ONE DUMB ANNIVERSARY

This day, December 30th, is a peculiar “anniversary” for me ( the 47th by my count)– and it’s very peculiar that it sticks in my memory. It’s the day I (accidentally) set the Rubbish Room ablaze at the Elm Farm Supermarket on Morrissey Blvd. Yes, an accident. Dumb accident, though. My punishment was to clean up the mess.

I was a bundle ( or bag) boy at the time at that neighborhood market where my brother Doug had worked before me — and I really enjoyed the uncomplicated business of filling up a customer’s paper bundles (no plastic in those days), loading them into trunks and backseats, cadging the occasional tip. (Maybe I should have made a career of this. I’d been trained as a cashier but wanted no part of handling money and ultimately was granted my request for demotion. I’m not much of a capitalist.)

These were, as it happens, somewhat grim and traumatized times at home and in the world. My father was mortally ill with cancer. And the whole universe was still recovering from the shock of a Presidential assassination a little more than a month before. I guess I was finding a little gleeful escape in my after-school workaday chores — and especially when, periodically, I’d get assigned to burn rubbish in the Rubbish Room off the back loading dock.

Boy, did I love that! Solitary labor in a windowless cell of concrete walls, wildly stuffing cardboard into a huge furnace. I’d whirl and pivot as I hurled, jammed or otherwise stuffed collapsed shipping boxes and cartons of every dimension into the huge open maw of that raging steel beast. A supermarket generates tons of empty cardboard boxes, as you can well imagine.

Just so you don’t think I’m weird or a closet pyromaniac, I believe all my fellow bundle — or bag — boys enjoyed that occasional assignment of unsupervised work around a warm furnace — especially in winter — away from the cold managers, cranky customers and blustery external elements in which we were compelled to chase down shopping carts left at odd extremities of the parking lot. But they may not have thought of it, as I did, as a kind of ballet or ritual — or perhaps ever gotten as reckless as I did at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1963.)

I’d always loved the challenge of cramming as many boxes into the furnace as possible — to the point where you’d see no fire in the open furnace doorway. Then the flames would slowly gnaw away at the cardboard; slowly replace the brown cardboard with hot red fire — and then I’d push a button and the heavy steel door would groan shut, ending any danger that that hungry beast would breath fire out into the room full of tinder.

When the fire had died down, I’d push the “open” button. Up would go the steel door, in would go more junk.

It was Christmas time and all the waxed boxes from frozen Christmas turkeys were piled high around me. Boy did they burn! Occasionally, a bit of flaming debris would pop out into the room — and occasionally ignite more debris. No problem. I’d hastily pluck up all the burning matter and pop it into the furnace. Occasionally, more than one little fire got going. Again,no problem. I’d gingerly pick up ALL the burning stuff — I wore insulated gloves — and pop it all into the fire. I guess this added to this rote exercise a minor thrill of danger — the same sense some otherwise sensible citizens might relish at July Fourth backyard fireworks festivities.

But I wasn’t counting on any fireworks. And on this particular December afternoon, one fiery little bit of trash after another got going and my ballet suddenly turned into a fire dance. As the title of a currently popular novel says, there were “little fires everywhere.”

Up to that point, I’d reveled in the sense of “control” I’d always enjoyed while “playing” with that fire. But now, I was introduced to the sensation of facing a fire “out of control” from my own carelessness. And now there was smoke — lots of smoke. And now more fire. Then — everything seemed ablaze, and I was forced out onto the loading dock, looking back in at an inferno. Smoke was now belching out into the open air.

I went (calmly) into the adjacent meat department and (calmly, sheepishly and shamefacedly) announced to the guys in bloody white butcher coats, “ah, fellas, there’s a fire out there.”

What followed had a little air of comedy. The meat men urgently joined up a hose, hooked it to a big running sink and charged for the dock — but got jerked up short at the swinging doors. a Laurel&Hardy move.

Time for the real hoses.

Soon the air was full of the sirens. I guess it was BFD Engine 20 responding from down Neponset Avenue. It was, ultimately, a minor fire that took minor effort to extinguish Water was blasted into that little concrete room, leaving a charred sodden mess in its wake.

Lesson learned. Don’t play with fire, master Wayland.

And — don’t forget to recycle. It keeps cardboard away from the likes of me.

NOVEMBER 9TH

Dates, certain days, have come to possess infinite resonance for me. This date, November 9th, though you may be reading this later, if at all, is such a date for me. For the nation, other resonant dates, for better or worse, in pain and glory, would be December 7th, September 11th, November 22nd. I guess now we will all, for different reasons touching on our deep national division, remember November 3rd, 2020. Indeed, all of history will remember 2020. other dates: June 6th is my late sister’s wedding anniversary — and D-Day. And the day Bobby Kennedy died — and my neighbor Frank Trubucco, and the day a teenage friend Jimmy Sweeney drowned in the Neponset River. May 30, the original Memorial Day and the day my father died in 1964. You, the reader, have your own unforgettable dates.

