HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DOUG AND RON

December 12, 1939 my parents had a wonderful surprise. In those days you just didn’t know — and so they didn’t know — that they were expecting not one, but two sons. Twins. Wonderful brothers, handsome teenagers popular with the girls, which had a bit of a coattail effect for me. Just a little. ( I figured out I needed to make my own way in that world.)

Wonderful husbands, fathers, brothers. I want them around forever so I can prove that their “little” brother can actually make something of himself.

Of course, we will always remember the day Ron got off the subway in downtown Boston to find Doug’s summertime girlfriend on the platform. “Doug!” she said, in shock and jubilation. “No….Ron,” said Ron. She was crestfallen.

Or, was it really Doug, just saying he was Ron. I’m vague on that part of the story.

At any rate, there was a good reason that sweet girl would be surprise to see Doug in Boston that day. He’d told her he was leaving town for astronaut training. Actually, he had to go back to the seminary.

Ron has some good stories, too. I’m sure we’ll hear them someday.

Happy birthday, guys.

LONE SURVIVOR

I’m a proud U.S. Army veteran. Today, I’m going to try to make a Veteran’s Day call to Cary Durham in Moonville, South Carolina. I’ve taken to making the call every year. Sometimes I reach him, sometimes not.

I’ll tell you Cary’s military story — his Veteran’s Day story — and why I hope to talk with him today.

His given name is Cary Julius Durham. He’s 72-years-old now, an affable Southerner, widower and father of two grown sons, currently living alone, battling a few health problems, some of them service-related.  I did a television story about him when I discovered, through a little research, that he was in the same Army infantry unit as Edward “Buddy” Scahill, a kid with whom I’d grown up in Boston’s Dorchester section.

That unit – Cary and Buddy’s unit — fought a desperate jungle battle on Thanksgiving Week, 1966 in the early stages of the Vietnam War. I did a television story about it. It aired on the 35th anniversary of that battle, November 21, 2002. It was a battle that brought Cary, Buddy and about twenty other young Americans together. I located Cary through a little library research. Buddy Scahill and I were far from close friends, but we happened to have been born the very same day in the same Boston hospital. For a kid, that’s kind of a special bond. Our families – Buddy’s many sisters and younger brother — were Catholics and fellow parishioners at St. Ann’s Church. We lived about a half mile apart. Our fathers were friends through the Knights of Columbus. Each November 27th, our birthday, we exchanged greetings in the school corridor, or in the classroom, if we happened to be assigned to the same home room.  “Happy birthday, Greg,” Buddy would say to me. I’d return the greeting. We spent some time together in those early years, talked about many things, misbehaved together in Sister Innocentia’s class.

I envied Buddy’s athleticism, daring male youthful brio, toughness and antic sense of humor. Cary Durham says he didn’t know him well, since Buddy came to his platoon months after him. But he smiles at the mention of Buddy’s name, recalling him as a blond “cut-up” and “prankster.”   From time to time growing up, Buddy protected me from his mean-spirited companions who plainly didn’t like me, no matter how much I wanted to be liked and accepted by them. We’d all gone to the St. Ann’s School, played at the same playground and in time, visited the same teenage haunts. Buddy was prominent in that wilder cohort that gradually settled down to the point where Buddy was inviting me to join the Knights of Columbus along with him and some of those other guys.

After high school, Buddy had no college plans and – according to his sisters – couldn’t get work because he hadn’t fulfilled his military obligation. All males of a certain age had a military obligation in those days of the Selective Service draft. I went off to college, barely getting in and cherished my 2-S deferment until being draft and inducted into the Army in the fall of 1969. I’m proud of my service, but admit the prospect of landing in Vietnam was unwelcome. I wound up in Korea, a quiet war zone.

I believe Buddy enlisted – and, from all accounts, wound up loving the Army. He even went to paratrooper school down in Georgia. Meanwhile, Cary Durham had worked in South Carolina textile mills before enlisting and winding up, first in Germany, then in Vietnam. He loved it enough to stay on to become a staff sergeant.

At the end of October, 1966, Buddy and Cary were in the 2nd Brigade, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army. (If you ever see the image of an Army patch or veteran’s decal with a yellow shield crossed with a black slash and an image of a horse, you’re seeing the automobile or house of a 1st Cav veteran. From the time of the Civil War and Indian Wars, the 1st Cav has been a distinguished fighting unit. From horseback, it had evolved to traveling in quick-strike helicopters and in Viet Nam was called the 1st Cavalary/ Air Mobile.) Buddy and Cary, arriving in country, as noted, months apart and were assigned to the 1st Cav pretty much by the luck of the draw once they got off the plane in Pleiku. Buddy, based on his letters home, had expected to be assigned to the 173rd Airborne, not a “leg unit.”

