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, 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 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, swing around 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 much 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’s 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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The Futile Feud

January 19, 2012 at 1:26 am (Uncategorized)

As I was scrubbing down the bathroom in our master bedroom recently (my punishment for leaving a dish in the sink), I was struck by the sheer volume of bottles, jars, tubes, cans, grooming aids, and other paraphernalia to be found therein. Hardly any of this belonged to me, mind you. I could claim ownership of just 6 things: a razor, a can of shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, a deodorant stick and a hairbrush. And the way things are going, I probably won’t need the brush too much longer.

My wife, Maureen, on the other hand, had 411 items by actual count, only 9 of which I could positively identify. Truth be told, the place is starting to look like Fibber McGee’s closet. I can hardly squeeze into the shower these days with all the baskets, racks, medieval torture devices, and something resembling the fuel tank from an intercontinental ballistic missile jammed in there. I’m not exactly a ballerina, you understand, who can pirouette gracefully through this bizarre obstacle course in order to reach the barely-visible showerhead. Believe me when I tell you that I have recurring nightmares about the bulging walls of that bathroom suddenly exploding outward during the wee hours and washing me down the stairs and out onto the street in a tidal wave of creams, lotions, sprays, and fluorescent goo.

We have an oversized walk-in closet in that bathroom as well. Or, more accurately, SHE has one. That thing is packed to the rafters with skirts, dresses, slacks, blouses, and shoes of all styles and colors. There’s no possible way Maureen can cram another piece of clothing in there without borrowing my crow-bar, which, come to think of it, I haven’t seen lately. And what really blows my mind is that she buys more hangers almost every month!

Conversely, my extensive wardrobe of four shirts and three pairs of slacks has been relegated to a small corner of my office closet behind the excess Christmas decorations. I was flabbergasted recently when my wife suggested with a straight face that I should donate some of my old clothes to Goodwill in order to open up a little space in there. Hey, I’ve already moved my suits, ties, dress shirts, and oxfords from a previous life into a box in the garage. I even threw out a “golf” sweater (it had 18 holes in it) that she hated. How much more can I give up and still comply with the public decency laws? Is the neighborhood really ready for a revival of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Meanwhile her wardrobe could outfit half the population of Kazakhstan. Where is the justice in all this?

And somebody please explain to me why a woman has to use FIVE towels when she showers. Meanwhile, environmentalists adore me because I usually just grab one of the slightly damp ones she left behind, dry off with it and then hang it up to be recycled the next day. In fact, my towels were the original inspiration for the term “going green”! Now, I understand that we men can be somewhat insensitive Neanderthals at times and often fail to appreciate some of the more subtle nuances of feminine behavior. I’ve never been particularly adept at reading female signals, which has gotten me into lots of trouble through the years. It usually takes something more overt, like a 2X4 upside the head, to create my “AHAH!” moment with women. But does she REALLY need four vases of artificial flowers and seven candles on the bathroom counter? With a little organ music piped in we could hold a funeral in there, for cryin’ out loud.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but I’ll wager that many long-suffering husbands out there are nodding vigorously in agreement with me. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s unlikely we men can come out ahead in this battle. In fact, I may very well be one of the first casualties in the War of the Water Closet. Oh well, I suppose if I wasn’t so pig-headed I could always use the guest bathroom. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to Maureen’s daily admonitions about my failure to put down the toilet seat. What fun would that be? However, I found a solution to that problem: I no longer lift up the toilet seat! So to get back at her, devil that I am, I now squeeze the toothpaste tube in the MIDDLE! Take that! Heh-heh.

Yes, there may very well be some advantages to boasting of a few Neanderthals in the family tree, but having control of the facilities probably isn’t one of them. I’m afraid that I’D be the one clubbed over the head and dragged out the door by the hair, if I had enough. Unfortunately, just as with the GEICO caveman, I simply can’t win.

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History of the Bevilacqua Family

December 3, 2011 at 11:36 pm (Uncategorized)

I don’t know a lot about the genealogy of the Bevilacqua family, so if any of you reading this have information you’d be willing to share, I’d be grateful to receive it. My maternal grandfather, James Bevilacqua, was born in 1902 and died in the summer of 1962. His wife, Elvira Capozzi, my beloved “Nonnie”, was born in 1904 and passed away in December, 1978. They had seven children: Giovanna (Jennie), the eldest and my Mom. The others are Gloria Bevilacqua Fearns, Ralph, Marlene Bevilacqua Matland, James, Alfred and Robert. Since we grew up in the same house in Cedarhurst, NY, and they were only a few years older than me, Alfred and Bobby treated me more like a younger brother than a nephew.

