Welcome Home

March 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm (Uncategorized)

It hardly seems possible that so many years have elapsed since I returned home from Vietnam in the spring of 1965. The public attitude toward veterans of that growing war was not yet hostile then, as it was soon destined to become. People still tended to react with apathy rather than with anger toward our military. It was more a case of, “So you’re back from Vietnam, huh? That’s good. Say, did you see the Yankee game last night?” But that changed quickly, and not for the better.

Truthfully, no one ever spat on me or called me a “baby-killer” while I was in uniform, something many returning soldiers experienced later. In fact, the only “baby-killers” I ever saw were on the other side, and they were devastatingly efficient at it, as I was to repeatedly learn for myself. But when it comes to wars, some people can become quite irrational and deeply mean-spirited in their misguided opposition to those who must fight them.

Going off to the military is something of a tradition in our family. I was born while my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. My father-in-law flew 50 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. My son Jimmy Jr. was in the Army Military Police during “Operation Desert Storm”. In fact, most of my male relatives served “Uncle Sam” at one time or another in various corners of the globe.

We weren’t always good soldiers, either. I learned that during World War I another of my uncles was slapped into a ball and chain for desertion from the Navy. 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 20 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 conflict 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 after an eerie night attack by 1000 Viet Cong. It was at the battle for Nam Dong that Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor awarded in Vietnam.

I also helped to 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. As a result, I’ve always taken special pride in my Vietnam service, even when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

But during the late 1960s, public opinion of the military plummeted to such a shameful level that returning soldiers were cautioned to travel in civilian clothes instead of uniforms rather than risk ugly confrontations with protesters. The generally-accepted image of the Vietnam vet back then was one of a psychopathic drug addict. That bothers me to this day. I served for a year in one of the most prolific drug-producing areas on the planet, yet never once saw an American soldier using narcotics. Oh, I recognize that drug use became somewhat widespread later on as both the war and society deteriorated. Sadly, that left an indelible stain on the legacy of our fighting men in Southeast Asia. But it wasn’t everyone, and I still fiercely resent the commonly-accepted stereotype of the American Vietnam veteran as a drug abuser.

For 25 years after I left the Army, not one person outside my immediate circle of family and friends ever thanked me for having served in Vietnam. Then, appropriately enough on Memorial Day, 1990, I was shopping at the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island while wearing my “Proud Vietnam Veteran” cap. A young female clerk behind the counter glanced at the inscription on my hat and said rather shyly, “We’re proud of you, too.”

I was so taken aback that I choked up and left the store without even thanking that lovely girl. When I got home and told Maureen what had happened, all the pent-up emotions came pouring out and I burst into tears. That was a legitimate watershed moment in my life. It also marked the approximate point when America’s attitude toward our military began to undergo a dramatic improvement.

Several years ago, one of my clients who had been an avid protester during the Vietnam years approached me. “You know,” he said, “I owe you an apology for the way I behaved back then.”

I was touched. “You should never apologize for doing what you thought was right,” I replied. We remain good friends to this day, which in my view is a wonderful tribute to the concept of human understanding. And my own hostility toward war protesters is long gone now, with one or two notable exceptions.

Today, there’s rarely a day when I wear my “Vietnam Veteran” hat that someone doesn’t stop me to offer a warm “Thank you”. Maureen always laughs when that happens because I never fail to become a bit emotional. But I don’t mind. And it never gets old, I can assure you.

I’m so pleased to see how well our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are now treated. Yes, I’ll confess to having a twinge of jealousy now and then. But gratitude, though offered late, is much better than none at all. Whenever I encounter active-duty members of the military, I always make it a point to thank them for their service. Sometimes I’ll buy them coffee or cigarettes, or even pick up their lunch tabs. That’s my way of showing appreciation for their sacrifices, which I understand only too well. The look of surprise and gratitude on their faces is the best reward I could ever hope to receive. God willing, we can all do something to ensure that our troops will never again experience the scorn or outright hatred the Vietnam veterans endured for so many years.

