War

by

12/25/2009

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

The only time my father talked about the War was when he was dying and Bud Pope came to visit in the hospital. “Remember the time I nearly killed the cook,” my father said somewhat weakly, “he wouldn’t give me enough food. And the Captain came over, Jack, Jack put down the gun, the only time he called me Jack.” Bud Pope, who I knew only from my grandmother’s picture of him with my dad in their World War II Army uniforms on her dresser, nodded with a smile. The conversation faded to silence since the cancer transformed my tall, Jack Kennedy handsome father to an emaciated Holocaust victim.

Of course I knew that he spent years in Europe fighting the Germans and was an active member of McFadden Bros. American Legion Post where we went on Sundays afternoons. Named for two brothers who were killed saving Europe, the Post was where mothers would talk and fathers would drink beer and all us kids would down sodas, eat pretzels and run around like banshees.

Every Memorial Day there would be a standing room only Mass at Holy Name attended by hundreds of veterans and their families. After Mass, a wreath was laid at the feet of the crucified Christ which was attached to the simple red brick church. Guns would fire into the air thrilling the way too many kids. With the marching band, all the men and their boys would march from Holy Name to the Baptist church on 8th Avenue and then to the synagogue a few blocks later where wreaths would also be left. Since Protestants and Jews were rare in my Irish Catholic Brooklyn neighborhood, these ceremonies were witnessed by a handful of Baptists and only the Rabbi. To the applause of those lining the sidewalks, we would then march along Prospect Park back to the Post where the party would begin.

My father with his long legs always marched in the back with his three sons, away from the flags whipping in the wind and the music blaring. And it wasn’t until 30 years after my father’s death that I learned that he boarded a bus one day for Fort Dix, sat down next to Bud Pope and didn’t return for three and one-half years. As part of an anti-aircraft unit he had a Forrest Gump experience–fighting Rommel in North Africa, invading Corsica and Italy under Patton who then raced into southern France where he became an MP until they needed bodies for the Battle of the Bulge where he fought. And he was being trained for the invasion of Japan when Truman dropped the bomb, the war ended and my father returned to Brooklyn on the subway. “Jack Nolan’s home, Jack Nolan’s home,” the kids screamed as they carried his duffel bag. He went to Casey’s for a beer with his three sisters, married my mother and had four kids of which I’m the second. And like almost everyone else, stayed in the neighborhood where he was born, prayed on his knees every morning and night, worked hard, never made much money and died right before he could enjoy life.

Never said a word about those three and one half years except an occasional comment about tough Germans with their crew cuts. Johnny O’Dea once had a school assignment about the War and his mother told him, “If you want to know about the War, ask Jack Nolan,” which he never did. So except for parties at the Post and my grandmother Maysie complaining that the Army helmet made him lose his hair, I never heard him or any of the other fathers talk about blood, dying or sacrifice. They just did it. No questions. The Krauts and Japs were bad and we had to stop them. So they did and never complained about the years away, the pals that didn’t come home, the horrors they witnessed. My father wasn’t an officer or a newspaper hero, just a guy who did his duty and was mature enough to keep the horror to himself. “And thank God you came home,” was the response whenever those days were mentioned. Even in the Post, the talk was of sports or neighborhood stuff and after awhile, there would be singing and more laughter until time to go home and finish your homework.

And it was funny how we learned. I once wrote for his war records but there was a fire in the record storage place in St. Louis, sorry. One of my many cousins made the Army his career and was forced to do a research paper. His commander barked, Hey Quinn, you’re Irish from New York. You must have a relative who fought in World War II. Do it on him. Which Bobby did and that’s how we found out all about my dad’s war years from meeting Bud Pope on the bus to being in an antiaircraft unit with a bunch of guys from Pennsylvania who probably weren’t the brightest since occasionally they fired at British planes.

I wish I had asked about those years and his thoughts and feelings but the motto of our neighborhood was “shut up and go to work”. Everyone was the same, struggling from paycheck to paycheck, trying to feed and clothe large families so if you wanted a new baseball mitt you delivered groceries or newspapers or shoveled sidewalks in the snow. No whining allowed and my father never uttered a word of regret. War was hard, but life wouldn’t change just because you returned home a hero. The rent still had to be paid, milk and bread cost money and no one was rewarding these guys with easy, well-paying jobs. My parents always knew and taught life was a struggle, filled with pain. Sure you laughed and sang and celebrated First Communions and birthdays and Christmas, but nothing was easy because they only taught what they knew—if you want something, work for it. And hard.

