I first noticed them when I was seven. Perhaps they were with me sooner but my memory of their presence begins at Saint Paul’s, on my first-ever day of school.
My family rented a three-stoop flat catty-corner from the school’s two-story, beige-brick building, erected in 1927. Paying for Catholic school was costly but its discipline well served a waitress with three latchkey kids and a no-account spouse.
On my first morn Dad snickered at Mom’s mention of nuns, amused that I’d soon learn why. Her words were more calming.
“Just do as you’re told and keep quiet till you get used to school . . . and the sisters.” Her voice trailed off with those last three words, as though hesitant to tell me more.
I already had two biological sisters, both older, so Mom’s use of that word didn’t alarm. The only son in a matriarchy, I thought sisters as teachers would be better than priests.
Wrong. Day one at school marked me for life.
Clad head to toe in black except for a stiff white noggin-box and platter-sized white bib that hid bosom, neck, ears and hair, Franciscan nuns were unlike females I’d ever encounter.
Their garb and fury made me think of Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon movie serials. Or a pod of angry orcas.
They treated first-graders like all had been reared wrong. Nor did they waste time with spanking, paddling, or knuckle-raps. Nuns face-whacked swift and hard, knowing that a public flogging of one would deter all—an efficiency I’d see years later on Parris Island.
All during that first day of first grade Franciscans barked do’s and don’ts.
“Eyes straight ahead!” “No smiling, no laughing!” “Do not cross legs when sitting!” “Boys keep hands out of pockets!” “It’s ‘Yes, sister’! Not ‘Yes’ and definitely not ‘Yeah’. “Keep hands away from face and fingers out of nose!” “No talking in classrooms, the lavatory or while being marched!”
I soon learned why Dad smirked and Mom worried for me.
When my class nun marched boys to the lav for a 10 a.m. pee (she didn’t ask if any had to poo), she queued us standing butt to belly with our left shoulders against the wall leading to the lav’s opened door. Fists on hips, Sister Angst stood astride the lav’s doorway from where she could watch us in line while listening with right ear for sin within.
Boys entered to pee two at a time, exited then formed a butt-to-belly, rear-facing file against hallway’s opposite wall. Only then would two more be allowed to enter the lav.
Angst heard a whisper from the third pair within. She pivots right and storms into the lav, black veil trailing and waist-to-knee rosary beads jangling like cowboy spurs. We in line can’t see what happens in there but don’t need to. Sound is sufficient.
“WHAT did I tell you about not talking in here?” she shrieks.
A squat young beefy nun, Angst was assigned to first-graders for the same reason Marine drill instructors need be young and fit—oomph to apply sustained fury.
Following her shriek is the thud of two small feet landing on the hard tiled floor three seconds after boy peeing at urinal is yanked backward by his neck-tied collar. While off his feet she shakes him left and right for good measure, his right thumb and index finger still holding pecker whizzing a golden arch to and fro.
“HERE!” she barks after jerking two brown paper towels from dispenser above sink.
“Zip your fly then wipe up every drop of that mess. NOW!”
All waiting in queue have to pee but some of us are now unable.
Our first taste of life-outside-home is sheer terror. By design, I’d conclude years later, to soften us for regimentation. At age seven I hadn’t the vocabulary to label, much less fathom, the rigid, violent society I’d entered that day.
Terror is palpable among us waiting to enter that scared-shitless lav. I hear a whimper from several places behind me in line—yet it comes from above, at adult height. It voices a fear we all feel and, somehow, I know it’s him even though I dare not look back to confirm.
I’d seen enough Laurel & Hardy films to recognize Stanley’s sob when things get scary.
Only after I exit the lav, unable to pee although I’d faked it, and join the rear-facing line formed against the hall’s opposite wall do I see them in the queue waiting to enter. Stan in brown tweed, Ollie in bulbous black. Neither turns head as I pass before their queue and cross the hall, but I risk a glance rightward. The wide eyes of both follow mine.
