Personal Recollections of War
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My parents, like most immigrants at the time, were grateful to be living in this land of “unlimited opportunity.” Influenced by Catholic school education, John Wayne movies, and John F. Kennedy’s admonishment to “ask what you could do for your Country,” I grew up stridently patriotic with a strong sense of duty to God and to Country.
The Old Ones
As the old men played Briscola, a card game of Sicilian origin, they smoked DiNobli cigars and drank Caffe’ Corretto, a grappa laced espresso, in small cups. The cigar smoke lay heavy in the room, dispersing the glow of the single light bulb that hung precariously over the table. They spoke in broken English of coming to America. Some came illegally, most flirted a bit with the mafia, and all worked hard to support their families in a difficult job market for laborers. Nervous and excited, I listened attentively, from a safe distance, hidden behind the old green sofa. On most occasions I was quickly discovered and after a good-natured reprimand and a gentle “boot in the ass,” I was sent on my way. On a few occasions, however, my perseverance was greatly rewarded. For reasons I can only speculate, no one seemed to notice my presence. Even as a ten-year-old, I realized that this was a special place and I had no business eavesdropping on such privileged conversation.
As they consumed the potent coffee, barriers lowered and the discussion, at least as I remember it, turned invariably to their experiences during the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. Despite being immigrants, all were drafted into the American military. I listened intently as my father, while contemplating his next discard, recalled his experiences as a U.S. Army interpreter fighting through the villages and countryside of Sicily, the land of his birth. Somberly, he described in great detail how American artillery and bombing had devastated the village in which he was born.
“I am proud to have fought for my adopted homeland, but saddened and ashamed at having destroyed the towns and of my birth.”
Lawrence D. Bica
How he had been torn between strong feelings of patriotism for his adopted homeland and a deep sense of shame and guilt he felt for the deaths of innocence villagers, some of whom had been his neighbors.
I learned also that my Uncle Gasper, a SeaBee, had narrowly escaped being killed by a Japanese sniper while building an airfield on Guadalcanal. Uncle Tony, nicknamed “Squint Eye,” but only addressed as such by a few of his closest friends, told of nearly been blinded by shrapnel during a kamikaze attack against his minesweeper in the South Pacific. What impressed me most, I think, was hearing my Uncle Joe relate, with great emotion, the heroic last stand of the Marines at the frozen Chosin Reservoir in Korea. I was amazed to see this very strong, austere, and stoic man cry as he described gently holding a fellow Marine in his arms as the dying man gasped his last breath. As I listened to their stories, despite my young age, I was saddened empathizing with their obvious pain and grief.
Surely, the Old Ones were aware of my presence behind the old green sofa. Through the years, I often wondered why, on those few occasions, I was allowed to remain and witness such intensely personal discussions of aspects of their lives they kept so well hidden from all except those who shared similar experiences. Perhaps they thought it important that I know the family history. In my more whimsical moments, however, I fancy that they were trying to educate and warn me about war’s realities.
In my youth, I was fascinated and exhilarated by war. Because of what I had learned from my hiding place behind the old green sofa, however, I was also wary of its devastating effects. War was an enigma I wished I could have discussed with the Old Ones. My concerns would never be addressed, however, as I realized the inappropriateness of discussing such matters outside the sanctuary of “the warrior’s circle.”
Confronting the Vietnam War
In 1968, America was at war. Communism was the menace. Vietnam the focal point of the confrontation between good and evil, the domino of choice that must, at all costs, remain standing. To the Vietnamese, however, it was a continuing struggle against another in a seemingly endless series of colonial or occupying powers intent upon denying them independence, national unity, and self-determination. To the Americans, it was portrayed as a grass roots struggle between north and south, a noble and necessary intervention to exorcize pervasive evil seeking world domination. Ultimately, however, it was a disaster, a quagmire, an immoral, illegal, unnecessary, and divisive war few chose to fight, so many were conscripted.
“The unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the indifferent and the ungrateful.”
As a consequence of the draft, many young Americans were confronted with a profound social and moral dilemma. Whether to severely disrupt their lives, shame themselves and their families by expatriating – fleeing to Canada – or risk injury or death by answering the call, becoming a warrior and, in the view of many, a murderer, or an accessory to murder that disguised itself as national defense. I had an additional option, however. Upon graduating from college, I could have availed myself, quite rightly my parents believed, of the deferment from military service offered to teachers at the time. A testimony, I guess, to the importance of education in creating the “Great Society” that Lyndon Johnson had hoped would be the legacy of his Administration. Further, since the teaching position was at an “inner-city school,” the social importance of such an undertaking, I reasoned, justified accepting the deferment. In truth, such rationalization was unnecessary, as avoiding military service was quite common and un-noteworthy, especially for the wealthy and the influential. For me, however, to remain at home while others fought and died in my place was cowardice. More importantly, it was an affront to the parents of my childhood friend Ralphie who, a few months earlier, had dutifully, albeit reluctantly, sent their son to war. All they received in return were fragments of bone and sinew and a form letter from the President of the United States expressing the nation’s regrets and gratitude for Ralphie’s heroic sacrifice in behalf of freedom and democracy. Code words for a mistake, a paranoia-driven crusade against contrived evil that demanded the life of their child.
As I watched the drama of Ralphie’s funeral unfold, I remembered, not many years before, playing stickball on East 87th Street. I smiled, recalling how a foul ball had broken Eddie’s mother’s window and how Ralphie had quickly handed me the bat before shrewdly escaping to the sanctuary of Anthony’s garage. No one believed I wasn’t the culprit, until Ralphie abandoned his hiding place and with cobwebs hanging from his forehead, bravely admitted to the deed. As they lowered Ralphie’s casket into the ground, I drifted among a tangle of childhood memories – Ring-a-levio, kick-the-can on humid summer nights, and riding our bikes down “suicide hill.” Ralphie was twenty years, six months, and two days old when war ended his life.
The lesson I learned from Ralphie’s death was that in war young people die and old people grieve. The rational response would probably have been to put the tragedy behind me, to accept the deferment, and go on with my life. But those were not rational times. Instead, I enlisted in the Marine Corps understanding full well that a trip to Vietnam was guaranteed.
I was excited and could not wait to tell my Uncle Joe. I thought for sure he would be pleased, proud that his nephew chose to emulate him and become a Marine. As I gave him the good news, I studied his time-worn face for approval. I sensed, perhaps for the first time, an uncharacteristic vulnerability, even frailty. He seemed much older than his years. “Why you do that?” he said as our eyes finally met. Without waiting for a response, he kissed me on both cheeks. “Che Dio vi benedica,” were his last words to me as he turned and walked away. Rendered speechless by what had occurred, I didn’t even think to return the blessing, or to say goodbye. It was soon after I had arrived in Vietnam that I learned my Uncle Joe had died.
In retrospect, I’m not really certain why I decided not to accept the deferment. Perhaps, it was patriotism, or bravado, or even to avenge my friend’s death. Or perhaps it was just to fulfill my destiny as a warrior and heir to the legacy of the Old Ones. I left on July 5, 1968, for Marine Corps Officer training at Quantico, Virginia. What I failed to realize at the time, however, was that I was leaving behind, forever, all that I had cherished and held sacred for the past twenty-one years. Most tragically, I was leaving behind the innocence of my youth.