But back to today, November 9th. For one thing, today is my nephew Edward’s birthday. It alarms me that he’s turning 54, the age of my father when he died. You know that feeling about other, younger relative’s birthdays, and how old they make us feel — and how young my father now seems, to have died at that age.

On the religious, specifically Catholic calendar, this is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Our Savior, considered the mother church of all the splendid and ancient churches of Rome, also called the Church of St. John Lateran. It dates to the third century. Honoring it as the Church does awakens my own tendency to feel a “sense of place” about certain buildings, sacred or secular, or neighborhoods where I’ve lived and my houses or apartments in those neighborhoods.

But then, there are the things that have happened on this date, besides the birth of a nephew. It is also a day, in a certain string of memories, of darkness, dust and, paradoxically, light.

I take you back to November 9th, 1995, Pinellas Park, Florida. A thin, intense 66-year-old man steps off the Greyhound bus into a mild, subtropical autumn dusk…

This was an older friend — twenty years older — from my Boston neighborhood, a retired cop, sports coach, restless itinerant bachelor. He’d come for a brief visit, after which he’d be on the road again. It was good to see him.

We drove west that evening in rush hour ‘s river of red taillights toward the Gulf of Mexico beaches and my little rented place out there. I was working at WTSP-TV Tampa/St. Petersburg at the time. My old friend was finely attuned to the world — sensitive, faith-filled, good company. But it was November 9th and something — one particular memory – kept invading my mind in the presence of this person from the old neighborhood. It had happened just down the street from the house where my friend, named Dick, was born and lived his whole life. It had happened on November 9th, thirty-five years before.

As we drove, I took us back to November 8, 1960: John F. Kennedy was elected President, another memorable election day, another narrow victory margin — about 100,000 votes ( and, I might as well mention, generations of credible talk followed thereafter about voter fraud in that election in “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson’s Texas and Richard Daley’s reputedly corrupt Chicago. ) On the following day, November 9th, a carpenter had punched through the front wall of my family’s small 91-year-old house on Neponset Avenue in order to replace the original narrow double windows with a large, bright, multi-pane picture window. Barely 14-years-old at the time, I was disoriented by this permanent transformation of my childhood cloister, the rush of harsh, naked sunlight into the small living room and, perhaps above all, by the release of sweet-smelling plaster dust into my sanctum; plaster probably dating to the house’s 1869 construction.

I was still smelling that dust a the onset of early darkness when, one by one, my 21-year-old twin brothers Doug and Ron arrived home. ( Doug would arrive in the middle of the coming tragic incident I will describe. All three of my brothers were still unmarried and living at home; sister Anne lived down the street in a three-decker.) My father was home that evening from his coal and oil sales job and all day, as the carpenter named Willy Wendt had been working, everyone had been talking about the election. Doug was in a good frame of mind, having been a big supporter of Jack Kennedy’s improbable run for President at the offices of S.D. Warren Paper Products where he worked in a minor job and where all the managers and major players were Republican and Nixon supporters.

By now my mother had turned on a living room light. Suddenly my 25-year-old oldest brother Bill, ever the joker, appeared standing in the small front lawn, gently and jokingly knocking on the big new front window, yelling, “hey, what’s this?” We would step out to join him, laughing. “I’ve heard of living in a fishbowl,” he chortled, “but this is ridiculous.” Then we turned our eyes toward the warm glow of new window — but then also notice a commotion one hundred yards farther down Neponset Avenue by St. Ann’s Elementary School, my school. Unusually, an Eastern Massachusetts Line commuter bus was pulled over. They made no stops on Neponset Avenue. And we hadn’t, before coming outside the house, noticed — and my brother hadn’t noticed — the orange and silver bus go by our house. They were a frequent sight one wasn’t inclined to notice — each a major connector between the Fields Corner MTA station and the South Shore of Boston. Neponset Avenue was a main thoroughfare for all buses — but Eastern Mass drivers had often been warned to slow down on this thickly settled stretch.

There appeared to be something lying in the avenue. For some reason, our first thought was the neighbor Trubucco’s big, slow-moving mongrel dog. My father, Bill and Ron went down the street to investigate. For some reason, I didn’t. I went back inside with my mother. My brother Doug arrived and, having seen the commotion, also walked down to the scene. After an interval, my sister’s husband Joe ran up to our front door and asked my mother to call the police since they seemed to be slow responding to earlier calls. My mother asked, quickly, assuming someone had been hit, if the victim was going to be all right.

