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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Mozzarella’s Band

January 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

During my junior year in high school I became interested in joining the Our Lady of Good Counsel marching band. My Dad and Uncle Dinnio Oliveri were already members, and I had often enjoyed watching them play in local parades and concerts. When I was about ten, Dad tried to get me to learn piano, but I was more interested in playing baseball. Later I took a few snare drum lessons, but they didn’t do a whole lot of good. You have to understand that I was probably the worst musician ever to try out for the band. The Good Counsel members were first-rate musicians, with one notable exception, of course. But I hoped to offset that by being a pretty good marcher. Hey, my playing may have been terrible, but at least I could look sharp doing it.

Now that I think of it, my lack of musical skills is a bit surprising. Almost everyone in my family played at least one instrument. In fact, we even had one of those ancient upright player pianos in our basement along with a good supply of music rolls that resembled old window shades. You could insert one into the big black piano and then sit at the keyboard pretending to play while laughing uproariously as the badly-tuned instrument belted out some sour melody. Maybe that experience had more of an influence on my embarrassing music career than I care to admit.

Anyway, the ranks of the Our Lady of Good Counsel band were dominated by the Mazza family, hence its unofficial secondary name, “Mazza’s Band”. In more humorous moments, we referred to it as “Mozzarella’s Band”. John and Ralph Mazza served as conductors, with Frank Mazza Sr. on trombone, my friend Frank (Butch) Mazza Jr. on trumpet, Mike Mazza on bass drum and a host of additional Mazza family members on various other instruments. My Dad played French horn and Uncle Dinnio was a drummer, which is what I aspired to be.

The band rehearsed every Wednesday night at the American Legion Hall on Wanser Avenue in Inwood, NY. For my first rehearsal, I sat between Uncle Dinnio and Mike Mazza in the percussion section. Uncle Din showed me how to follow the music, and would silently count out the rests for my benefit. I could read a little music, but I relied on him to keep me on track.

We laughed a lot in those days, especially when someone hit a sour note. Uncle Din would start giggling, and before you knew it, the whole band was in an uproar. When the musicians rose to leave at the conclusion of the final number, Uncle Din always shouted, “One more!” Sometimes John or Ralph Mazza would humor him and let us play an additional song.

For parades the band members wore white dress shirts, black slacks, and white hats. Later we switched to tailor-fitted blue uniforms with matching caps. They were actually quite snazzy. My first parade was a firemen’s tournament in Oceanside, NY. As would become our habit, Dad, Uncle Din and I arrived early and found a diner where we had breakfast before forming up at the assembly point.

There were thirty-five musicians that day. The number varied from week to week depending upon who was available, but that was about average. We lined up in seven rows of five. The percussion section made up the last row. I occupied the middle spot between the cymbals player and my godfather, Uncle Din, so he could keep an eye on me. Joe LaRocca was the drummer on the outside. When we were ready to step off, Ralph Mazza, who was in the row ahead of us, called out “On the drums!”

We began belting out a 2/4 beat. Ralph grimaced and covered his ears. The band had never used three snare drummers before, and we were making quite a racket. As we started to move off, Ralph again called out “Roll off!” That was the signal for the band to begin its first number.

Our signature march was “National Emblem” (“Oh, the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole!”) When people saw us coming down the street and heard that song, they knew immediately that it was the Good Counsel Band approaching. This morning the crowd lining the street started clapping and cheering before we even came abreast of them. I thought we sounded fantastic. The stirring music sent goosebumps down my spine and made me stand a little taller as we marched along. Even now, writing this so many years later, I still find myself sitting up straighter in my chair at the thought.

But I soon realized that I had made a serious tactical error. Since this was my first parade, I didn’t know that most snare drummers protected themselves from the constant pounding of the drum against their thighs with leg guards. Uncle Din didn’t use one, so it never occurred to me to do so. By the time we got to the end of the line of march, my leg was swollen, red, and sore. The next day I had a bruise the size of a cantaloupe on my thigh. It kind of looked like I had been run over by a horse (which would actually happen years later. See “The Pets from Hell”).

But despite the pain, I couldn’t get enough of parading. The band participated in probably a dozen parades that year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and I made every one of them. To make matters even better, we were paid a small stipend for each job, usually between six and ten dollars. The band accrued these payments and issued one check at the conclusion of the season. That was certainly a nice bonus for doing something I enjoyed so much.

One time we had too many drummers, so I borrowed a French horn from Dad and marched the full length of the parade pretending to play it. Naturally, I positioned myself at the end of the row so I could check out the girls along the line of march, and hopefully they would do the same to me. I really can’t recall now if that actually worked, but it was fun at the time.

Our last parade that year was the New York State Fire Tournament in Hicksville on Labor Day. That parade was so large we were able to play for three different fire departments, one near the front of the parade, one in the middle and one near the end. After completing our march, we hopped on a bus that transported us back to the beginning where we started off again. By the end of the day we were pretty well spent from traversing the parade route three times. But we were all financially better off as well, with credit for three separate jobs in the books.

That year there was a band competition after the parade to determine who played the best music. Our biggest rival back then was Bill Dayton’s Freeport Fire Department band. We considered them the strongest challengers to our chances. As luck would have it, we were the first to perform, followed by Dayton’s group.

