aviator friend whose light observation plane was shot down and whose body was never recovered.  He left behind a wife and an infant son he never saw.  And the lieutenant who was killed by a grenade during his second week in-country.  Or the career Special Forces sergeant whose bunk I used while he was out on the patrol that ultimately claimed his life.  I haven’t forgotten.  I say, “God bless them all”.

This May 28th, as Americans light their barbecues and chill their beverages, they could do well to pause, remember, and give thanks for the brave, dedicated men and women whose sacrifices helped pay for the freedom we enjoy.  Perhaps then we’ll all better understand the true significance of Memorial Day.

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Readin’ & Writin’

March 2, 2012 at 5:17 pm (Uncategorized)

I developed my passion for reading and writing at a very early age. During elementary school I became a big fan of the Tarzan books as well as The Hardy Boys series. Whenever a new volume came out I would walk to Sakoff’s variety store in Cedarhurst and buy it. Shortly afterward I became hooked on Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. That should astound my siblings, who will find it difficult to believe that I actually used to like animals. Anyway, at one time I owned the entire collections of  those books and still possessed some of them well into middle-age. Alas, once Maureen and I decided to move to Arizona, most of my extensive library ended up in the Salvation Army collection bin.

In the 5th grade I wrote from memory the screenplay of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers, one of my favorite movies. Following up on that I produced my very first short story, Attack of the Crab Monsters, an inept piece of trash inspired by the cheesy horror films of the 1950s, which I adored. I guess I became discouraged when everyone who read it laughed, thinking it was supposed to be a comedy. Hey, I was TEN years old, for crying out loud! After that my writing career languished for several years while I tried to disassociate myself from the putrid legacy of the “crab monsters”. But despite my youthful struggles with writing, I never lost my zeal for reading.

English Composition was my favorite subject in high school and one which earned for me my best grades. I even gave several oral reports featuring rudimentary cartoons I had drawn. That in itself seems a bit remarkable, since today I have virtually no artistic ability at all. I did, however, manage to keep up with writing of a sort by maintaining journals of local weather records and by tracking hurricanes for several years.

During the time I spent with the Army in Vietnam I did no writing at all, something I still can’t fathom. Here I had been in a war zone with countless fascinating events happening around me, and I kept no permanent records. Nothing. I’m at a loss to find a rational explanation for this. How I wish today that I had at least maintained a diary so that the memories of many names, places and events would not have vanished into the dust bin of my personal history. Very puzzling.

When I joined Kiwanis at age twenty-six, I found new purpose for my, for want of a better word, “skills”. Every Kiwanis club issued a weekly bulletin detailing the events of the latest meeting. This was usually a very dry, boring account that typically read, “Meeting opened by President John Smith at 7:02 pm with one verse of ‘America’ and an invocation by Bob Jones. The following members were present…” A real snooze inducer to be sure, but you have to realize that the Kiwanis organization and the Kiwanians themselves were both rather staid in those days. As a result, they became prime targets for a writer like me who had been blessed (or cursed) with a rather warped sense of humor.

Now you must understand that the bulletin was the primary means of communication for service clubs back then. There were no cell phones, internet or other electronic means such as we have today to keep the members informed. When I was asked to write the bulletin I quickly came to the realization that it would be completely useless if nobody read it, as seemed to be the case then. So I soon began to inject some life into our weekly newsletter in the form of bad jokes, plagiarized cartoons, good-natured insults and attention-grabbing language. Frankly, I wasn’t quite certain at first that I had done the right thing. But it quickly became apparent from the feedback, both positive and negative, that at least now our members were actually reading the newly-revised bulletins, despite becoming the targets of my frequent abuse.

At the end of my first year as editor, I was both stunned and delighted to learn that our club had won the New York State District competition for best bulletin. This was an honor we would earn five times during my tenure. And much to my surprise, I noticed that many other clubs within our Division were beginning to follow suit by making their bulletins more humorous – and thus by extension – more readable. I guess imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. I like to think that I may have had something to do with helping to bring about this transformation, for better or for worse. And I must admit that the demands of producing a newsletter each and every week did much to improve my writing skills.

When I worked for the Bank of New York in the eighties, one of my responsibilities became writing a weekly marketing and business development newsletter. Now banking is as ultra-conservative a profession as exists, hardly an industry that one would expect to embrace my particular form of unconventional writing. Progress was slow at first. Some people liked what I produced; others did not. I convinced myself to concentrate on the affirmative and ignore the rest. That, by the way, is probably a good axiom by which to live these days. Eventually most people came to accept my approach, even if a bit grudgingly at times.

After moving to Community National Bank on Staten Island, I took over the Marketing and Business Development departments. The president of the bank asked me to resurrect the monthly internal magazine, which had lain dormant for several years. I had never been involved with a publication of that magnitude before. And as a virtual “one-man band”, I had to quickly learn the tasks of interviewing subjects, writing and editing the articles, as well as preparing galley copy for the printer. Fortunately for me the magazine was a big hit right from day one.