Not only wasn’t the War discussed, but I was 24 when my father died in 1972 at the height of Vietnam which divided the country, our neighborhood and our family. I was the smart ass college student and in my blue collar neighborhood, you did not question God or country. There was anger and bewilderment: “How you could grow your hair long, smoke dope and oppose your country?” They just served and couldn’t comprehend the anti-war movement especially when guys who fought and guys who protested were raised on the same concrete streets, drank beer in Farrell’s and still went to communion every Sunday.

The world was changing and not for the better. Crime, welfare, the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods where they played ball or went to parish dances changed. Prospect Park, which was our backyard, became dangerous as pocketbooks were snatched and bikes stolen. My father believed in order and respect for family, Church and country. The chaos of the 60s angered him and his friends and drove these inner city Democrats to Nixon. Whenever politics was discussed, Dan Flynn, my friend’s grandfather, would recite, “The Republicans are for the classes, the Democrats for the masses.” This allegiance was lost as hippies took over campuses, battled police and cursed Dick Daley in Chicago who would have been very comfortable in the Post or at Mass in Holy Name.

And colleges were mostly blamed. “I went to college—Red Hook,” a huge iron worker sneered in Farrell’s one night, referencing a tough, gritty Brooklyn neighborhood. Students from Columbia, Harvard or some other foreign place were dismissed as rich spoiled brats, but we went to inexpensive city schools—St. John’s, Brooklyn College, Hunter—lived at home and came from the neighborhood. How was it that guys who grew up here could turn against the USA, could protest the War and support McCarthy or McGovern? “Four more years,” the cops, firemen and union workers that lined the bar in Farrell’s would chant as they turned from Nixon on the TV to glare at me and my friends. They rejoiced in Nixon’s victories as proof that their lives of work, sacrifice and patriotism were justified.

In my father’s view, we had it easy–food on the table, education, not the back breaking jobs that killed spirit and body. And didn’t appreciate it. We protested, looked like bums, did drugs and followed those who weren’t “stand up guys,” the rich, those who never worked with their hands, those who lived in Manhattan. And during these turbulent times, his rectum bled so they took out what they could, after which the surgeon told me and my mother that he had 6 months to live. He lasted nine. We all cried at the wake including my brother who returned from his Navy service in Hawaii. “The Navy eats well,” my father told him so, rather than be drafted, Johnny joined after graduating from Fordham and was an aide to Admiral McCain and learned to make pizzas at night for extra money. The guys from the Post marched in together, prayed and threw paper poppies in the casket. We buried him in the veteran’s cemetery on Long Island and then returned to a restaurant where we reminisced and laughed loud with tears in our eyes.

My dad was right, after all. We had it easy with our college deferments from the draft. The closest we came to a body bag was tv and we marched and chanted continually, safe from the carnage for four years, letting those who had to work after high school lose a leg or die so we could shut down our colleges in protest over Kent State and spend the best part of the spring at the beach. And guys from the neighborhood never came back–Cusack, Bilotta, Fitzgerald. Others like Van Pelt and Drago returned wounded and couldn’t understand how we could oppose their sacrifice. They talked about buddies who died. We talked about the Viet Cong.

We were smug with our four year deferment after all and thought it our right to protest and watch the war on tv. We knew it all, how to rid the world of conflict, poverty, injustice. Cops, soldiers were bad, black panthers, SDS were good. We were superior to those who ran the corporations, the government, the world. And we never thought differently until Bobby Kennedy came to speak at Brooklyn College and challenged the arrogant questioner with a call to end student deferments because they’re unfair. College students are safe from Vietnam, Kennedy boomed, you let the working class fight and die. Everyone should be treated the same whether or not they attend college.

Can you believe that, my friend George asked? He wants to end our deferments. The thought of our being drafted had never really resonated. For the first time, we realized that we could end up in the mud of Vietnam.

Kennedy was short and a bit thin with the trademark hair and smile but didn’t back down when heckled and booed. McCarthy, not Kennedy, challenged Johnson and college students didn’t forgive. My father and I had seen Bobby when he campaigned in 1964 at the nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor on 8th Avenue. He arrived standing on the back seat of a convertible. He was immediately mobbed. Kids pulling at his sleeve, adults clapping. The Kennedys were us except rich and educated and powerful. Proof that the Irish had arrived, but just when everything is perfect, shots in Dallas return the reality that we were taught—happiness, beauty, contentment is ephemeral–tragedy, disaster, sorrow inevitable. As Pat Moynihan said when JFK was killed: “We’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.” And after poor Bobby Kennedy lay in the kitchen with the blood rushing from his head, my dad only worried about all his children growing up without a father.