* * *
Thumb out, I’ve been standing at the turnpike’s entrance less than five minutes when a birdshit-white 1961 Ford Falcon approaches. Its driver gawks like I’m a rare sight. I have a GI haircut, wear dark chinos with a button-down yellow shirt and a thin black necktie. Beside my shined GI boots is a military-green ditty bag with USMC embroidered in four-inch gold letters on both sides. My left holds the bottom of a flat board, tacked to the top of which is a thick gray poster board on which I’ve boldfaced my fate.
TO VIETNAM VIA LA USMC
Tall thick black all-cap letters made legible for drivers approaching at 60 mph.
“Hi. Thanks for stopping,” I say on entering.
“You’re welcome. Can’t pass a marine… going to war.”
“But you’re hitching all the way to LA? From Jersey?”
“Yes sir, and you’re my first ride.”
“Damn! . . . Are you broke?”
“No. I can afford Greyhound but I wanna hitchhike.”
“It’s summer. I’m fit… And to see the land.”
He’s my first ride so I can’t yet tell if samaritans will understand why I’m hitching instead of taking a bus. Especially when under pressure of deadline to report for more training, which is why I’ve allowed more days than I know it takes to drive coast to coast.
“You been outta Jersey before?”
“Yes, sir. Two summers ago a pal and I drove to California in five days. If I hitch as we drove, I can do it in a week.”
“You on a deadline? Under orders or something?”
“I’m due at Camp Pendleton in 12 days. Marines I went through school with said it’ll take two or three weeks to hitch cross country but I know better.”
“What kind of school?”
“The one at Memphis was for aviation skills. I trained as a jet-engine mech.”
“Marines use jets?”
“Sure. In support of ground troops.”
Silence as he drives, pondering my intro, I guess, or maybe my probable fate.
I’m 20 and he looks 30. I’m going to war and he isn’t, or maybe he’d finished a hitch in the military before Vietnam ramped up.
Or perhaps he was 4F for a medical reason, like a neighborhood pal whose flat feet got him exempted. Maybe driver has wife and kids who secured him from the draft. Or he’s in college, like most of my male high school classmates, hoping war ends before they graduate.
“Well,” he says after a while, “I’ll cross to Pennsy and am going as far as Allentown.”
“That’ll be great, and thank you, sir.”
“You’re quick with those ‘sirs’,” he says, adding as he extends his right hand, “I’m Gary.”
“I’m Joe. Howdy.”
I pat pockets to assure all items are where I want ’em, including the black rosary beads in right trousers pocket. Nana gave me those five days prior, when I visited her and granddad, who was hospitalized. She assured the beads had been blessed at Lourdes and would protect me at war. Also that I should use rather than just carry.
I’d flown from Memphis to Philly even though Mom and my sisters had moved (fled, actually, but that’s another tale) to LA while I was in TN. Spent a few days with boyhood pals in my NJ neighborhood.
And so it began. Off to war.
* * *
“Joe, we’ve stopped to eat… Joe?”
“More tired than hungry,” says Catherine, the Pontiac’s driver.
“We’ll bring him something,” Joy says.
I hadn’t expected to receive rides from females.
Joy and Catherine had picked me up in central PA after an hour of thumb out but no takers. Riding in the back seat, I dozed as they drove us into mountains. Not wanting to take liberties, I asked if they’d mind my laying across the back seat, because I aim to hitch through the night. They didn’t.
Asleep as skies darken and rain begins, I feel the car slow to exit but I don’t move, face toward seat back. Samaritans assume I’m hitching because I don’t have bus fare. Fearing an offer of charity, I’ll feign sleep and wait in their Grand Prix as they eat. Pelting rain is louder since the engine died and they left, tempting me to rise and join them.
For sure I want food and have slept enough. What made me feign sleep is fear that those kind women would offer to buy my meal. My inhibitions say it’s not proper for females to buy males anything, unless they’re family.
A victim of myself, I lay in car’s back seat, awake with stomach growling as they have a late lunch.
“Dumb shit,” I say aloud to seat back. Were they my sisters Kate and Fran, I’d be in there pigging out while teasing them. That plus Joy and Catherine seem concerned that I’m hitching. And going to war.
“Aren’t you afraid?” Joy asks soon after they’d picked me up and heard my intro.
“Not much,” I say. “It’s summer and I wanna hitch. Most people seem really kind.”
