There is still not much I want to write about these days. Depressing,eh? So, I’ve been proofing and editing my memoirs. I now have 4 chapters as complete as I think I want them. There is more. Perhaps later I will add but for now this is enough.
You’ve seen Chapter 1. Here’s 2 -4. Enjoy…I hope. Feedback welcome…
The family and home
I was born and baptized Catholic in a lower middle class white neighborhood, in Boston, to a hard-working blue-collar mom and dad. I have 3 brothers and a sister and by now too many extended-family members to count or name if I could remember them all. My family history is recent presumably starting in the late 1800s at various ports of entry to the USA. I’m not sure what family secret(s) there may have been to hide, but tracing our roots backwards, it stops at a port of entry or on a ship’s manifest that sailed from Europe. A good portion of the recent history we’ve made for ourselves had to do with conflict. We fight. We fight for country, state, city, town, neighborhood, any home team or for family. We’ve also fought against any of the above. We fight because of our beliefs mostly, after talking and then shouting have failed. A lot of us drink and some of us drug, which conveniently provides for additional fighting. While I was growing up we felt that the biggest threat to mankind, ever, was the USSR and its entire sphere of influence around the world. Yep, you guessed it, the “Red Menace”. I was a teenager during most of the Vietnam War. Yeah, you go ahead and call it a “conflict”. I was there towards the end myself where the great gulf of incendiary insanity called Vietnam grew me into a man. It was war.
But before all that there was a different me. I was part of a crazy Boston family, one generation away from immigrant status ourselves. We play Hockey, Football, Wrestling, Lacrosse and Boxing for fun. We play baseball to sharpen our hand-to-eye coordination and stay loose for winter. We are marksmen and sharpshooters who shoot for accuracy and fun. We have also shot to kill, righteously, for food and in wars far and near. We are artists and artisans. We love fiercely and hate ferociously. We work or we go hungry. We help. We don’t prop up. We grow in number, as we all seem to be fairly prolific, though most of our women would wish for more girl babies. We nurture our own like lions and lionesses. We’re made up of a half-dozen of the many nationalities that have ever made their lucky way to the USA (though no-one talks about that), so there’s absolutely no real reason for racism in my family. Yet, there were far more racists than not. That’s my one claim to fame. I didn’t start out hating anyone. It seemed that most of my immediate family and in fact most of the entire clan were racist and that apparently applied to anyone outside the clan…it didn’t always have to do with color, though that was one influence. Things are different today in the famiy as the younger generations take over the burdens of family life, but the roots of hate are still there in the mists of remembrances.
I detested that about my family as much as its propensity towards alcohol and for some of us, drugs. The ultimate oxymoron is a mutt hating someone for his or her race. I was determined to get away from it and the sooner the better.
Aside from their bad habits and hateful biases, my parents were both very dedicated to us in their own way. She was a seamstress who worked ridiculous hours doing piecework. She got paid a few cents per piece she sewed. She sewed until she couldn’t sew anymore, then she served meals until she couldn’t do that either. She still prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for however many of us were there. She had 5 kids and miscarried 3 more and never took more than a couple of days off work for anything, including childbirth, until she had a double mastectomy for cancer. When she recovered, it was back to work again. She was the glue that held this extremely broken family together even though she was nearly as badly broken herself. She protected my sister and me from dad on his worst days as best she could but not always. That black history will haunt us forever no doubt. He drove for a living. He started driving a cab at 14 and never stopped driving. He was driving a big rig at 17. He was tougher than most and a local Golden Gloves welterweight champ 2 years in a row. When War 2 rolled around he was the first in the family and on the block to volunteer, but because his job was considered a vital cog in the war effort, they wouldn’t take him. Everyone he knew, brothers, cousins and friends went off to war but not him. He hated this and it helped to turn him into a bitter lonely drunk. He somehow managed to keep his commercial driver’s license if not a steady job all the time. We didn’t starve. He did get sober eventually when mom poisoned him with Antabuse until he quit. He was in his 70s by then and he actually turned out to be a good friend to me and smarter than I would have ever given him credit for. He was still a racist…we didn’t go there together, ever.