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The objective for all four of the 1st Cav’s Paul Revere missions was an extensive “search and destroy” operation against Viet Cong Communist guerrilla forces in the areas of Chu Pong and the Ia Drang Valley, in and around the Central Highlands, up against the Cambodian border. The Vietnam War was still young and hopes of victory were still high.

Barely a year before all this, in November, 1965 ( when Cary, Buddy and all their fellow soldiers were far from that battle zone), Army General William Westmorland had dispatched thousands of troops to pursue and fight the Viet Cong enemy across some 2500 square miles of jungle. A week before the campaign ended, the vastly outnumbered elements of the 7th Cavalry, under Col. Hal Moore, was set upon and encircled by a battalion of the North Vietnamese Army’s 66th Regiment. The close-quarter fighting was savage and terrible. It became known as The Battle of the Ia Drang and was the subject of  a book by Colonel Moore and Mel Gibson’s movie, We Were Soldiers. It was the U.S.’s first big victory against the odds, a proud but bloody moment for the 1st Cav and was taken as a sign that total victory might not be far off. It wasn’t. We all know that now. But we should also remember veterans of that terrible battle today. Many are still among us.

It was a year later in the same region, and the 1st Cav, along with Cary Durham and Buddy Scahill, was still fighting in the jungles of Ia Drang Valley, setting out on missions from their base camp farther south at An Khe. Buddy’s letters home give strong hints that he’d been in danger. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I could almost cry when I think I’m going to be here another ten months.” Buddy wasn’t the crying type.

A military record of this period notes rather dismissively that, during the course of Operation Paul Revere IV, “only light contact with the enemy was achieved.”

This is what “light contact” felt like, as both Buddy and Cary experienced it:

In the mid-morning of November 21, 1966, Company “C”, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry “was searching south of Duc Co along the (Cambodian)  border. This was Buddy and Cary’s unit. The record reads, “suddenly, 2nd Platoon began trading fire with an NVA force of significant size.”

“Significant size indeed. They’d encountered, and would soon be surrounded by a battalion of the 10 NVA Division that had crossed over from Cambodia and was obviously been lying in wait for them.

The military record says 3rd Platoon, hearing a radio distress call, gathered itself up to the aid of 2nd Platoon which was a considerable distance off.  “I bet we hadn’t move ten yards when they attacked us,” Cary told me. 3rd Platoon’s radio man was quickly cut down. That loss and the dense jungle foliage prevented effective artillery or any air support from helicopter gunships. They were completely cut off. While all this was happening, 2nd Platoon, which had made the initial contact with the enemy, was suffering 50 per cent casualties and was saved only by the arrival of of the 1st Platoon and a flight of Skyraider jets. The dwindling group of boys in the 3rd Platoon fought desperately in isolation but soon everybody was either wounded or dead from automatic weapon fire and hand grenades.

“We did pretty well for the situation,” Cary told me, his voice tightening, recalling it all.  But they were very soon overrun. Buddy Scahill, according to his family, was shot six times and at this point probably lay dead or bleeding to death. Cary says a soldier close to him named Smythe spoke his last words to him, saying, “I’m hit real bad, Sarge.” Cary was bloodied from a gunshot to his arm. The fire power had slowly gone silent all around him and the NVA soldiers were moving among them, collecting guns, ammo and web gear and executing the wounded. “You’d hear a guy scream and then you’d hear, bang!” Cary says.  There were only about 20 to 25 in 3rd Platoon — well under full strength due to months of combat attrition.  Cary says he felt he had no choice but to play dead where he lay in the grass– and soon an NVA soldier was standing over his prone figure. He grabbed Cary’s M-14 rifle, kicked off his steel pot helmet and put the barrel of his AK-47 to the back of Cary’s head. Cary held his breath, tried not to move — but in that eternity of seconds, assumed he was about to have his brains blown out.

“Then, he just walked away,” Cary says of the NVA soldier, either assuming he was dead or not wishing to carry out the execution. Either way, Cary was the lone survivor of 3rd Platoon at that point and would lay in the grass for a long time, waiting for help that ultimately came.