“No, I mean about going to Vietnam.”
“Uh, . . .I should be but I really don’t know what to expect. I’ll be working on jets at an airbase . . . somewhere.”
“Marines have airplanes?” Catherine asks.
“Yes. Helicopters and jets, used to support infantry.”
“My brother’s at an airbase there,” Joy says. “It’s called ‘Tone So Nuut’ although I’m probably saying it wrong. You know where it is?”
“No. Don’t know much yet about Nam. Been too busy training and visiting Jersey. Mom and my sisters moved to California while I was away to training, so I’ve been in transit for a while.”
“My brother’s Air Force. It’s supposed to be safer than the Army or Marines but his letters mention rocket attacks at night.”
I don’t know how to reply.
“Did they tell you what to expect in Vietnam?” Joy says.
“They . . . our drill instructors told us things. . . . But they didn’t discuss them with us, like in a conversation. They lectured, sort of, and were tough in ways that reminded me of nuns.”
“Nuns?” from Catherine.
“Right. Twelve years taught by nuns yet I never conversed with one. They speak, kids listen. Was the same with drill instructors.”
“Had your DIs been to Vietnam?” Catherine says.
“All three were Nam vets,” I reply, reluctant to say more.
I’d excelled during a dozen years of daily catechism classes. Yet dogma taught at PI didn’t jibe with that taught at St. Paul’s. Such as, Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Commandment Number Five, fire-carved on Sinai stone with nine others, I’d been taught. God-authored. Sacrosanct. Eternal.
Yet DIs made the sacred seem asterisked, like Roger Maris’ home run record.
THOU SHALT NOT KILL* *Unless we so order
* * *
“There’s only one road off Parris Island,” Gunnery Sergeant Burke informs his company’s four training platoons soon after our arrival.
“You go out the front gate as a marine, or in a pine box as a successful suicide. This island’s surrounded by gator-infested swamps, so we prefer quitters try that route. Saves us coffin costs.”
Responding to LBJ’s recent escalation, my platoon is being hustled through PI in eight weeks instead of the usual twelve. Our three DIs begrudge interruption of the curtailed time they have to ready us for war. Such as the hour wasted at Sunday chapel. The candor of our senior DI grabs my attention.
“You maggots don’t have time for pissant sermons from pansy-ass sky pilots.”
Recently back from the war for which he was training us, Staff Sergeant Beck knows what we’ll face. He howls in Waco drawl.
“This war has already killed better marines than most of you will ever become. Grunts, wingers, office pogues, Motor T and cooks—You’re all goin’ to South fucking Vietnam! Many will come back feet-first and some in a body bag, if at all. FUCK OFF here and you’ll DIE THERE!”
For Beck, death and heroism are mutually exclusive. His eyes bulge and neck reddens.
“KIA marines are just DEAD MEAT! Your mom, dad and Suzie-Q next door will welcome your corpse home for burial. But in the eyes of my Marine Corps, if you die at war you’re a failure. DEAD marines are USELESS!”
Such frankness began three weeks after our arrival, a trauma-rich interval aimed at making minds malleable. Shock repeatedly then implant dogma. Just like first grade at Saint Paul’s.
But today was different. I knew something was up because DIs had seated us in semicircle on the green linoleum we scrubbed daily at center of the rectangular squad bay.
When standing at rigid attention at end of our bunks, recruits cannot look directly at DIs. When seated we can. From today they’re leveling with us in a tone heretofore we’d not heard. Behind their usual frenzy I detect a concern for us, albeit hidden in warrior code.
“You ladies have been issued two dog tags. If you get your dumb ass killed in Nam, one goes between your teeth and your dead jaws get kicked shut on that metal. That’s so rear echelon pogues will know who you were and where to ship your body bag. The other tag goes to your OIC, who writes a lying letter to your parents telling ’em what a good marine you were. It’s a lie because well-trained marines DON’T GET KILLED! WE DO THE KILLING and Charlie does the dying—because we’re United States goddamn marines and Charlie ain’t. The only way you hogs will survive Nam is to LEARN WHAT WE TEACH!”
Beck had our attention, and mine more than any nun I’d had.