The nervousness about ending student deferments faded slowly. I was a freshman then and eventually returned to routine—studying, talking politics and sports, working. I felt safe and a few years were a lifetime when you’re 18. Even in those tumultuous years, time passed drip by drip and the gulf between the neighborhood and college grew wider. Our parents loved Nixon who we despised. Friends were arrested for marijuana and had to rouse Tom Cuite, the local councilman, out of bed, to reason with the judge. “They’re college students with marijuana” the cop told the desk sergeant, “Hard narcotics,” was the spiteful reply. Anger at the anti-war movement was palpable, and families split along political lines. My mother and father hated my antiwar views, but there were no arguments, the subject was simply not discussed. I’m sure they thought it was a stage that I was going through and eventually I would bathe, cut my hair and mature. They were right after all.

My college years rolled by interrupted by nightsticks cracking heads, assassinations of King and Kennedy, race riots, Kent State, Woodstock, campus unrest and Friday nights in Farrell’s having too many beers. Vietnam’s specter haunted us relentlessly, just like the nightmare that returned deep in the dark when you were a kid, appearing when least expected. No one wanted to go, and elaborate schemes were concocted to dodge the draft—graduate school, psych letters attesting to your insanity, physical ailments which never stopped you from playing basketball for hours, but now debilitating. Everyone found a way to dodge the draft, that is, if you were smart and dishonest.

And then they instituted the lottery system where you were selected in the order they randomly selected your birthday. So I sat at home in my tiny room and listened to the radio as the birthdates were called, for example, One–Dec 6, two—Feb 21, three–Oct 28…Those with high numbers were safe, those with low ones were sunk. Since only a limited number of soldiers were needed, anything above 200 had a shot of not being drafted. Above 250, time to party. I sat at the worn card table that I used for a desk and listened as the numbers were called with my heart pounding, quietly praying for a high number. After the first hundred, I felt good, knowing that just a bit more luck would help me survive. Then 134—June 11th. My birthday. I pounded the table and shook my head. In my heart I knew I never had a shot at a high number, that didn’t happen to guys like me. Oh well, was my parent’s response. Sure you could get killed, but that’s the price of freedom. When needed, you go and bring along your rosary beads for safety. My brother, after all, joined the Navy and was safe in Hawaii.

Guys with high numbers sported buttons that read “343” or “298.” Jealous and a bit afraid, I was resigned to find some way out. I knew the routine. A physical at Fort Hamilton Army base. That was the chance, 4F was the prize. We talked about schemes, not eating, bad backs, running off to Canada, eyesight, letters from shrinks declaring you’re nuts. It consumed our thoughts as graduation approached. It’s funny; I just can’t recall whether it was fear or principle. The war was a mess and wrong, but deep in the recesses of our hearts, we were afraid to come home dead. Easy to protest, hard to fight.

What to do. Shrinks wrote elaborate, phony reports. Minor sports injuries of knees, shoulders, arms became life threatening according to the friendly orthopedist. Elaborate concoctions were formulated. Some succeeded, others failed since the Army knew no one wanted to go. Even legitimate disabilities were questioned. Mickey McNally, who always wore coke bottles for glasses, was sure he would fail since, without glasses, he couldn’t see his feet. The skeptical examiner dropped his glasses and instinctively Mickey caught them. You passed was the response.

It was a spring day when I and a hundred or so others arrived at Fort Hamilton beneath the Verrazano Bridge which once protected the harbor with cannons. With precision we were processed, filled out papers, undressed and went from one exam to the next. A bit surreal actually. A friend had painted his body all sorts of colors and was ranting like a lunatic. He looked at me, put his index finger to his lips in a silent shhhhh. Another guy had tattooed on the side of his hand from his wrist down his pinky, “FUCK YOU.” So every time he saluted, the officer would read, “FUCK YOU.” The black sergeant laughed when he saw this, and called over his buddies. That’s a real tattoo, they laughed some more. That one worked.