As the expression goes, “Freedom isn’t free”. In fact, it can be very costly indeed. We Americans today enjoy a way of life and countless privileges that were paid for with the lives of our soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. So when you encounter a veteran, I urge you to offer a sincere word of thanks for his or her service. Or, as we Vietnam vets prefer, simply say, “Welcome home!”

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The Loser

March 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm (Uncategorized)

Gambling has never been one of my strong suits. I’m a terrible card player, and have yet to win a penny from a lottery ticket, scratch-off, football pool or the phony raffle tickets my friend John Capobianco sells. But it is at the casinos where my failings as a gambler have become most evident. You might say that I’m Donald Trump’s number one patsy, and it would be one of the kinder remarks made about my gambling prowess. Alas, I would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.

Maureen and I have been regular casino patrons since legalized gambling first arrived in Atlantic City during the mid 1980’s. Since that time I have never come home a winner, and we’re talking about a losing streak that now has far surpassed 100 consecutive visits. Granted we only play the slots, which lessens your chances of winning, but wouldn’t you think the law of averages would come into play at some point? Yeah, right.

I clearly remember our first visit to the Golden Nugget casino. Maureen and I made the 150 mile drive with our friend Richie Vicario. The slot machines must have been more generous then, because I played all day and lost only $40. Maureen broke even, and Richie won about a hundred bucks. Little did I know that this would be the start of an extremely frustrating and fruitless pursuit of my first jackpot that continues to this day.

Now I’m not saying that I’ve never won anything at all. Once at the Claridge I hit for $400, which is the biggest win I’ve ever made at a casino. Unfortunately, it came within the first 30 minutes we were there, so that money quickly vanished over the course of the day, and I went home a loser, as usual.

I’ve still never won a jackpot despite determined attempts in New Jersey, Connecticut, Las Vegas, New Orleans and now Arizona. I have friends who regularly win $1200, $1500 or even more on the machines, but inevitably end up giving it all back. To me the real measure of success has always been how much of the casino’s money you have in your pocket when you come back across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island. In my case the answer has always been ZERO.

Things have gotten so bad that most people now refer to me as “Mr. Loser”, “The Jinx” or by several other less polite appellations. No one wants to go to the casino with me any longer because I’m perceived as a bad luck charm. And who can blame them? Maureen, at least, has won several good-sized jackpots over the years, but even she is now on an extended losing streak. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if that’s a result of associating with her loser husband.

To help turn the tide, my friends Carole Gerraputa and Marilyn Basile once made a “good-luck” kit for me. Kind of a reverse voodoo doll, if you will. They gave me a little white box containing a rabbit’s foot, a four leaf clover, a miraculous medal, loaded dice, an Irish blessing and some other assorted trinkets designed to bring good fortune. The next time we got to the Trump Marina I had that box in my pocket and was bursting with confidence. Two hours later I was flat broke! Have the gambling gods no mercy at all?

For a number of years, my Kiwanis club made regular bus excursions to Harrah’s in Atlantic City. For each trip, one of the members would bring along a movie to show during the ride. When my turn came, I asked Maureen what film the wives might like to see. She suggested “Shall We Dance?” with Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere. Armed with this inside information, off I went to Blockbuster. Naturally, “Shall We Dance?” was out of stock, so I asked the female clerk what she would recommend as a good movie for women. “Try “De-Lovely”, she said. “It’s the life story of Cole Porter.”

Well, that sounded like it might be a good “chick flick”, so I rented it. Big mistake. “De-Lovely” turned out to be De-Lousy. It was so bad that when we showed it aboard the bus, the group booed me incessantly. As the film concluded, everyone broke into a derisive cheer. Thankfully we were near Atlantic City by then; otherwise they might have thrown me overboard. Needless to say, I was never again asked to provide a movie for our trip. In fact, I think most of them would probably have preferred that I not go along at all. I guess it was becoming readily apparent by then that not much winning took place when I was present.

