A Vietnam Reflection

During my school years in Brooklyn, New York, my experience of other students broke down into three categories: friends, bullies, and other kids. At Saint Malachy grammar school, Eddie Coffee was one of the other kids. I remember Eddie as always smiling and having very dark, straight hair that rather glistened in the sun. Eddie seemed perpetually friendly and to my knowledge, everyone liked him, including me. I would have enjoyed getting to know him better, but we lost contact in 1962 when we went on to different high schools. At the time, we were oblivious to the meaning and location of Vietnam.

As a child, I was always tall for my age and towered above the other students in my classes. That entailed some significant consequences. One was that long before my thirteenth birthday, the usher at the Embassy Theater on Fulton Street insisted that I should pay the adult admission price to see a movie. The other was that I was a target for other students that wanted or needed the reputation as the meanest kid in class. In T. A. Edison High School, that was how I met Fatiesy. I never knew or cared about his first name or the correct spelling of his last: He was a bully. In actuality, he wasn't personally interested in being the king of the hill, but acted as an enforcer for a smaller student who did, and accepted the assignment of beating me up on behalf of the other student. We also lost contact when we graduated in 1966, but unlike with Eddie, I had no interest in continuing the relationship. By the time of our high school graduation, Vietnam was a constant undercurrent that rippled throughout the country.

Marty and Anthony, or "Gueg" as we called him, were constants in my life throughout my school years: They were friends. Both shared a common trait of constantly smiling and laughing, Marty in his very Irish way, and Gueg in his very Italian manner. We remained close until each of us went off to service in 1968. By then, Vietnam was center stage in our lives.

In 1968, my fiancé, Judy, and I were anxious to get married, but the draft threatened to do to us what it had done to her parents. They were just married when the draft took her father away for three years at the onset of World War II, without any assurance that he would ever return. To avoid a similar fate, I traveled to Fort Hamilton to request that my draft be moved up. Judy was working at a bank at the time and her manager was a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves. When she told him what I was doing, he suggested that I enlist in the reserves instead, which would get me back home in six months instead of two years for the regular army. I did as he suggested and enlisted at the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve Center at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.

Each reserve unit had its own particular specialty. The one at Fort Schuyler was a communications battalion, which worked perfectly with my Regents Diploma in electronics from T. A. Edison. That meant that I would attend military school for ground radio repair following boot camp. It also meant that I would do ten months active duty instead of six.

I did my boot camp at Paris Island, SC, which turned out to be one of the pivotal experiences of my life. Up until that point, I had convinced myself that many things were impossible for me because of my innate limitations. On the "confidence course" at Paris Island, I stood frozen at the base of one of the first obstacles. Two vertical telephone poles about thirty feet high were connected by a series of horizontal poles spaced several feet apart, creating a giant ladder. The challenge was to pull your self up on one beam, balance on that beam while reaching up for the next, and repeat the process to the top, then cross over and climb down again. It was clearly something that I could not do. The drill instructor's voice came from behind me, "Miceli, I know what you're thinking. If you climb up, you might fall and get killed. But if you don't, I guarantee you will get killed." As a Marine recruit in boot camp, when a D.I. says something, you take it for the truth, so I started climbing. As I crossed over the top-most beam, I looked out at the rest of the obstacles on the course and realized that the only thing that limited my ability to overcome any of them was my own fear. I breezed through the rest and told myself that I would no longer allow my fears to stop me from overcoming the challenges in my life.

After active duty, I returned home, moved to Connecticut, and began my married and working life. It would be more than a year before those who entered with me would complete their tour of duty. Meanwhile, the mood of the country continued the shift that began in my school years. Prior to that time, war movies that glamorized the heroic deeds of Hollywood soldiers like Robert Mitchum and John Wayne were a popular form of entertainment. Even after the stalemate in Korea, we believed that our involvement in foreign wars was a moral imperative and God was on our side. But Vietnam wasn't a war, it was a conflict, and as our casualties mounted without any clear victory in sight, our reasons for continuing seemed more to avoid embarrassing our political leaders than to stop the spread of evil in the world. The tide of popular opinion turned against the war and poisoned our view of our military personnel as heroes. Men who left for the conflict in 1968, returned on the heels of Lt. William Calley's 1970 trial for the My Lai Massacre. Calley and his troops opened fire on 104 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children. The trial further divided the country and fueled the anti-war protests. Instead of being greeted with cheers and kisses, returning soldiers came home to boos and cat calls. Eddie and Fatiesy never returned at all. I wonder how someone like Eddie handled the imperative of having to take another man's life in battle and if perhaps, a split-second delay separated his death and another man's survival. For me, Fatiesy remains a statistic.

Marty and Gueg did return, but each very differently. As I recall, Marty worked supply during the war and although his jeep was hit by a land mine, he was not seriously injured. He returned with all his wit and contagious laughter. Gueg however, came back a different man. I understand from mutual friends that he eventually returned to his more positive, light-hearted self and eventually opened a pizzeria on the Atlantic City boardwalk. In my interactions with him, however, I never heard him laugh nor saw him smile again, and I will not get the chance. Gueg died while still a young man, as did a piece of our nation's innocence.

Chuck Miceli

April 30, 2013

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