“Well,” said Joe bluntly, “the kid’s dead.”

I’m sure my mother was shocked. I know I was. Neither of us asked the identify of the victim but my brother-in-law, plainly deeply unsettled, must have been the one to impart the information — when my mother asked if death was certain — that the bus wheels had gone right over the child’s head. That, and the knowledge that there was no hope, kept me from walking down to investigate while my mother called police — who in the interim must have finally shown up to what was a horrible scene. I seem to recall sirens. It was brother-in-law Joe who had been walking toward our house on some forgotten errand, saw to it that the body was covered with an available cloth.

All this was exactly sixty years ago today. The triad of disorienting occurrences — the historic election of a native son, the ripping open of my house and that smell of dust (the big picture window is still there today and I think of this day when I see that window and almost smell the ancient dust) — most of all, the violent death of a child keep that date, November 9, 1960, alive in my mind.

The weather was mild — one of those late fall, mild November days. The victim was 6-year-old Jimmy Dwyer, youngest of a well-known neighborhood family of older brothers and sister Noreen. They lived up behind the school. The father was a fire captain. I’d heard one story that he’d even responded to the scene of his youngest child’s death. I had never met this child. Jimmy had been with the third oldest brother Tommy, age about 12, and had gone for an errand to Aggie’s Variety Store on Southwick Street. Tommy was in the St. Ann’s Band and happened and have given Jimmy a drum stick to hold. On the return trip, they’d crossed the street in plenty of time. The on-coming bus might have been speeding. Jimmy had dropped the drum stick, broke free of Tommy’s hand and dashed out….

When everyone returned to the house, Ron sat stricken at the dinner table. Dad and Bill were not much better — but it had been Ron who, seeing Mrs. Dwyr coming down the paved schoolyard, rushed with others to restrain her. It was traumatic. He sat silent and stricken. There was little more than a mention of the exciting election news.

I can only imagine how the bus driver feels now should he still be alive — of felt to his dying day.

When I reminded Dick of that incident as we drove toward the Gulf on November 9, 1995, he put his face in his hands. He remembered Jimmy Dwyer’s eyes, big and brown like a fawn’s.

In the dark, as the moon rose that night on Indian Shores, Dick and I walked five miles up the beach, talk of the death forgotten by now. I reminded Dick — who, as noted, had retired as a Metropolitan Police Officer — of November 9, 1965, another dark moment — but dark for an entirely different reason. The lights in the kitchen at 210 Neponset Avenue dimmed. Out that big picture window, the lights straight ahead up the hill of Boutwell Street dimmed, then rose again, then died for good. This was the Great Northeast Blackout all the way up to Niagra Falls. Manhattan had vanished before astonished pilots’ eyes. Dick, working as a cop that night, saw minimum looting, then people pulling together, students stepping in to direct traffic where streetlight had failed and police were spread thing — a bright moment in the darkness.

Dick, typical to his itinerant ways, bought a bike the next day and was off on his rounds. In his life, he’d traveled through France, Sweden, Iceland, coaching baseball.

One year after that blackout, five years after Jimmy Dwyer’s tragic death, on November 9th, 1966, son Edward was born to my brother Ron who, six years earlier, had absorbed a mother’s terrible grief . Nephew Ed is a criminal defense attorney now.

One day early in this century, covering a fire in South Boston as a TV news reporter, I was approached by the president of the firefighters union, Ed Kelly — son of Noreen Dwyer. He knew I was from Neponset. I don’t have to tell you the first thing that jumped into my mind: this stalwart, grown man and public figure standing before me was the nephew of the six-year-old killed that terrible November 9th. We talked about it. Ed, of course, had not even been born on that date. But he said everybody from that neighborhood of my generation remembered it. (Sometimes, it’s the terrible things you don’t witness with your own eyes that bother you most. I’ve seen dead bodies in the road as a reporter — but the death I didn’t see that November night has stayed lodged in my mind. In part, that’s because the victim was so young and innocent; also, undoubtedly, because that death — the terrible manner of it — was often spoken of, not always in a respectful way, by ghoulish children.)

One day not overly long ago, I would learn of the passing of a neighborhood contemporary, Greg Burke. Greg’s brother had been a chum of Tommy Dwyer. It was mentioned to me that Tommy had been at the wake, a handsome grown man, Vietnam veteran, with a wife and family. He had moved to the northwest and built a home for himself out there. I was so happy to hear all this — to know he survived that trauma — and the war in Vietnam. It remained a terrible cross for the parents. Sister Noreen Dwyer, for her part, became a very active member of St. Ann’s Parish, a beautiful person, a selfless organizer. God protect all of those Dwyers, including Ed Kelly.

