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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