The president also entrusted me with the job of developing a bank wide business development plan. I accomplished this by drawing on my experience while doing the same at the Bank of New York. Part of that plan involved dividing the staff into two teams, the Yankees and the Mets, and creating a 9 inning (week) “World Series” competition. I wrote a humorous newsletter weekly to update the “score”. The program didn’t immediately take hold, but by the third week employees were waiting outside my office door on Monday mornings until I released the latest results. We even held a dinner at the end to reveal the winners. Great fun.

At some point during this period, I began writing my first book, The Torch, a novel based upon my experiences while serving with a military advisory team in Vietnam. It was at this time that I realized how short-sighted I had been in not keeping written records while overseas. I struggled to recall not only names, places and events, but the entire chronology of my year at war. Unable to remember many details from a perspective twenty years removed from the experience itself, I decided to write the story as fiction. This consumed the better part of a year, but when it was finished I wasn’t satisfied with the result. I then rewrote it as non-fiction before concluding that my limited role in the war failed to give the reader a broad enough view of what was occurring in Vietnam at that time. So I rewrote The Torch again as fiction, adding events that gave a better understanding of the war in its early years. That became the final form for the book.

I contacted a literary agent who agreed to work with my novel. After about

six months with no apparent results, I decided to find someone else to represent the book. It was only then that I learned how fortunate I had been to have had an agent accept me in the first place, and how difficult it was to acquire another. Unless you are a celebrity or a previously published author, it’s almost impossible to find someone willing to work with you. I never did acquire another agent. As a result, I self-published The Torch in 2004. I like to kid that the book never made it off the “Best Smeller List”, having sold well less than one hundred copies since then!

Now I have virtually completed my second book, Tossing the Sandwiches, a humorous and often poignant non-fiction story about growing up in a somewhat off-center family of Italian descent. Hopefully some misguided agent or publisher will take pity on this poor ink-stained wretch and accept my manuscript for consideration. If all else fails, I suppose I’ll just keep writing for the magazine I’ve worked with since 2009 out here in Arizona.

I have several ideas for additional books, so with any luck at all I’ll live long enough to complete them. If not, then at least a few innocent readers will be spared the indignity of being exposed to more of my somewhat outlandish writing! In the meantime I expect to maintain my voracious reading habits, often finishing two or three books each week as I’ve done for far more years than I care to admit.

And finally, for those of you who decide to read more of my work, please accept in advance my profound apologies!

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Passing the Torch

February 1, 2012 at 4:30 pm (Uncategorized)

In the spring of 1988, shortly after my Mom passed away, our son Jimmy decided to enlist in the Army. At the time that was not exactly what I wanted to hear. I had been hoping that he would earn a college degree, but he had little interest in that. His decision to join the service and possibly have to put his life on the line did not sit well with me. While we were engaged in no hostilities at the moment, I knew that deadly conflicts had a way of popping up suddenly. My feeling was that our family had given enough to the military and deserved an exemption for a couple of generations.

I was born in 1943 while my father was in the Army Air Corps. As luck would have it, Dad spent his entire enlistment with the 404th Army Air Forces Band in Malden, Missouri. My father-in-law, Tom Ford, flew 50 missions with the 15th Air Force as a B-17 tail gunner over North Africa and Europe during WWII. Uncle Ralph Bevilacqua was wounded at the “Battle of the Bulge”. Uncle Syl Matland served in Germany. Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Alfred Bevilacqua also completed tours of duty with the Army. My former brother-in-law George Petri survived the Marine Corps’ vicious “Hill Fights” in Vietnam during 1967, and brother-in-law Cliff Catropa also served in the Marines. First cousin Billy Fearns opted for the Navy, where he spent eight years aboard submarines. And, of course, I experienced my own adventures in Vietnam. From my viewpoint, I felt that I could be forgiven for wanting my son to be spared what so many members of our family had endured.

But that was what Jimmy wished to do. He located a reserve unit, the 423rd Military Police Company in Garden City, Long Island that would accept him. I went along with him to speak with a local recruiter who explained that Jimmy would have to take his basic training at the MP school in Fort McClellan, Alabama. I was a bit apprehensive about that, so I asked, “Sergeant, I’m an old GI myself. How are the people in Alabama going to treat an Italian kid from New York?”

He smiled knowingly and said, “You’d be surprised how different things are now from when you served. Recruits are treated much better these days.” With that reassurance, I reluctantly gave in.

The morning Jimmy was to leave, I stayed home from work to see him off. The recruiter pulled up at our house in an Army van to escort his new charge to the airport. That in itself astonished me. When I was drafted, I’d had to make my own way to Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan for my physical before being put on a bus to Fort Dix in New Jersey. The sergeant had been right: things definitely had changed. Maureen and I each tried to put on a brave face, but we were near tears. I guess I finally realized then what my Dad must have felt the day I left for Vietnam. To make matters worse, our son called several hours later to inform us that he was still at the airport awaiting his flight. He sounded as though he wanted to come home. It was a difficult day for all of us.