My grandfather’s parents were Ralph Bevilacqua and Giovanna Giancotta. I believe both were born in Italy, but I don’t know much more about their genealogy. Besides James, their other children were Ernest, Albert, Joseph, Ines Bevilacqua Gregorace and Amelia Bevilacqua Piccione. Great Grandpa and Grandma Bevilacqua are buried in Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, NY, as are Grandpa and Nonnie Bevilacqua, both my parents, Uncle Ralph and Aunt Marlene.

“Nonnie” was the daughter of Genaro Capozzi and Carmella Auchino. Again, both were born in Italy, but I have no information on when they migrated to the United States. Great Grandmother Carmella is listed on the 1930 U.S. census as being 68 years of age at the time, and was living with my grandparents in Inwood, NY.

Elvira’s sibling history is a bit more complicated, and with so many family members who could have offered details now deceased, I’m not really certain that I have everything correct. Nonnie had a sister, Angelina, and two brothers, James and Pelagrino (Pete). After Genaro Capozzi passed away, Carmella married Oreste Rizzolo and bore two more children, Pasquale and Michael. Unfortunately, I’m not in touch with anyone on that side of the family who can provide further clarification.

Some anecdotes about members of the Bevilacqua, Capozzi and Rizzolo families can be found elsewhere in this anthology, notably within Under the Influence of Uncles, The Hackers, and Saga of the Missing Door.

Besides me and my four siblings (one deceased), my grandparents had fourteen other grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. The extended family of first and second Bevilacqua cousins is quite large. I’ve never met some of them, and have had little contact with others through the years. I find this regrettable, but as I often say, life’s circumstances prevented us from being closer. Maybe we can all remedy that one of these days.

That’s about the extent of the data I have on the Bevilacqua family. If you know anything to add to this history, I would very much appreciate hearing from you.

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Lawrence High School

November 5, 2011 at 8:58 pm (Uncategorized)

I entered Lawrence High School in September of 1957, a shy, skinny 110-pounder who kept to himself and said very little. Odd. Today, most people wish that I would just shut up. And I certainly don’t weigh 110 pounds any longer! Truthfully, I was a late-bloomer in many ways. It would take the Army to finally make something of me, but I would have to wait six more years for that.

Back then Lawrence High was located in a beautiful brick building on Broadway in Lawrence that has housed the junior high school since 1960. There was no junior high in the district in those days until construction of the new high school on Peninsula Boulevard in Cedarhurst was completed. Then the sophomore, junior and senior classes relocated there.

I was a member of the first graduating class from the new Lawrence High School in 1961. That turned out to be a rather unique year. If you flipped our class ring upside down, the 1961 on it still read 1961. We heard that it would be thousands of years before you could do that again. I tried figuring out the exact date before I wrote this, but quickly gave up. I guess I didn’t develop very good math skills while at LHS. Anyway, that’s just a curious bit of useless information that seems well-suited to a wacky class that included me, Richie Vicario, Donny Leone, Joe Parlo and a host of other off-beat characters.

Richie and I walked to school together every morning, meeting at the corner of Rockaway Turnpike and Pacific Street in Cedarhurst. Then we’d cross the tracks and hang a right onto a dirt path that paralleled the railroad. We followed that to Lawrence Station, which was sort of the mid-point of our daily journey. In the winter time especially, Richie and I sometimes stopped there to warm up before resuming the trek to school another half-mile along Lawrence Avenue. Often the building would be deserted, and we’d sit there for five or six minutes listening to the soft ticking of the station clock and the gentle hissing of the radiators while we recovered from exposure to the elements. Reaching the comfort of Lawrence Station during a blizzard was like finding an oasis in the snow. I think that probably saved us from a couple of cases of frostbite over the next four years.

One evening, I called Richie and told him to meet me at the corner and we would walk up to the village to get an egg-cream, as we often did. I had just purchased a gorilla mask, and I ran ahead to hide in the bushes. Peeking out, I saw Richie approaching. When he came abreast of me I jumped out with a roar. Poor Richie turned in mid-stride and raced several blocks up Rockaway Turnpike before he heard me laughing uncontrollably and stopped. He was not happy with me, to say the least.