But the crowning insult took place one summer day at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Maureen and I had been gambling throughout the morning and, as usual, I was losing. We decided to take a break and walked out onto the boardwalk. If you’re familiar with the Taj, you may recall that when you exit through the front doors, there are often several hot dog carts nearby. As we walked past one of those, I felt a sudden SPLAAAT! against my throat. Thinking some youngster had stomped on a mustard packet that then squirted up at me, I glanced around trying to locate the little urchin who had done this dastardly deed. But there was none in sight.

I put my hand to my throat and came away with – green slime! I glared upward and spotted the seagull that had dive-bombed me circling lazily overhead. Well, didn’t that just figure? Bad enough the casino was taking me to the cleaners, now this feathered fink was using me for target practice! I shook my fist at that belligerent bird. If there hadn’t been so many people standing around laughing I would have shouted, COME DOWN AND FIGHT LIKE A MAN!

Some woman handed me several tissues, snickered loudly and walked away. I did my best to clean up the mess, which had begun to ooze down my shirt into the hair on my chest. Revolting!

An older man with sunglasses who had been watching all this chuckled and said, “You know, that’s supposed to be good luck.”

A light bulb went off in my head. Hey, maybe this was a good omen. I turned to Maureen, who was still giggling rudely. Glaring at her I said, “Come on. Let’s go try our luck again.” With that, we rushed back inside the Taj, where I promptly went bust! So much for omens.

Well, I’m still waiting to ditch that humiliating moniker of “Mr. Loser” as the seemingly hopeless quest for a jackpot continues. I suppose now I understand how Don Quixote must have felt, although instead of tilting with windmills, I’m jousting with slot machines. It’s a good thing “one-armed bandits” can’t laugh.

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Weddings

March 8, 2011 at 9:17 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve already addressed the subject of football weddings elsewhere in this anthology (see “An Italian Childhood”). Our children didn’t have them, but that doesn’t mean what we DID have was any less wacky.

Take Cindy’s marriage to Michael, for example. Her bridesmaids met at her apartment in Whitestone, Queens for photos on the day of the wedding. From there the limos had to travel to Inwood in Nassau County for the ceremony at Our Lady of Good Counsel church. Maureen and I and both sets of our parents had gotten married there. It was about a twenty mile journey that should have taken perhaps thirty minutes.

Well, the photography session went flawlessly, but then things began to slip. Cindy and I hopped into the white roadster that would transport us to the church. Another limo behind us carried the bridesmaids. It was a Friday afternoon and becoming overcast. We had anticipated congestion on the Cross Island Expressway, but were unprepared for what we found. Traffic was virtually bumper-to-bumper and barely moving. After ten or fifteen minutes of this we began to get a bit fidgety. A gentleman in a car alongside glanced at us in our wedding finery and called out, “I hope you get to the church on time!” So did we, believe me.

The two drivers communicated by radio and decided to change the route. We got off at the next exit only to find the highway blocked ahead as well. Our vehicles continued to inch along as the clock ticked steadily. I glanced at my watch. We were going to be late, but I said nothing. Cindy was becoming flustered, and I tried my best to keep her calm.

A trip that should have taken perhaps half an hour lasted an hour and forty minutes! By the time we pulled up to the church we were already more than an hour late for the ceremony. To make matters worse, it had begun to rain. As we exited the limos, I spotted the priest, Father Larry, pacing back and forth on the church steps. He looked hopping mad. “Where have you been?” he growled.

I tried to explain that we had been stuck in traffic, but he was having none of that and started shooing us into the church. I guess my last best chance of eventually making it through the Pearly Gates vanished that day. Anyway, after we finally got everyone inside, the service went just beautifully, with one minor glitch.

After walking Cindy down the aisle, I gave her the traditional kiss and then passed her hand to Michael. As they began to approach the altar, I turned to my left to enter the pew where Maureen sat, and almost stepped on Cindy’s train. The witnesses seated to my right let out a collective “NOOOOO!” After all that had gone wrong thus far, I guess they didn’t want to see any additional mishaps. When I realized what was happening, I did an awkward little tap dance to avoid stepping on the train until it was safely out of range and the service proceeded without further incident.