Well, after he finally got to Alabama, the weeks dragged by very slowly. We treasured the letters from Fort McClellan, knowing full well that each one brought us closer to the day when we would see our son again. I had promised Jimmy that we would fly down to attend his graduation from training. So the day before, Maureen and I, daughter Jackie, and Linda, Jimmy’s girlfriend at the time, headed for the airport to board a plane for Atlanta. We planned to make the three hour drive to Fort McClellan from there.

As luck would have it, the lunacy that always seems to pursue me struck yet again. While walking through the terminal I stepped on a packet of ketchup someone had dropped, and it squirted up my pants leg. Since I was wearing white slacks at the time, it now appeared as if I had been mauled by a man-eating Chihuahua. I did my best to clean up in the men’s room while the others cackled mercilessly. But, to be perfectly frank, I looked like hell and would remain so until we reached our hotel room in Atlanta where I was finally able to change clothes. Sometimes I do wonder if the gods amuse themselves by singling me out for special abuse.

Anyway, we finally arrived in Atlanta and were very pleasantly surprised. The city was modern and clean, and the Marriott hotel where we stayed was absolutely magnificent. The next morning we set out early on the drive to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. Along the way we stopped at a small country store to buy cigarettes and snacks. When I asked the woman behind the counter if she sold lighters, she responded, “No, but you can have mine.” With that she handed it to me along with my change. And here I had been worried about how Yankees would be treated in Alabama!

We arrived at the fort and a uniformed MP directed us to the C Company, 787th MP Battalion area. The graduating trainees were just beginning to emerge from their relatively new and spotless barracks. I spotted Jimmy coming toward us in the crowd and was taken somewhat aback. He looked like a real soldier! I was so proud that I couldn’t speak. He said, “Hi, Dad,” and I gave him a bear hug.

We soon discovered that we were invited to share lunch with the troops. I must say that I was fairly astounded to find that the dining facility was more like a cafeteria than the shabby mess halls I remembered. Instead of waiting for sweating sergeants in T-shirts to slap globs of unrecognizable food into their trays, the recruits could choose from a wide variety of appealing entrees, side dishes, fruit, and desserts. It was almost like a buffet. I could scarcely believe my eyes.

During lunch the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel by the name of Richard Yamamoto, joined us. I was wearing a miniature Combat Infantry Badge on my lapel in honor of the occasion and it attracted his attention. Since we were about the same age, the colonel and I got into a long conversation about the Army, which I enjoyed immensely and for which I thanked him profusely.

Following lunch the graduates were scheduled to march to an indoor arena nearby for the ceremony. The post band was supposed to accompany them, but for some reason it never showed up. I guess some things about the Army never change. During the proceedings, the colonel remarked that this had been one of the best classes in his tenure, and the trainees should all be proud of their accomplishments. He encouraged them to do their best as they continued in their military careers. I don’t know if he said the same things to all his classes, but it did make us feel good to hear that.

Following graduation the new MP’s were free to return home. We took a quick tour of the post, including the PX where we bought some souvenirs, and then headed back to Atlanta and our hotel room to spend the night. Another chapter in the military history of our family had come to a conclusion.

The next morning we boarded the automated tram that transported us to the proper terminal inside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Upon arrival we saw that a wicked thunderstorm was in progress. Pitch-black clouds scudded across the sky as a furious deluge inundated the area. There was even a tornado warning. It was about as wild as anything I had seen since the violent and eerie storms of the A Shau Valley in Vietnam. Our flight was now delayed two hours. No doubt the gods were laughing as they continued to have their fun.

Well, the storm eventually passed and we were soon on our way. The flight itself was uneventful. We arrived back in Baldwin to find most of the family waiting happily to greet us. It was quite a homecoming. While Jimmy was away we had redone his room, and I think he was happy with the way it came out. One of the first things he added was a framed portrait of himself in uniform. The torch had officially been passed.

Several years later, the Gulf War boiled up. We kept hearing rumors that Jimmy’s reserve unit would be called to active duty and sent to Kuwait. There was an automated phone number that gave out the names and serial numbers of those soldiers so designated. For about two months we dialed that number almost daily. It was a very uncomfortable time in our lives, I can tell you. Fortunately, Jimmy was never summoned. For that his mother and I remain eternally grateful.

A small plaque that Jimmy gave us sits prominently on a shelf in my office. It reads, “To Mom and Dad from your son serving proudly in the United States Army.” I keep it there as a reminder of how my son stepped forward, the most recent member of our family to wear America’s uniform. Dad, my father-in-law, Uncle Ralph, Uncle Alfred, Uncle Syl, George and Cliff are gone now, but I haven’t forgotten. Every Memorial Day and every Veterans Day I give thanks for their service and ask God’s blessings for them all. After that I also thank Him for keeping our son safe when he was at risk of going in harm’s way.

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