How I fit in
As the youngest, I got the most benefit from mom and dad’s efforts though our lives were anything but ideal. I got to go to good schools, lived in safe decent neighborhoods, ate good, had good health and good health care and was generally thriving. I was however; short and I had a “lazy eye”. I was a good catholic altar boy and a choirboy. I sang “Oh Holy Night” solo on local public TV on Christmas Eve when I was 11. I tried a stint with the Boy Scouts but I wasn’t into the whole “badges” thing. I just wanted to go camping, build fires and shelters, hike in the woods, shoot guns and arrows.
My life outside of school consisted of dreaming about being in the military or playing baseball, hockey, football and occasionally soccer. I can remember running home one summer Saturday afternoon yelling as I came in the door, “Hurry up mom. I gotta eat and be back at the field in 22 minutes and I’m up next.”
“You’re playing baseball again?”
“Yeah mom. Come on will ya?”
“Alright, alright, don’t be so pushy. It’s just a game and I have more to do around here than be at your beck and call young man.”
“But mom, I’m up next and bases are loaded. If I get a hit we could go ahead for the first time the whole game. I would have already smashed one but Billy Kearnan lives across the street from the ballpark and his mom called him home for lunch, so we all came home but we have just 30 minutes total and now I only got 19 minutes. Please mom, please?”
“Okay, just a minute. A quick PB&J sounds like the right choice for this meal”
“And cherry Kool-Aid?”
“Yes, and cherry Kool-Aid too. So what inning is it and what’s the score.”
“Well Billy says it’s the middle of the 37th inning but I think he lost count. Right now, until I get up, it’s 53 to 51, but that’s not gonna last long once I get up.”
I’ll never forget my mother pretending to choke on something I didn’t see in an effort to keep me from seeing her real reaction to my description of the game play. She later told me it took her every ounce of self-control to not ask if we’d forgotten to bring our gloves. Mom’s, they are just so cool.
I loved animals of all sorts, but I mostly loved dogs. I can only remember a few times when we didn’t have one as a child. We had to move a lot because of the drinking etc… In some places, while growing up, we couldn’t have dogs and had to give them up. I hated this about my life too. I couldn’t ever figure out why other kids, including my brothers, would throw rocks at cats, raccoons, squirrels or even birds. That incensed me and got me more than one black eye. I also love horses but have only ridden sparingly.
Short and wearing glasses, I was too self-conscious and shy to be very social though I always had small core of best buddies. I couldn’t even imagine a girlfriend until deep into high school and those relations were miserable failures. I couldn’t untie my tongue and it was a huge effort to make myself dance. UGH! Graduating High School seemed to cure that. Not the awkwardness, the popularity. It may have been that most of the rest of the guys in my neighborhood were gone off to school or far away somewhere like Canada, but girls started seeking me out. I wasn’t the greatest conversationalist but I got by. I may have been short and bespectacled but I was built like all the other boys in our family, hard muscled and broad-shouldered. My rep in hockey had folks thinking of me as a small wrecking ball. I guess that was attraction enough to cause the local gals to dig a little deeper. That scene was all new to me and I went slowly with girls. To be honest I didn’t really know what to do after making out and I’m convinced a lot of girl friends got frustrated with me. They moved on. I remained a virgin but deeply interested in finding out more. There were never any father/son talks in my house about the “birds and the bees”. Well, to be honest, he tried once but he was so drunk he kept reputation the same thing, “we was good sectially”. After a few moments of this I left without his ever noticing I was gone, thinking, No shit, Shakespeare. You got 5 kids and would have had eight but for the miscarriages. I just bet it was good and, hey, I don’t care. He did try.
Growing up there were troubles with my size. I was a walking target for bullies and other predator types. Good or bad, I took crap from no one. If I learned anything from my dad during my early years it was that being small was no reason to let others step on me. Push back! That’s what I did. Whether in the neighborhood, in school, the scouts, the Army, and even later on in life when I thought bosses were taking advantage, I pushed back. I paid dearly for that trait too and more than once. This childhood learned propensity to push back, I think, led to my problems with authority figures.