We quickly learned that autumn Saturdays were THE days for LHS students. That’s when football ruled, with home games played at the magnificent brick wall-enclosed Horn Stadium behind the high school. I remember at the end of the first game Richie and I were sitting in the stands when a fight broke out across the field. We rushed over to get involved, but it ended before we got there, which was probably fortunate for us. I mean, it took a lot of gall for two runts like us – Richie was even skinnier than I was – to do that. We almost certainly would have gotten a serious butt-kicking (see Brawl on Summit Avenue).

After being a good student in elementary school without working all that hard, I soon learned that I actually needed to study in high school if I expected to do well. That was a problem. I had virtually no study habits and didn’t care about developing any. I was much more interested in playing baseball or working on my technique for chasing girls. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at either, and my academic career suffered accordingly. I received good grades in the courses that interested me, but seldom cracked a book for the ones that didn’t. As a result, my record at Lawrence was sort of boom or bust. My idea of studying was merely to cram on the night before the finals. That was a liability that plagued me throughout high school and my brief stint at college. Looking back now, I wish that I had applied myself more vigorously.

My freshman year was, typically, a mixed bag. I got great grades in English, Science, and Geography, but bombed out in Mrs. Costello’s algebra class. I never did take a liking to any of the math courses in high school. It’s amazing to me that I eventually went on to a banking career, of all things. I don’t really remember much else about that year, except that we had several big snowstorms. I recall sitting in study hall daydreaming while I watched the snow come down instead of finishing my homework like I was supposed to be doing.

That snowy winter turned out to be a blessing in one way. Richie’s sister, Barbara, worked for the St. Joachim’s parish in Cedarhurst. Every time it snowed, Barbara recruited the two of us to shovel out the church grounds. The job paid $10 a day, which was pretty good money back then. In fact, we almost felt guilty taking our pay from old Father Flanagan when we finally finished. Almost. After we collected, we usually walked down Central Avenue to Alfredo’s Italian Restaurant and ordered a pizza.

Well, this one particular snowy day we were doing our usual job digging out the sidewalks and the church parking lot. It was a heavy, wet snow, and while we worked a steady drizzle began to fall. By the time we were done, both Richie and I were soaked to the skin. We went into the church to warm up. As we sat shivering in one of the pews, I got the bright idea to strip off our wet clothes and hang them on the radiators to dry. So there we were dressed only in our underwear, nervously glancing about as if half-expecting to be struck by a lightning bolt for this blatant show of blasphemy. Fortunately, the powers-that-be must have taken pity on two freezing nitwits and left us alone. And thankfully, we had no embarrassing explanations to make, since the miserable weather kept any potential church-goers away.

The summer before my sophomore year was a bit wacky as well. I was working part-time at Wenmore’s Market stocking shelves. On my off days, Richie and I played baseball at Cedarhurst Park or went fishing at either Woodmere Dock or off the rocks at Rockaway Beach. One afternoon in the park, Richie was hitting flies to me while another group of kids was playing a softball game on the adjoining field. Richie hit a towering foul ball so far to his right that I didn’t even bother to chase it. Playing left field over there was a kid named, I think, Billy Froemmer. He just stood there, oblivious to the heat-seeking missile that was racing toward him from behind.

But Richie knew what was happening. He watched that fly ball arc gracefully out of the sky and saw immediately where it was going to land. Richie started to yell out, “Hey, kid…”, but just then the ball landed square on top of Froemmer’s head with a resounding thud. The poor guy’s hair flapped violently up and down, and he sank slowly to his knees. It was like a scene from The Three Stooges.

While I roared with laughter, Richie snatched up his glove and took off running before his victim could recover. That was obviously the end of baseball for the day. Laughing convulsively with tears streaming down my face, I waited until I was sure that Froemmer wasn’t dead. When he finally staggered to his feet with a huge lump on top of his gourd, I headed for home two blocks away. By the time I reached the front door, my sides hurt so much from laughing that I thought I had done some serious damage to myself. As for Froemmer, I don’t think he ever found out who had cold-cocked him, which was probably a good thing for Richie.

We used to hang out at my house a lot during the summer, and sometimes one or another of our friends came by as well. I remember once Richie and I were up on the third floor when Schuyler Townsend came looking for us. Nobody else was home to answer the door, so he walked around to the back yard to see if we were there. We had the window open and I heard the gate slam. Looking out, I spotted Schuyler, and another brilliant scheme popped into my head.

I dashed into the bathroom and filled a wastebasket with water. Returning to the window, I called out, “Hey, Sky! We’re in the front!”

