Who woulda thunk it? Today is rather a milestone for me. On this date in 1963 a tall, skinny, barely seventeen year old kid from the Bronx went down to Times Square and raised his hand, took that oath to preserve and defend the United States "from all enemies domestic and foreign". To call that kid I was "green", in the pejorative sense of the word, would be a kindness.
As things turn out, today, fifty years to the day, I find myself once again in the Bronx, sitting right now perhaps a mile from the apartment building where I spent the first seventeen years of life. The story of what I'm doing here is far too intense for the time and energy I have to put into it right now. With luck, and some courage, that will have to be a story for another day.
Suffice to say that I'm on a pilgrimage of healing and remembrance.
Between the retreat I came back to New York to attend and the related events I've stayed to attend there was a little down time. Late yesterday, sitting in the hotel, waiting for a ride to an event, I had a stroke of something. There was a guy, I remembered, Mike S., who was from around here, might even still be here I thought, with whom I shared a lot of stuff. He might still be alive, I thought. Maybe I can get in touch with him, I wondered. It would be good to be in touch with Mike for the anniversary. And then I had to go and meet my ride up to Newburgh for a healing circle.
Mike raised his hand with me and twenty two other would-be Marines that day. He and I were in the same platoon at Parris Island, enduring the rigors of boot camp together. At the graduation ceremony his mother sat with my parents. We were in the same company in the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger. Then we went our separate ways, I thought.
Less than a year later I encountered Mike again aboard the Cherry Point Air Station. We chatted like long lost brothers, as if eighteen year olds could be long lost. We met again in Isabella Segunda, Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. By now we were beginning to suspect that our stars might have more in common than just being a couple of Irish Catholic kids from the Bronx. When I ran into him in Iwakuni, Japan, two years later we were brothers. Once, when I was sergeant of the guard at Chu Lai, Viet Nam, I was called out to a minor disturbance only to find out that Mike was the culprit (his lucky day). By the time I returned stateside for discharge I wasn't at all surprised to find Mike right there in the Separations Unit at El Toro, California, with me. We flew back home, across the continent, together. That was the last time I ever saw or heard from Mike.
It's no surprise, then, that sitting in the hotel room all these years later Mike's visage passed before my mind's eye. "I have to get in touch with Mike," I thought, "if he's still alive." And so I began working the intertubz.
"Eureka!," I thought, when I located a listing for a Michael on about the street where I thought he'd lived, certainly in his old neighborhood. Barely able to contain the excitement I dialed the number listed. "I'm looking for a Mike S(***) who served in the Marines in the '60s" I began to the voice at the other end. "That was my Father," the voice said. "I'm Mike Junior. My Father died about ten years ago." Once I'd expressed my regrets and explained why I'd called we had a good chat.
Mike had died of a heart attack, "something about congested arteries" Mike, Jr. said. He told me that he'd always assumed it was a result of another hard drinking Irish Catholic life. He knew nothing about his father's military service. He'd never heard of Ischemic Heart Disease, which about seven years after his father had passed was declared a presumptive result of the Agent Orange with which we'd been sprayed and betrayed. After I explained it all to him, that I knew about this because I too had Ischemic Heart Disease, that I too had had heart attacks from it. That if Chance hadn't allowed me to have "the big one" literally in the doorway of the VA Emergency Department his father and I might be having this conversation in person.
Mike had never talked about any of this with Mike, Jr. The Younger and I had quite a chat. Now, a son sees his late father in a whole different light, better understands the complex man with history he never knew. He's already begun the process which, as he remarked to me, will no doubt result in a lot of forgiveness - for things his Father had and hadn't done. For the voids in all our lives.
I'm getting ready now to go with some new friends to a PTSD workshop in Hyde Park this evening. The journey continues.
Along with the Remembrance. And the tears.