This issue manifest itself in many ways. On example of me going nuts because of unwanted attention occurred at the local indoor municipal pool, were there were separate sessions for girls and boys. Boys swam naked and girls wore sacks. I also had a bladder issue when I was young and had to pee all the freaking time. Several times I ran from that place with my clothes barely on after frantically and full of fear fighting my way free of the bathroom because one of the counselors tried to corner me again when I was naked. It was fight or flight. It sucked! From then on I had an aversion to locker rooms and big open bathrooms or shower rooms and I would try desperately to “hold it” until I got home to my own bathroom. I had lots of troubles with PT teachers because there was no way on God’s green earth I was showering with anyone anywhere nearby. Period! Push back with prejudice.
I’m not sure who it was that intervened but the schools backed off as long as there was no hygiene issues and no one complained. Fortunately for me my perspiration doesn’t stink. I’m one of those fortunate ones who do not suffer with BO. But this put a serious damper on my sports career. Everyone expected me to ride my athleticism through college. I was inadvertently pushing back against that.
At the same time the state’s rules for high school sports were changed and everyone had to wear a helmet. I saw this as the opportunity to get out “honorably” from under and refused to wear a helmet stating that only sissies would do so. I was then removed from the rosters of all school sports calling for a helmet…the only type I played. This behavior of sidestepping an issue became my way of dealing with anything that bothered me throughout life. Denial became my modus operandi.
Still, I was smart and I was a good to better than average athlete in several sports. As a result, there were some scholarship offers to play hockey or baseball at a couple of nice local colleges. No “full-boat” rides, and no big name schools but good enough to make college possible financially. Now, once anything “good” happened in our family the entire family knew about it seconds later. As far as they were all concerned, “our” little Mikey was going to college. This was a huge deal for a true blue-collar family like mine. I’d have been the first college student in the immediate family. Unfortunately, none of the distant colleges I’d applied to were interested in me and accepting one of these local scholarships would leave me in the clutches of family. This was not an option for me. Without committing to any I waited long enough for the offers to dissolve leaving countless raging relatives in their dust.
Since boyhood I was pro military. I had grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and brothers who’d served in one branch or another in most of the big theaters you can imagine. From a tanker uncle who faced off against Rommel in North Africa, to my own brother in Korea, and 2 cousins on Khe Sanh. More recently, a small army of us served during Grenada, Panama, both gulf wars and Afghanistan too, we had, with great enthusiasm, BTDTBTTS (Been There, Done That, and Bought The Tee Shirt). I would too eventually but not the way I wanted.
I wanted to fly more than I wanted to grow up. When I played war as a kid, I was flying an f4u corsair, a p51 mustang or p38 lighting. If everyone else was infantry, I was still buzzing around, chugga-chugga-chugging with my machine guns. When it came time, I tried everything I could to get into a flying academy with either the Air Force or the Navy. In the end, though it wasn’t the way I wanted; I served, lived and died with a multiracial cacophony of America’s finest men. Men I trusted more than my family. We were all just green though. I didn’t hear about race again ‘til I got back to the world. We didn’t give a damn about gay men either. Fight or die. Who cares about the rest?
None of this happens if I don’t decide half way through high school that I wanted, no, I needed to get out. I just couldn’t see myself sitting around one family home or another for holiday feasts ad infinitum, listening to somebody tell another racist/sexist joke and later remind us that we’d better be at church on Sunday. I NEEDED to get out!
18 and free to fly
This new life I wanted so badly finally started when I turned 18. I had graduated high school the June before. I got the job at the insurance company, rating fleet auto insurance policies for less money than the Military paid I think. Until it was legal for me to make my break, I was just marking time. I had a direction to follow and it had nothing to do with what most boys my age were doing then. I wanted to fly…military jets. I had no use for school. I had no use for the anti-establishment crowd. I had no desire to join the ranks of the “non-conformists”, who in their uniformly ragged appearance treated heroes with disrespect. If, in fact, Hoffman, Jane Fonda or for that matter John F’n Kerry had come to my street back then, I’d have turned my back to them. Years later there would have been a fight. Angry, confused and with just a hint of revenge pecking at the edges of my steadily slipping sanity, I might have taken on all three. At 18 though, I wanted to “do my part” for family, liberty, the USA and the girl I loved in spite of those anti-American rabble-rousers.