With that, poor Townsend opened the gate and came back out. As he passed beneath the window, I emptied the pail toward him. That water seemed to take forever to fall three stories, but the timing was perfect. It exploded onto Schuyler with a hissing splatter, freezing him in his tracks. Richie and I raced into the next room, where we climbed through a closet into the space behind the walls to hide. We stayed there trying desperately to stifle our near-explosive laughter until we were sure that our bedraggled and angry friend had gone.

During my sophomore year I met my nemesis, a tough, sarcastic young Irish woman named Noreen O’Sullivan, who taught Latin. Since I thought at the time that I wanted to be a scientist, I figured learning Latin was a good idea. Yeah, right. The logic seemed sound, but somehow it just didn’t work out.

Although I was quite proficient in English, that talent didn’t carry over when it came to learning Latin. And I wasn’t about to actually study, so I soon floundered. The red-haired Miss O’Sullivan seemed to delight in embarrassing me in front of the class by demanding that I decline some obscure Latin verb or other such nonsense. Naturally, I seldom got it right.

My modus operandi was to fail all year long and then pull out a barely-passing grade on the regents. After two years of misery, I finally decided as a senior to drop Latin. Miss O’Sullivan had gotten married by then and become Mrs. Gough, but her temperament didn’t improve. I suspect that she may have regretted losing her favorite patsy; however, I’m sure she soon found another.

Throughout our time in high school, Richie and I were deeply involved in bowling. On Saturday mornings you could usually find us at Falcaro’s Lanes on Rockaway Turnpike. A line of bowling was only 25 cents back then, so you could stay and bowl most of the day for just a couple of bucks while enjoying a basket of French fries to boot.

We participated in intramural bowling all four years that we were at Lawrence. In fact, as a sophomore, I volunteered to serve as secretary. My job was to collect all the score sheets after each session, figure the averages for each bowler, print a schedule and assign lanes. It paid two dollars a week, which figured out to about twenty-five cents an hour considering how much work was involved. Mr. Frank Whitman, who administered the activity, was quite happy that I took the job, since otherwise he would have had to do the grunt work.

I attended my junior prom at Carl Hoppl’s in Baldwin, and it turned out to be quite a farce. Since none of us were old enough to have a driver’s license yet, my date and I had to be driven there and picked up afterward by a family member. How humiliating is that? And even worse, disaster struck when I ordered lobster for dinner. About half an hour later I began to feel a tingling in my cheeks. I ended up having a full-blown allergic reaction that resulted in huge red welts covering my face. I have a photo of the group hidden someplace that shows a hideous creature in a white tuxedo jacket who bears a strong resemblance to Frankenstein. Not my favorite memory of high school, I can assure you.

Also during my junior year, Richie and I made the bowling team under Mr. Whitman, along with our friends Butch Mazza, Donny Player and several others. We thought we were really hot stuff. Every Saturday we’d gather at Falcaro’s to practice, wearing our Lawrence shirts. Those were fun times. In fact, I recall having the high game that season, 238.

My uncle, Ralph Bevilacqua, was at Falcaro’s several times during our practices. Uncle Ralph was a highly-accomplished bowler who participated in all the local competitions and eventually was elected to the Bowling Hall of Fame. He often spent time watching me and offering some good advice. I thought I was well on my way to a distinguished bowling career. Well, as they say, pride comes before a fall.

In our senior year, Richie and I figured that we were a shoo-in for the bowling team. Mr. Whitman had turned over the program to Mr. James Mattison by then, but with Butch and Donny having graduated, we were the most experienced keglers to try out for the team. Much to our shock, Mr. Mattison didn’t select us for the squad. That remains one of the greatest disappointments of my high school years, and from that point on my bowling career floundered.

We had moved over to the new high school on Peninsula Boulevard in September of 1960. Richie and I continued to walk to school every day, only in the opposite direction. That same month, Hurricane Donna tore north up along the eastern seaboard and passed right over Long Island. I recall how we were buffeted by high winds and wild rain squalls as we walked to classes both in the morning and afternoon. Why they didn’t close the school that day is an enduring mystery to me.

That winter I became interested in joining the track team. I could run pretty well in those days before I began to gain some weight. But I was never able to find my niche. I wasn’t quite fast enough for the sprints, and I lacked the stamina for the longer races. My coach, Mr. Irv Mondschein, wracked his brain trying to figure out what to do with me. Eventually, as was my pattern in high school, I became bored with track and dropped off the team.