But as we left the church following the ceremony, things began to go south again. One of the limos bearing the wedding party now had a dead battery and wouldn’t start. The driver came over to our vehicle where the families sat waiting and informed us that he would have to call in for a replacement. Charming!

Poor Stephanie, Michael’s Mom, began to have a conniption. She started to rant and rave until her mother, Grandma Jeannie, quieted her down. By now I had also lost my patience and shouted to the driver, “Harvey, if we don’t get going soon, we’re going to miss our own reception!”

Fortunately, my daughter-in-law Lisa’s brother Andy was at the church. He had jumper cables in his truck and managed to charge up the limo battery so we could get on our way. But that was far from the end of the madness.

The reception was in lower Manhattan. It was now beginning to get dark and the rain was coming down in black squalls. Driving into the city any day during rush hour is no picnic, and bad weather only makes it even worse. Traffic was again very bad, so by the time we got close to our destination we were pretty well frazzled. Then it happened. Two blocks from the hall, our driver tried to make a turn from the middle lane and collided heavily with a taxicab. The grinding impact caused quite a bit of damage to the side of the limo, but amazingly, neither vehicle stopped! Only in New York, folks!

And that wasn’t even the strangest thing about that incident. When we reached the hall, we had to take an elevator to the top floor where the reception was being held. I waited for another couple to enter, and then stepped in behind them. As the doors closed, the elevator operator turned to the woman and asked, “So how is your night going?”

Much to my shock, she grimaced and replied, “Well, it was going great until some idiot limo driver crashed into our cab!”

Oh, Mamma! I rolled my eyes and tried to appear inconspicuous. Now what are the odds that in the big city of New York our limo would collide with someone going to the same wedding? I didn’t recognize this couple, and I was hoping they hadn’t seen who was in that limo. It was a relief to get out of that elevator, I can tell you.

We were now about forty minutes late for the cocktail hour. Fortunately, the caterer agreed to extend the session since so few guests had arrived as yet. But that still wasn’t the end of the madness. We had rented a bus to transport forty-three people from Long Island who hadn’t wanted to drive into the city. Somewhere along the route, the bus driver got lost! The passengers had to take over and direct him to the destination! We laugh about it now, but I have to admit that I wasn’t very happy to hear that particular bit of news. When they finally reached the hall, the food for the cocktail hour was being cleared away. What a fiasco!

I found Cindy in the hallway crying her eyes out. So far her wedding had been a disaster. I gave her a hug and said “Listen to me. This may have started out lousy, but it’s going to be great now that we’re finally here.”

And it was. I have never been to a reception where all the guests enjoyed themselves so much. The dance floor was packed the entire night, and people just seemed to be having a grand old time. Then the final farce of the day began to play out.

The announcer invited me as the father of the bride to say a few words. Big mistake. To be funny, I had made two “stone” tablets out of styrofoam and listed on them the “Ten Commandments of Marriage”. Beforehand, I had laughingly instructed my siblings and nieces and nephews to throw some debris at me as a joke when I began to read the “commandments”. To my chagrin, they not only complied, but went far, far beyond what I had asked.

As I started to read what I had thought were some pretty funny lines, the bombardment began. I had to dodge rolls, napkins, candles and pieces of fruit throughout my presentation. I think I even saw a rubber chicken go by! And later, everyone complained that I had spoken for far too long. I don’t know, I thought that half hour passed very quickly! The Maitre D tried to get me off a couple of times, and even had the band play some “traveling music”. All that was missing was “the hook”. But I managed to evade all that and finished my speech. At least I thought it was amusing if no one else did.

The rest of the night, barring my little talk, seemed just fabulous, perhaps because it had started out so badly. On occasion, people still compliment us on that reception, despite all the mishaps. I’m glad. Cindy had been such a beautiful bride and she deserved it. And it was almost as much fun as a “football wedding”!