Life is a curvaceous SOB sometimes though. My girl and most of my friends settled in with the other side, mockingly whispering behind my back after I’d been drafted, about what a fool I was for not taking up residence with our neighbors to the north. Surely I knew there would be amnesty for those who fled, maybe even in my lifetime. OOF! Can someone tell me why the runners were exonerated before Vietnam Vets were even said hello to? Jimmy Carter along with Hanoi Jane, Kerry and the rest will forever remain anathema to me. They chose deserters and cowards over soldiers.
Most of my peers saw events and themselves trending towards a new beginning for the “free world”. They imagined a softer, more loving, mankind who held hands and sang songs about love and peace. “Imagine” John Lennon later sang. I wondered how this could possibly stand. For a small number of folks, it seemed our country was headed for the crapper in the late 60s and early 70s. I agreed with them. The “red menace” was everywhere and we had to fight back or lay down. All this peace and love stuff would accomplish would be to make it easier for “them” to take over. Mind you I loved the music (sans the anti-American sentiments in the lyrics), the styles and the free spirit, but what the heck happened to Mom, Chevy and apple pie? Yeah, I know…wtf, over?
With testosterone driving the bus, my ideals became my life beat at 18. I was of course invincible and I would fight. All of the possible outcomes of my choices were narrowed down to the one I wanted most to be. Thoughts of failure, injury, pain and death were wasted on me if ever they occurred. I would fight…and fly.
Uncle Sam has a strange way of letting you down without actually letting you go. With the least bit of compassion possible for this wannabe American fighting man, “NO” was the word. Too short, eyesight not good enough and no higher education spelled doom for my winged aspirations. “Maybe the Army will let you fly Helicopters”, said the Navy recruiter. The Air Force would only allow me an enlisted billet unless I graduated college first. When hopes and dreams crash together, they can make the most spectacular explosion of despair. What would become of my dreams? How will I make a mark that matters now? How could they do this to me? 18 and done! My father’s curse had returned to plague me.
I spent several months brooding over my loss, procrastinating, being distracted by Susanna (my girl), when Uncle Sam played his officious part in deciding my path for me. I was welcomed via induction, to the maddeningly and uniformly robotic life of the US Army grunt. My number came up and I was gone in January of my 19th year.
I wasn’t 2 weeks into boot camp when the “Dear John” came. Funny thing was that when my girl first came on to me a few weeks out of High School and working my first full-time job, I thought it was just a fling for her until her old boy friend came home from his tour in Nam, so I wouldn’t let myself get too carried away about it. She worked at me and worked at me until I finally bought the “love” thing and actually started making plans for our future. I even opened a savings account. Now this girl was gorgeous and in my mind she was way above my pay grade, so I was in la-la land when I was around her. I had actually put the “flying” thing behind me for a while. I had enough to worry about keeping the hounds from sniffing at her heels all day every day. I had so many new friends with her in my life. As if!
When the induction letter came she and I both put up a good front. She went nuts putting together my goodbye party…and boy what a send off it was…a virgin no more. I didn’t realize, however, just how much she meant “good-bye” until I got that letter down in Fort Dix. For her, you had to be there to be part of her scene. I wasn’t there, so my role was over. She didn’t go back to her old beau though. Nope, Jody, that SOB we sang cadence about every day, got the girl after all. I met him when I came home for my first leave. I got off the plane at Logan, hiked and taxied my way to her house in Eastie and hung out with her parents until she got out of work. I guess I thought I’d make her swoon in my class As. She didn’t, but her beau did. Poor fellow had a fit right there in her parent’s house when Susanna’s father introduced me as her 3rd of 4 boyfriends. I believe old Joe didn’t call me “ex” boyfriend on purpose. I wasn’t so sharp when it came to these things. I laughed at Jody’s shocked expression. When he ran out of the house screaming obscenities Susanna slapped me and ran after him. Her father said, “She trada da sojer-boy for da putana. Aina we lucky, uh?” I liked old Joe. I finished my spaghetti with gravy and left giving mama a pretty Hankie and Joe a $1 Cigar I bought at the Fort Dix PX before coming home.