The record says “A” Company located the ambush site of 3rd Platoon and medevaced the one survivor. That was Cary Durham. The jungle foliage was too think to cut a landing zone. It is chilling to read that the dead of 3rd Platoons, including Buddy Scahill “were placed in a cargo net and lifted out by a Chinook helicopter.” He was waked toward the end of November at Mulry’s Funeral Home on Neponset Avenue, had a funeral mass at St. Ann’s and was buried with full military honors. His sisters and his friends – who, though a little mean and wild in youth, all grew up to be generous and respected family men, some of them also veterans. They told me Buddy’s mother never recovered from that death.

Cary Durham received the Army’s second highest honor, the Silver Star, pinned on  him personally by General Westmoreland, for his leadership and combat behavior under horrible circumstances that day. He spend time in a Japanese military hospital, then was transferred to the DMZ in Korea, staying in the service until the early 70s, then going to work in his wife’s family’s grocery business.

He had his share of nightmares. “Time heals a lot of things,” he says. “But you never forget. You never forget.”

So let’s remember him today, and remember Buddy Scahill.

Now it’s time for me to make that phone call.

MY FRIENDS, THE WITCHES

On this Halloween Day, I see my old friends The Salem witches and warlocks are in the news again, specifically, The Boston Globe. (“Looking for a little Magic’: Millennials and Gen Z embrace witchy New Age spiritualism,” Boston Globe 10/31/19).

A few years back, there was an ugly falling out within that antic and endearing north-of-Boston occult coterie of self-proclaimed witches and warlocks. It was just before I retired from covering news for Boston television, including witchy news. And that particularly noisy eruption, in all its bizarre novelty, was irresistible to Boston television newsrooms. There was even a well-attended media news conference, because Witch Lori Bruno was actually suing Warlock Christian Day. I began my live report saying, “cauldron boil, cauldron bubble…when a witch sues a warlock, there’s bound to be trouble.”

I forget the specific grievance in the suit, but a big, old fashioned personality conflict seemed to have “boiled over” between these former spiritualist collaborators. Lorelei Stathopoulos, described by The Globe as “Salem’s “Famous Love Clairvoyant’” (whom I also knew as genial blond Doreen from Revere, with a positively enchanting Revere accent) seemed, at the time, to have taken Day’s part against Bruno. I hope I have the facts of the case right – and, in any event, I hope the whole bubbling, boiling kerfuffle has simmered down and been thrown out of court and out of the coven. I like these folks. I hope they kissed and made up, under the guidance of The Love Clairvoyant. I hope she handed around some Rose Quartz or sprinkled a little something from the Healing Power Spell Kit.

But the story now is how, as the Globe headline suggests, a wide range of people are embracing the occult as a genuine religion.

Globe reporter Deanna Pan interviewed what she described as a 28-year-old, well-dressed and accessoried female Boston lawyer awaiting her appointment with a clairvoyant. (I’ve always suspected that some lawyers were giving us advice they got from a crystal ball.)

“What’s the harm in it?” says the lawyer. “It’s just fun.”

Fun! That’s how I always saw it when I did a few television stories about the witches. It beat another trip to the State House where they were reading tea leaves or inspecting the entrails of sacred cows. Most “fun” and memorable, perhaps, was the day Lori Bruno and Christian Day – as noted, witch and warlock respectively and, at that point in time, still friends – joined up to drive evil spirits out of a newly purchased home in, I believe, Lynn – at the request of the new homeowner. They wandered from room to room, Christian rattling some mysterious object, each of them spouting assorted nostrums – after which I insisted on linking arms with them on camera and — channeling Sinatra — leading them in a few bars of, “Witchcraft.” (“Those fingers in my hair/ that sly come-hither stare/ that strips my conscience bear, it’s witchcraft.”). Fun, right? And I dare say the ironically named Christian and the estimable Lori, in her black witchy garb (she describes herself as a “high priestess of the craft”) managed something just south of good karaoke.

But I wonder if, anywhere in their sensitive psyches, Lori, Christian and his business and life partner Brian (who’s real or adopted surname, dripping with dubiety, is Cain, as in the Biblical bad brother) ever thought maybe people are taking all this “fun” a little too seriously, including the Millennials and G Xers of the Globe headline.

But here’s the inescapable reality of this Halloween Day: Lori, Lorelei, Christian, Brian and, according to the Pew Research Center, an estimate one million U.S. adults identify as pagan or Wiccan. A staggering six-in-ten Americans ascribe to at least one “New Age” belief, including astrology or psychics, or believe that objects like crystals contain spiritual energy.