The competition took place in a large field, with the judges in the stands at one end. We had to march to the middle of the field, do an about-face toward the judges, play our one number and then march off. When Ralph Mazza gave us the signal, the drummers set a brisk beat and we moved out into the open grass. We paused there briefly before beginning our presentation of, naturally, “National Emblem March”. As we finished and marched off to loud applause, I felt we had done quite well. But we had to wait for another dozen groups to compete before we learned the final results.

I thought Bill Dayton’s red-clad band, immediately after us, did very well also. None of the other participants seemed to be in our class, but you never knew what the judges were looking for. When they finally announced their decision, we were named the winners, with the Freeport Fire Department placing second. We received a big trophy and a collective feather in our caps to end the marching season.

While the parades may have concluded for the year, rehearsals continued throughout the winter. Sometimes the drummers would goof around after concluding a number by continuing to play a march beat until the rest of the band joined in, ad libbing whatever music they felt like playing. We had quite a lot of fun doing that.

We engaged in a lot of practical joking back then, much of it instigated by me. One time I bought a smoke bomb that you could hook up to the spark plugs on a car engine. When the driver turned the ignition on, the bomb would let out a piercing whistle and a huge cloud of smoke. I made a point of arriving late that night so I could wire the device to Frank Mazza’s car before going inside.

Well, after rehearsal, Dad, Uncle Din, and I rushed out to our car to wait. Frank came through the door several minutes later with three or four of the younger kids who needed a ride home. We chuckled expectantly as they all piled into the car. When Frank turned the key, the whistle went off with a deafening screech, and smoke poured from under the hood. All the car doors flew open, and kids scattered frantically in every direction. Frank stepped out of the car, glanced around, and saw us sitting there laughing hysterically. He glared at Dad and growled, “I know you did it, Augie!”

This was great! Here I had pulled off the stunt of the year, and I wasn’t even getting blamed for it! Hilarious!

Every summer, the parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church would parade the saint through the streets of Inwood during the Santa Marina Feast. Our band always preceded them, playing march music and Italian songs as we moved slowly along while people pinned money to the statue. One year Uncle Din couldn’t make it for some reason, and I had to play alone. My drumming was so bad that Ralph Mazza put his fingers in his ears and just shook his head. I laugh about it now, but I was pretty upset at the time that I wasn’t capable of doing better. The Good Counsel members were genuinely first-rate musicians… except for me, of course. It amazes me how one incompetent hack can sometimes make an entire band seem like a drum and bungle corps.

In September of 1963, I put my civilian marching program on hold to take up the military version at Fort Dix, NJ. It would be two years before I again donned the uniform of the Good Counsel band.

On the day I returned from Vietnam, Uncle Dinnio came by the house to see me. Now, Dad and I used to laugh at a story he often told about meeting a little old Italian man at a funeral. This gentlemen squinted up at him with one eye closed and muttered, “Don’j I know you?” The way Uncle Din told it with emphatic gestures and uncontrollable laughter never failed to break us up. But now when I answered the door and exclaimed, “Don’j I know you?” he immediately burst into tears. I guess I inherited some of his emotion, and I make no apologies for that.

My first band job after returning from overseas took place on Memorial Day, 1965, in the Lawrence/Cedarhurst parade while I was home on leave. The band was supposed to form up at the Lawrence railroad station. I was dating an attractive girl then who owned a convertible. Being the “skootch” that I was, I had her drive me to the spot where the band members were assembling, arriving fashionably late, of course, with the top down. As we pulled up right next to them, I could see eyes popping and jaws dropping at the sight of my buxom date in her low-cut blouse and Hollywood sunglasses.

I took my sweet time climbing out of the car, smoothing the wrinkles from my uniform, putting on my hat and removing the drum from the back seat while my fellow band members watched jealously. Someone started playing “Hail to the Chief” on his trumpet, and others quickly joined in until the entire band was blaring away. I strolled casually around to the driver’s side with a smug grin on my face and kissed my date good-bye as the perverts in the band hooted and whistled. I caught an awful lot of grief over that escapade, I can tell you, but, man, it was worth it!

Several years passed, and Dad and Uncle Din decided that the rigors of marching were becoming too much for them, so they stopped parading. Playing in the band didn’t seem quite as much fun anymore without them. Besides, I was married to Maureen by then, and we had two sons, Jimmy Jr. and Kenneth, to keep us busy. My days of playing in “Mazza’s Band” came to an abrupt end.

A few years ago, I took my granddaughter Alexandria and grandson Giovanni to see a firemen’s parade in Baldwin, NY. Glancing up the street, I saw a familiar-looking band approaching. When they broke into a rousing rendition of “National Emblem”, I knew right away that it was the Our Lady of Good Counsel Band. I began to applaud. The group was only about half the size of the earlier version I had played in, and I didn’t recognize a single face. But the sound was eerily similar to what I had known. The sharp rattle of the snares and boom of the bass drum in the heavy evening air combined to bring back many fond memories.

As I clapped in appreciation, I thought about Dad, Uncle Din, the Mazzas and so many other band members I had been privileged to share such great times with who were now gone. “Look, kids,” I said in a voice husky with emotion. “Here comes ‘Mozzarella’s Band!’”

They thought I was joking at first and began to laugh. Then as the band passed by, my very perceptive granddaughter peered up at me and asked, “Poppy, why do you have tears in your eyes?”

I brushed away some dampness from my cheek. “Just remembering some old friends, sweetheart,” I replied softly. “Just remembering some old friends.”

Alexandria put her hand gently in mine, and together we watched “Mozzarella’s Band” march briskly off down the road into the gathering dusk.

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