During our senior year, Richie, Joe Parlo, Al (The Kraut) Habersberger, and I, along with one or two others, often hung out together after school. Joe was the only one with a driver’s license and a car, so we spent a lot of time cruising the streets of the 5 Towns in his old Buick looking for girls to pick up. For some strange reason, we never seemed to find any.

We continued to attend the football games every Saturday. Somehow, Donny Leone had managed to make the team despite his diminutive size. He even got to play in the final game, much to our delight. Joe was also on the squad, but had broken his arm early in the season and didn’t play much. After the games, we all usually ended up at White Castle in Lynbrook, where they still had waitresses who came out to the car with the 5 cent hamburgers. We’d each order twenty “belly-bombs”, laughing uproariously as the poor waitress staggered out to the car with more than 100 of the accursed things. If we couldn’t finish them, we’d drive around flinging hamburgers at each other in some half-assed competition. Life was lots of fun back then before reality began to set in.

As a senior, I prospered at LHS. Without Latin or a math course to drag me down, my grades were quite good. Later in the year I also did very well on the college boards, earning a regents scholarship. My goal then became, if you can believe it, to study meteorology. I applied to New York University, which had a science department at its Bronx campus and was the closest facility to home that offered a weather curriculum. In February I received an acceptance letter from NYU, prompting me to feel that my future was now assured.

During the latter part of June, 1961, my class graduated from Lawrence. The ceremony took place on the football field behind the school, and it was a blazing hot day. I couldn’t wait to get out from under that sweltering robe. Our high school career had finally ended. Richie headed for Texas after joining the Air Force, Donny Leone enlisted in the Navy and my transition to a collegiate environment would soon begin. Unfortunately, my stay there would be a short one. My military obligation now hung over my head like the “sword of Damocles”, but that’s a story to be found elsewhere on this site. I guess John Lennon was right when he said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

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The Soldiers of the Sky

September 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm (Uncategorized)

I knew when you became my wife
The Lord gave me his best,
so when I reach the end of life
I have but one request.

Please bury me where soldiers lie,
in earth that’s rich and warm,
where veterans guard the distant sky
through wind and rain and storm.

For I was once a soldier too,
so young and filled with pride.
I grasped the torch of war and drew
my strength from those who’d died.

For God and flag we went abroad,
the Yankee was the stranger.
We met the cruel and deadly horde,
and faced the guns of danger.

We bore the heat, the blood and tears,
endured the shot and shell.
We carefully concealed our fears,
and plumbed the depths of hell.

When at last our time was done,
we left the land of fire,
changed forever having known
the bones upon the pyre.

Wiser, stronger, sadder men,
no gratitude we knew.
We felt unloved, but gladly then,
the good Lord sent me you.

And soon came children of our own,
through sickness and in health.
What they’ve become and how they’ve grown
means more to me than wealth.

My comrades met the final call,
the years have whispered by,
their names upon a marble wall,
now soldiers of the sky.

And when it’s time for me to rest,
my duty here well done,
please let me lie among the best,
their battles fought and won.

Find for me a sacred garden
sown with boots and caps,
where none within have need for pardon,
and buglers still play “Taps”.

Names and faces matter not,
nor heritage, not color.
We’ll share the honor of our lot,
our strength and deeds of valor.

If I should come to God’s right hand,
perhaps He’ll pause to tell
why He permitted me to stand
while those around me fell.

I’ll be with you as I am now,
no man could ask for more,
eternal love my silent vow,
the guardian at your door.

And so, my love, we’ll meet again,
of that you can be certain.
Perhaps you’ll lie beside me then,
when God brings down the curtain.

For on that day we’ll be together
as bright flags snap nearby.
We’ll rest in peace, protected ever
by the Soldiers of the Sky.

– James A. Oliveri
Copyright 2004

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August 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm (Uncategorized)

The morning of September 11, 2001 was sunny and mild as I opened the doors to my office, a branch of a local bank in Long Island, NY. It was a beautiful late-summer day, but everything about it would soon turn incredibly ugly. I was playing host to a new manager from another area who had been sent to me for an orientation. As we stood at my desk chatting about some procedure or another, my friend and customer, Frank Gandini, came into the office looking grim. “Did you hear about the plane that hit the World Trade Center?” he asked.

I stared at him for a moment and then said, “Was it terrorists?” Under normal circumstances that probably would not have been my first thought. More likely I would have presumed it to be an accident. But an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Trade Center had been made several years before, so now my suspicions were aroused.

Frank shrugged. “They don’t know yet.”