And another reality check. American practitioners of sorcery and witchcraft are obviously good capitalists with a good motive for not reigning in all the “fun.” According to the Globe story, Christian and Brian expect their empire of witch-related business ventures, stretching from New Orleans to Salem, to generate $3 million in revenue this year, up from $1.3 million in 2015.

Where do I get my witch’s license? (Just kidding). Here’s the humble Catholic boy’s little spoiler, right out of the Catechism:  All  forms of divination “contradict the honor, respect, and the living fear that we owe to God alone.”

After all, if you truly believe in the spirit world, who’s to say you’re not talking to The Beast when you start talking that jive? A good atheist would tell you you’re talking to the wall. I like the little priest who, overhearing Shirley MacLaine speaking of her past lives, said, “that woman needs a good religion.”

Trick or treat, everybody! Be careful! Have fun! And blessing to Christian, Lori and company. I do like you folk.

 

RETURN TO THE WHITE ROOM

It’s good that I wrote this down,  a white memory from a green spiral notebook.

The notebook turned up in the turmoil of a move; another move, foolish and dismal, leaving only a vision of the dim patch of coarse grass and weeds beyond the metal door to the shed of this new place.

So: an old notebook, things recorded barely legibly or consciously, dream scribble. It contains a memory of an incident in Seoul;  an incident during G.I. times when I journeyed there from a Korean island at the edge of The Yellow Sea. Spring or maybe summer, long ago. Continue reading “RETURN TO THE WHITE ROOM”

10/26/69 – 10/26/19

Unfortunately, I don’t have my copy of that famous “Greeting.” And, I believe, it was, for some reason, “greeting,” not “greetings.”  Was that some bureaucratic effort that was allowed to stand for generations. I’m talking about my draft notice. And if I don’t miss my guess, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the day I reported for the draft at the Selective Service Office at the corner of Byrd Street and Columbia Road in the old Dorchester Municipal Building, where there was a basketball court upstairs and I forget what else in that grim edifice, which still stands today.

I need to get in touch with Larry Donahue today, and the day is already well advanced. He has, in the past, reminded me of this day. Larry and I met after so very many years when I was covering Ted Kennedy’s funeral and he was in the long line of mourners out at the library at Columbia Point. We’d arrived the same day at the draft office, along with some other draftees. We’d gone to the sprawling old Boston Army Base on the waterfront, been sworn in, boarded a bus for Fort Dix, rode through the night, wound up in different platoons of the same basic training company, both been sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia for Military Police training ( not our choice, but a blessing, considering many draftees wound up in the Infantry — then  in Vietnam, a war that was still raging.

Then Larry and I were both assigned to the ASA company on Kangwha Island, Korea, came back on the same plane after fourteen months and both got off the bus in Seattle, civilians again. I would see him twice out at UMass where he was a student thereafter, living with his wife. Then, never again until the Kennedy wake.

I have many memories — many bad, some good — of the basic training experience that commenced fifty years ago. And I probably wondered if I would live fifty years to tell of it. Well, here I am. Grateful. Other than Larry, I’m in touch with only a few other veterans of that period. I think I’ll try to reach out to them. It feels as if I should be marking this occasion — but, then, I’m marking it here, in my 19 Cent Notebook which, so far as I can tell, no one reads.

Oh, well. Thank you, God, for letting me live all these years. May I cease making a mess of things and be free and healthy and maybe even happy for what remains for me.

Amen.

A Continental Summer

I. The Attic Window

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One day, an early summer’s day, I set out across the sea — on a Norwegian freighter, no less, bound for Europe. This fulfilled a youthful yearning born of a view out an attic window.

It was a small window in our small house, gray and modest, sitting on a small fenced-off rise above our neighbors below on Salina Road. The view was of the sea — though just a small blue wedge, barely visible over the McIntyre’s green two-story house and the three-decker that, over time, had been home to people like Mrs. Baylion and Jimmy Kinally and Freddie Ferguson. It was mostly a harbor view and bay view: Boston Harbor and Dorchester Bay. Small waters in the grand scheme of things. But that was sea water out there, no less enticing to the embryonic imagination of a would-be Balboa; the blue threshold to the deep ocean of legend — of vast ships and fabulous creatures. A boy of eight or nine would see it that way. I was that boy. Continue reading “A Continental Summer”