Jackie’s wedding to Mike, on the other hand, ran flawlessly from beginning to end. The reception was scheduled to be held at a yacht club in Suffolk County with a marvelous view of the Robert Moses Bridge spanning Fire Island inlet. Jackie, not surprisingly, would prove to be just an absolutely stunning bride. Hey, we only produce beautiful girls in this family.

We changed the venue of the ceremony to St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre rather than run the risk of incurring Father Larry’s wrath again. That was most fortunate, because quite frankly, I couldn’t afford any more bad karma for the afterlife.

And the family gave me my marching orders: no long speech. Actually, after the last escapade, I hadn’t planned to say anything. But then Cindy came over and insisted that I offer a few words. Well, since she insisted… But by now I had learned my lesson. I kept it down to about five minutes. Even still, there was some incoming from the siblings table.

My reputation for being long-winded must have preceded me. When I put down the mike, everyone gave me a standing ovation – not for my speech, but because it had ended! Since then I have been barred from touching a microphone. Sheesh. I didn’t think I was quite that bad, but I’ll bow to the majority opinion.

And now there are no more daughters to give away. I’ll bet the family is very thankful for that.

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I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

March 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm (Uncategorized)

When I was a youth, my friends and I were avid model railroading fans. We competed among ourselves to build the best layout, and this rivalry could become quite intense. If one pal improved his train table, the others jealously followed suit. The competition usually peaked around Thanksgiving, when the new Lionel Trains catalog came out. Those of us who had accumulated some savings would invest in the latest equipment and accessories, while the less frugal ones had to wait for either Christmas or Hanukkah and hope that their parents would be generous.

This went on for several years until the individual sets became rather elaborate. Mine eventually occupied one entire corner of our basement. Unfortunately, the “J&O Railroad” met its demise while I was in the service, and my Dad decided that he needed the room for something more essential… like storing junk. My reign as a railway magnate seemingly came to an end.

Many years later Maureen and I bought a house in Arizona to be near our grandchildren. I then came up with the brainstorm of building a model railroad layout for my grandson, Giovanni. I had tried that back in New York, but he was younger then and never showed much interest. Now that he had grown somewhat, I was convinced that he was finally ready to appreciate a bigger and better version of “Poppy’s” masterpiece. So off I went to Home Depot in my quest for the lumber and hardware needed to begin my epic project.

When I had completed the framework and the table was safely tucked into a corner of the garage, I decided to incorporate a local theme into the scenery. Now completely motivated and with the creative juices flowing, I began to construct a replica of a nearby mountain as the centerpiece of what I knew would be an award-winning “Gavilan Peak & Anthem Railroad”. The finished product was a magnificent piece of work, if I do say so myself, although Maureen thought it looked a bit cheesy. Ah, she just doesn’t appreciate genuine art. When I was done painting the mountain and laying the track work, I brought Gio out to the garage to have a look. “That’s cool,” he said, and ran inside to play on the computer.

Hmmm, I thought. Maybe he’s still a little young to appreciate true genius.

I went back to work. Knowing he was interested in all things military, I labored for several weeks to construct a highly-detailed army base nestled into the desert. It was without a doubt the Pieta of the model railroading world. Anxious to see the awe on his face, I brought my grandson back again. He glanced at the table then asked with an accusatory glare, “Why didn’t you use a ‘Spiderman’ theme?” Off to the computer.

Encouraged by his unbridled admiration, I dove back into the project with a passion. I put in a railroad depot and a bridge under construction. I began making plans to build a massive mountain tunnel for the crowning touch. Then one afternoon, Gio surprised me by bringing over a friend to see the project. Now we’re making progress, I thought proudly, puffing out my chest. The two boys dashed out into the garage and ran the train once around the tracks. I heard his friend whisper, “This is boring.” They nearly trampled me on their way to the computer.

Now, after hundreds of hours of work and hundreds of dollars in expense, the “Gavilan Peak & Anthem Railroad” sits dormant in my garage, slowly gathering the dust that helps to make it look even more realistic. I’m torn between finishing it or simply turning it into a neo-classical workbench.

A curse on computers! I’ll bet Michelangelo never had to deal with stuff like this.

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