Just then another customer came in and announced that a second plane had impacted the Twin Towers. With that we all concluded the obvious. This was no accident. The only question in my mind was whether it was an isolated incident or the opening salvo of a new war against America.

I was no stranger to the Trade Center. When I worked in Manhattan some years earlier, I had spent many a day prowling the cavernous halls of the Towers and calling on numerous businesses there. Riding the elevators, which could transport you fifty or sixty floors within a matter of seconds, was a breath-taking experience. And lunch at the famed “Windows on the World” always included spectacular views of the city. I found myself reminiscing about that as I tried to imagine what sort of hellish things were now happening in those buildings.

There was no television in the bank, so we had to solicit news from customers as they came and went. Occasionally I ran outside to listen for updates on my car radio. At some point one of my tellers approached me with tears streaming down her face. A family member had called to tell her that the World Trade Center had collapsed. “My cousin is in there,” she stammered. I didn’t know how to console her.

Not much work got done that day as the reports grew progressively worse. When word came that both World Trade Center buildings had fallen, a virtual pall hung over the office. At 5 o’clock, I left my assistant manager to close up and headed home. Driving west, I peered toward where the Towers had stood and saw an eerie sight. With the setting sun behind them to provide color, two large clouds had intersected at right angles to form an upright red cross in the sky. It was almost as if the heavens mourned for the thousands of innocent souls who had been brutally murdered that day. The spectacle sent a chill down my spine.

At home, my wife Maureen and I remained glued to the TV, watching in horror as the awful scenes of desperate people jumping from the Towers rather than being burned to death were played over and over again. The images of two huge mushroom clouds billowing upward as the buildings disintegrated and disappeared not only shocked us, but were seared into our minds forever. This must have been what Americans experienced on December 7th, 1941, although the news then of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor had been far less graphic and not nearly as public.

We didn’t yet know it, but our son Kenneth and nephew Tommy Ford, both NYPD officers, were already on their way to the scene of the disaster as first responders. They would spend weeks at “the pile”, digging for survivors they knew they would not find, and for bodies that no longer existed. It must have been terrible work. Having lived through some similarly horrific experiences in Vietnam, I knew what they were facing. I worried for their well-being, both physically and psychologically. My concern turned out to be well justified.

As luck would have it, our daughter-in-law Lisa was visiting relatives in Florida with our grandchildren at the time of the attack. Alexandria was three and a half then, while Giovanni was just a year old. When the government shut down all airline travel in the country, they were virtually stranded. We began discussing among ourselves what we could do to bring them back home. It was suggested that someone drive down to Florida to pick them up. Since it was obvious that Kenny would now be working long shifts at “Ground Zero”, we concluded that I should be the one to make the trip, so I began setting plans to take off from work for the journey. However, the drive became unnecessary when the airline restrictions were finally lifted, and Lisa called to tell us that she had booked seats on a flight the following morning.

The next day was extremely stressful. Once we knew that the plane Lisa and the children were on had departed, the nervous countdown began. There was still considerable concern over the possibility of further airplane hijackings, so we waited anxiously for news of their arrival. To make matters worse, the plane was barred from going to New York City and rerouted to some undisclosed destination upstate, from where the passengers were to be transported by bus to JFK Airport.

I waited at the arrivals center for what seemed like ages. When the bus carrying Lisa and the kids finally pulled up, I was almost giddy with relief. Understandably, Lisa looked quite worn when she stepped down carrying Gio and holding Lexie’s hand. She had tears in her eyes as we embraced. Fortunately, the kids seemed quite oblivious to all the fuss. It was a happy ride home, I can tell you.

Some days later, President George W. Bush arrived at “Ground Zero” to speak with the firemen, police, and other first responders working on “the pile”. It was a great moment when he announced that the people who had brought down the Towers “will hear all of us soon.” We became quite emotional as construction workers amid the still-smoldering debris responded with wild cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” It was a scene I’ll never forget. For weeks afterward, American flags flew everywhere on houses, stores, and vehicles as America came together against a common enemy. Sadly, it didn’t last.

The world changed forever the day the Twin Towers fell. Our family changed as well. No longer would we be safely isolated from the rest of the world’s problems. And now we bore the added burden of worrying about our loved ones being attacked right here at home. That realization was not a pleasant one to accept, and it still concerns me. The old soldier in me ponders the dilemma of how to protect the family, if need be, from those who would cause them harm. The solutions may not be simple, but one thing is crystal clear: We cannot be complacent again. Vigilance and preparedness must become a way of life if we are to ensure that the horrors of 9/11 are never repeated.