To my disappointment, I sailed through each perfunctory physical exam. The last one was to determine if you were sane enough to kill as we used to say. The room was large and the metal folding chairs were filled with mostly white guys like me, each holding pages of letters from shrinks attesting to their insanity. I was heartbroken. They all had an out except me. I blew it. After all the exams ended, some officer called those who passed into a room for further instructions. Me, one other sad looking white guy and four blacks were the only ones who passed. Everyone else won the coveted 4-F. All I had to do was see a psych, lie and I would be safe. I couldn’t believe the Army could fall for such blatant bull shit. These phonies were in perfect health and were devious enough to use the flawed system to escape their duty. And I just wasn’t that smart.

I was jealous, angry. I was number 134 and the previous year, the draft lottery reached 195. The news reports in early 1971 spoke of needing fewer men, probably going to number 175. Even if they went to 135 I was sunk. By June 71, they were already at 125 and with six months to go, my number was certain to be reached.

I had worked as a copy boy for the editorial page at The New York Times through college and one of my jobs was to tear the AP wire copy from the machine each half hour and distribute it to the editors. In late June, I read that the draft was suspended for the summer since the quota of draftees was sufficient. A short reprieve, but really nothing since there was September, October…The numbers always jumped by 10, so just one more call and I would be opening a draft notice. My life was on hold since I had graduated from college and had the bloody reality of Vietnam looming.

Sometime in August as I was ripping the AP wire from the teletype machine, I stared at a story that reported the draft didn’t need any more men this year. The lottery ended at number 125. Unbelievable. I read and reread the story. Relieved of course, but not really happy. I was saved. I wouldn’t have to fight the terrible mistake of Vietnam and I no longer feared coming home in a body bag like we saw daily on the evening news. I had beaten the system after all.

I told my parents that evening and the news was met with typical silence since they could never understand any of my generation’s beliefs–the opposition to the war, the long hair, the disdain of authority. They and their friends survived the Depression—“Save your money, you’ll need it. They’ll be another one”–and sacrificed lives and years defeating evil. This is what you did and stop your whining. Obey your parents, your Church, your country. There was never a thought to have meat on Friday or to destroy a college campus. Simply incomprehensible. And now you have college punks screaming that the war’s immoral, the government criminal. Not a reason for an argument around the way too small kitchen table, just bewilderment and resolve to re-elect Nixon and those like him.

Like all college kids, my friends all found ways to avoid the Army and we continued to march and protest until the war ended miserably and Nixon was impeached. Exciting times to be young and so very right about everything. But life moved on with jobs and marriages and other stuff. A month or two after I read the AP story, I accompanied my mother to my dad’s doctor who gently told us that he had colon cancer and would be dead in a few months. My mother cried as we walked along the concrete Manhattan sidewalks to his hospital room where we hid the tears and forced a smile. He faded away slowly, praying on his knees every morning and night as he did all his life.

With my young bride, I stayed in my familiar, parochial neighborhood near my mother and 12 year old sister, doing what I could to assist, to comfort. The turmoil of the late 60’s, early 70’s calmed and the bitter politics faded and the more mundane aspects of life emerged—getting a decent job, saving money for a house, enjoying a beer in Farrell’s. I taught English in the local public high school, went to law school at night and grew up.

We were going to change the world, but of course the world changed us. Our college-infused idealism slowly drifted away and we again embraced our roots of family, friends and church. Crime and the uneven Brooklyn streets drove many to the imagined Eden of Long Island or Jersey. We had kids and mortgages to occupy us and our hair grayed and golf replaced the sharp elbows of schoolyard basketball. And we voted for Reagan.

Now there’s another war and the scenes are the same—brave, scared young Marines from Bellington, West Virginia, Osawatomie, Kansas or the Bronx fighting and dying in the dusty streets of Fallujah rather than the steamy jungle of Vietnam. We were right about Vietnam but that never diminished the valor of those who served, those who weren’t selfish like most of my generation. I took the road most traveled and it made a difference and not a good one. Yes, it’s easy from my office overlooking midtown to admit a flaw, now these many years later. Life is hard and so are the choices. Perhaps my father and his buddies had the same doubts, fears. Yet their decisions made them better. Ours didn’t.

Kenneth P. Nolan is a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.
 

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§ One Response to “War”

  • Thomas Conaty says:

    Strong stuff. Very personal and cathartic. All of it is interesting and important. Most of all it is honest. I especially like the line about taking the road most traveled and the angst that inevitably follows. We are in yet another war era that we don’t understand. This will be known as the one we didn’t talk about.

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