Friend Dick Duchaney died of ALS on September 4, 2001 at age 72 at the Soldier’s Home high on a hill in Chelsea, Mass. He’d requested to be there with the soldiers he so loved. Dick had never gone farther than the seventh grade in school, been both a soldier and a sailor, kept going back to school all his life, fighting the odds, learning and rushing at life. He hated being a cop, especially a traffic cop. He was a self-described odd ball, devout, sometimes tortured in mind and spirit, living out his days in that house where he was born, always taking on coaching jobs — baseball, basketball, football.

His sister, a nun, and her fellow Missionaries of St. Francis sang at his graveside on a brilliantly sunny Friday of his burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Dorchester. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Four days later, terror struck in Manhattan. The world’s cloister was punctured like that old wall in my house. Dust filled the air. I was there; I smelled it. Dust and darkness all around though it was brilliantly sunny.

I saw that tall familiar odd-ball soul from the old neighborhood getting off the Greyhound in the dusk, November 9 — now twenty-five years ago. And I think of that post election night sixty years ago. The darkness of The Great Blackout. The birth in ’66. Happy birthday, Ed Wayland.

This November 9th, in that Roman Basilica across the ocean and in the midst of our own post-election turmoil in a very divided nation — in this Florida house that is now, for however long, my home, I pause and pray for Dick, Jimmy and all the faithful departed. Amen.

THE GIRL FROM RIO PIEDROS

I met her — I forget how — during a two week stay in San Juan. It was in the Candato neighborhood of hotels and casinos. I was staying in a little hotel called El Canario. I had a pleasant room with levered shutters. There were always these trade winds and the constant sound of the coqui frogs. I loved that little place. When one of the maids won a trip to Saint Thomas at a church social, she brought it to the hotel and the amiable anglo front desk clerk informed me that the maid had been to Saint Thomas many times and therefore had no need for such a trip, did I want the ticket? Yes, thank you. And that was a day trip to Charlotte Amalie, to be written of another time.

But the girl from Rio Pedros…well, this will be a simple sad story only because I recall only that I met her probably in one of the grander hotels, probably in the ground floor casino level — and she was very nice and had lived in Atlanta and maybe there had been a marriage that was no more. I think she might have been with friends. She invited me to come to her place for dinner, probably the next night.

And so one night in my little rented compact I set out for Rio Piedros, a San Juan suburb. I have no memory of her apartment building, though I was stone cold sober. There is some vague memory of a two-story complex with a stairway to a second level. This was in June, 1977. That night keeps coming back to me, because — well, it wasn’t like I had any romantic intentions. Did she? Did I, at least have the courtesy to arrive with perhaps flowers and a bottle of wine — or did I just show up? How did I, so often directions-challenged, even on familiar U.S. turf, find her place so easily, unfamiliar as I was with Puerto Rico? Somehow I just recall going up a ramp to join cars on an elevated highway — speeding Puerto Rican drivers all around me, but I was fine with it. I was feeling adventurous. I was 30.

I have memory of a dining room. Not of what we ate or anything we said or how long I stayed. and, of course, I don’t recall her name.

How is it that there was such a night, such a special invitation from a stranger? Does she remember me? My name? My face? For I see — so little, but remember only that gracious invitation, that pleasant woman who must have made me dinner. And then it was goodnight and goodbye — forever.

Forgive me for forgetting so much. I re-live what little I recall and wonder about you — the girl from Rio Piedros. I hope you are well.

A TOKYO MEMORY

Last day of March, 2020. Middle of a pandemic. Trying to comprehend such an enormous thing — and such an enormity — as watching the only planet we know, and all of us who inhabit it, be menaced, from West Bengal to Time Square and everywhere in between, by a potentially deadly pathogen, something bascially as UNhuman as a coiling, twisting vine multiplying and creeping up a wall.

It is giving us all time to think, and remember — especially if you’ve been on this planet for nearly three quarters of a century, like me.

And what do I do? I stay confined — though tending to a sick companion; sick not with the dreaded virus but with an inexplicably  debilitating leg pain that has put her on a borrowed set of crutches following a painful trip to a clinic for an ultrasound and MRI.

And, with no “hook” to make it relevant, I suddenly scour the archives of my memory during this enforced leisure — and my letter file — and discover that I wrote a very accomplished composer some months back after chancing to see his credit at the end of the television series Biography. He wrote the music for that and, apparently, much, much more — and is a well-known composer of experimental and symphonic music as well. Continue reading “A TOKYO MEMORY”

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”