As Americans, we can all take inspiration from the USS New York, the Navy vessel that was partially built with steel salvaged from the World Trade Center. The ship’s motto: “Never Forget”.

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Number 5 School

April 3, 2011 at 5:00 am (Uncategorized)

Doesn’t everyone remember his first school, usually in great detail? Mine was P.S. Number 5 in Cedarhurst, NY. I started kindergarten there during September of 1948 when I was five years old. The school was an imposing (to a five year old) brick building occupying a small plaza about four blocks from my house on Summit Avenue. There was a black-topped playground behind the structure, and the entire property was surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence of spear-shaped pickets.

The principal was Mr. Nicholas Farina, a balding, bear of a man who had been my father’s high school football coach. According to Dad, Mr. Farina had a bit of a temper. Whenever something went wrong, he would kick a wastebasket and bellow “Confound it!” To tell the truth, I was terrified of him, and throughout my elementary school years I did my best to keep from being sent to his office, not entirely successfully. Many years later, when we were in Kiwanis together, I would occasionally call him “Nick”, but I was never comfortable doing that. He still bore, in my mind at least, the mantle of authority that discouraged familiarity. Now that I look back, Nick Farina was, in effect, my first drill sergeant.

The school secretary was Mrs. Evelyn Burke, a tall, blonde, somewhat aloof woman who lived two doors away from us on Summit Avenue. There was also a school nurse in the office whose name I couldn’t recall at first. But cousin Mike Mollo came through and reminded me that it was Mrs. Abrams. Thankfully someone’s memory is still working properly.

I don’t remember that much about kindergarten. Back then we had those old fashioned wooden desks with inkwells in them. I don’t know who the little girl sitting in front of me was, but she had long pigtails, and I got into trouble once for dipping them into the inkwell. Perhaps surprisingly (because of my angelic face?), that didn’t earn me a trip to Mr. Farina’s office, but it may have been my first official act of mischief at Number 5. All in all, I didn’t have that many.

The world was a different place in those days, so even at an early age I was allowed to walk to school alone. From my house, I would go up to the corner, turn left, and walk three blocks to 5th Avenue. Jim the cop was usually at the intersection during school hours to cross the kids. I’m not certain, but I think his last name was O’Malley. Weren’t all cops named O’Malley back then?

Anyway, from there the school was one block to the right. I remember coming out the wrong door at 3 o’clock one day and finding myself in unfamiliar territory. I had no idea where I was and started crying. Luckily, Mrs. Burke happened along and asked what was wrong. When I told her I was lost, she walked me around to the side of the building that I was familiar with, much to my relief.

While I was at Number 5, I almost always went home for lunch. Some of the kids would go to “Charlie’s” grocery store on Washington Avenue for a hot dog, or to “Sam’s” luncheonette on the corner of Fifth Avenue. Others who lived too far away or whose parents weren’t home during the day would bring lunch to school and eat in the “Long Room”, so-called because of its lengthy, narrow configuration. The Long Room was a multi-purpose facility that also served as meeting room, and occasionally a gym. After eating, students could watch movies in the auditorium until it was time to go back to class. I rarely stayed around to do that, preferring to walk home where Mom would have tuna or egg salad sandwiches and a bowl of tomato soup waiting for me.

Teachers were a different breed then. For instance, in first grade I had Miss Grace Upstyle. Talk about the stereotypical school marm. Miss Upstyle was probably in her fifties when I was in her class, although we kids always thought of her as really ancient. She had gray hair pulled back into a bun, and wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Her shoes were the high-topped black leather ones like I was used to seeing on my great-grandmother. But she was an outstanding instructor, and probably could have served as a model teacher – for the year 1880! Anyway, I can thank Miss Upstyle for bestowing rudimentary reading and writing skills upon me and starting me on the way to becoming an essayist of somewhat ill repute.

In fourth grade I met my first true love – Miss Lois Dzuris (pronounced Juris). Miss Dzuris was a tall, young Dixie belle with a southern accent. What made her especially unique was the fact that she was the only female teacher in the school under age fifty. I simply adored her. One time she brought us some “shoo-fly” pie that she had baked using an old recipe from back home. I didn’t particularly like it, but I asked if I could bring some home to my Mom. Miss Dzuris made sure that I left at lunchtime with a large slice of pie wrapped in wax paper. I can’t recall what became of her. I think she may have gotten married later and left the school, but I probably blocked that out of my mind due to a severe case of puerile jealousy. I really wish I could remember something more.

In eighth grade I encountered my first and only male elementary school teacher – William Davis. Mr. Davis had just recently graduated from college, and this was his first assignment. We kids knew that, and sometimes took advantage of his inexperience to make his life miserable. We weren’t exactly hellions, you understand. Students simply didn’t behave like that in those days. But we were just rambunctious enough to plant a gray hair or two in his head.

One time my friend, Leslie Krause, who was the class clown and sat in front of me, turned around and said something that started us both laughing. Mr. Davis caught us and sent Leslie to the office for disrupting class. As he left the room, I got up and followed him. Mr. Davis eyed me with a puzzled look on his face. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“I was talking too,” I stammered, and continued out the door, even though my knees were knocking at the prospect of appearing before the principal. Mr. Davis was so astonished that he never said a word. I guess my idealistic nature took root at an early age.

At Thanksgiving time he asked us all how big our family turkeys were. I think I reported that ours was twenty-five pounds, and the smallest I recall weighed in at a svelte eighteen. Mr. Davis drew a big laugh when he stated that he and his wife shared a two pound bird! Many years later, my wife worked for Dr. Lester Ploss in Freeport, NY, who had Bill Davis as a patient. I was pleasantly surprised when he told Maureen that he remembered me very distinctly. I guess you never forget your first class or your first batch of trouble-makers.

Mr. Stanley Weingold was the school’s physical education teacher. He was always after me to become a more aggressive athlete. Unfortunately, I was rather shy throughout most of my time at Number 5 School, even though I was a fairly good ball player. It wasn’t until my final year there that I began to gain some confidence in my ability, partly due to the efforts of Mr. Weingold. I played one season on the Number 5 softball team, competing against other elementary schools in the district. I remember one game in particular against a bunch of tough kids from Inwood. They not only trounced us on the field, but beat us up afterward as well. To tell the truth, I don’t recall winning a single game that year, no doubt much to Mr. Weingold’s everlasting chagrin.

My friend Jody Lowens and I were assigned to supervise the Audio/Visual room at the beginning of eighth grade. That was exactly what we two lascivious thirteen-year-olds had been praying for. Jody and I knew that there was a film strip there entitled “Reproduction among Mammals”. We both envisioned it as a hot sex education film. Therefore, we wasted no time dashing down to the A/V room after 3 o’clock the first day to find it. When we finally located the small metal canister labeled with that title, we practically fought each other in our haste to get it out of the can and into a projector.

Surprise, surprise! What we saw on the screen was “Volcanic Activity in Mexico”. How the devil was that possible? Well, it seemed that the two students who had run the A/V room the previous year, and who had since gone on to high school, had perpetrated a cruel joke on us. Every filmstrip in the inventory, and there were hundreds of them, had been switched into different canisters! We had to shelve our lewd thoughts until we managed to get all the filmstrips back into their proper containers.

Several days later, Jody opened a canister, and there it was: “Reproduction among Mammals”! Oh, thank you, God! We almost wept with joy as we slapped it into a projector. What a disappointment! The subject of the film was a pig! We groaned through some sketches of a female swine’s sex organs, and the next frame began, “After the male and female have mated…” Following a year of hopeful expectations, that’s what we got. Oh well, I guess we deserved such a letdown for our less than immaculate thoughts. But I don’t suppose we differed much from most young teenage boys of that era who struggled to control their raging hormones.

In June of 1957, my class graduated from Number 5 School. I remember that it was stifling in the auditorium where we held the commencement ceremony, even though a few old-fashioned ceiling fans labored to generate a cooling breeze. I recall watching from the stage as my friend, Richard Muller, marched down the aisle while “Pomp and Circumstance” played. Little did either of us suspect that in just a few short years we would both be at war in Vietnam. It was also one of the few times in my early life that I had worn a suit. After nine years in that magnificent building, we would all be moving on to Lawrence High School in the fall. In many respects it was almost like leaving the security of the womb. With diplomas now in hand, our first feeble steps into the early stages of adulthood lay just ahead. It would prove to be an interesting journey.

Several years ago I had occasion to drive past Number 5 School. I couldn’t believe how much smaller it now seemed. Very little had changed. The black wrought iron fence still surrounded it, and children were innocently scooting about on the playground as I had once done so long ago. I lingered for a moment remembering one detail or another about my early days there. Then the traffic light changed. Stepping on the gas, I glanced wistfully in my rear-view mirror and watched as Number Five School quickly disappeared from sight, leaving me again with just many wonderful memories of my youth.

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