“Where you’re goin’ there ain’t no room for fuckups and no second chances. And you can stop kidding yourselves that bullets cause neat flesh wounds like you’ve seen in those pansy John Wayne flicks. One round from a gook’s AK-47 will explode your gourd like a WATERMELON hit with SLEDGEHAMMERS!”
* * *
“Rise and shine, Joe!” Catherine shouts even before she’d reached the Pontiac’s door handle.
“I’m awake,” I say, rising like Lazarus from the back seat as she and Joy enter with the aroma of grilled onions.
“Gotcha a Philly cheesesteak,” Joy says, smiling at me over the front seat. “It’ll make you remember what you’re fightin’ for over there in Vee-ett-Namm. Yeehaw!”
“You returned at the very moment I was thanking God Almighty for bringing two foxy angels into my hitching life.”
Catherine: “Silver-tongue devil!”
“Just gettin’ started—and I aim to pay for that cheesesteak.”
Joy: “No way, José. You’re a marine and we’re your USO!”
* * *
Transition from riding with samaritans to begging again at roadside is a downer.
Progress stops as I face east while going west, late afternoon sun behind me. Thumb out, sign held high. Alone with thoughts of Joy, Catherine, and that cheesesteak. Also where I’ll sleep tonight.
After thirty minutes I feel sunburn on back of neck. Passersby gawk but no takers. Must be nearing 6 p.m. Most are on their way home and wary of a hitchhiker at dusk. I hope a long-distance traveler will rescue me before dark.
A half hour later Martin Deegan stops. A retired Navy chief petty officer, he’s got his blinker on eighty yards before reaching me.
“You must have good eyes,” I say on entering his Oldsmobile coupé, “to have read my sign from that far off.”
“Passed you a few minutes ago,” he says. “Couldn’t stop ’cause I was in the far lane so I came back around. Can’t pass a jarhead off to war.”
I’d guessed Deegan is retired Navy even before he tells me, owing to tattoos on his ham hock forearms. He sells insurance, traveling town to town tending to clients. A veteran of WWII and duty aboard the USS New Jersey during the Korean War, he knows what I’m on my way to experience.
“War’s where training pays off,” he says after we’re back to 60 mph. “The longer you live, the more you’ll appreciate your drill instructors. You hate ’em at boot camp but eventually they’ll seem like saviors.”
Deegan asks the usual questions. I give the usual replies.
“How do your parents feel about you going to war, as a marine, no less?”
“Mom spoke well of a military career for me—until Vietnam heated up,” I say, knowing what’ll come next.
“Moms are like that. How about your dad?”
“Uh… he’s dead,” I lie. Another venial sin.
We drive and chat for almost an hour, heading west. Deegan pulls into a Stuckey’s and buys me supper without asking if I’m hungry.
“I’m buying and you’re advised to shut your yap when the check comes. You’re off to war and I aim to see you’re fed well.”
Kind people are what I’ll most recall of this journey.
As we talk over dinner and neither seems in a rush, I’m tempted to confess about having lied regarding Dad being dead. But that would lead to revealing him being a draft dodger, boozer, and having deserted us.
Who wants to hear such a dreary tale? Many have worse woes.
That plus society taught me to hide reality if one’s family life doesn’t match that of June and Ward Cleaver or Ozzie & Harriet. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen himself spoke naught about families like mine on his weekly TV show, Life is Worth Living.
So I fib… I lie about Dad when cornered, albeit wondering if the Eighth Commandment might be asterisked like the Fifth.
Not long after we get back on the interstate, following an enjoyable supper spiced with Deegan’s war stories, he knows what I most need.
“Since you’re determined to hitch through the night, ease your seat back and sleep for as long as you can.”
“Don’t you need me to keep you alert at the wheel?”
“Naw, I know these roads so well that I do business calcs while driving. You sleep… Gather yourself for what’s ahead.”
Deegan and other war vets are so unlike Dad that they seem a third gender. Yet I know Dad isn’t unique. He’s drawn to dingy bars filled with like-minded males.
Tires thumping gaps between the road’s concrete slabs lull me. Eyes close after I read on a series of passing signs what seems an omen, causing me to pat rosary beads in right trousers pocket.
On curves ahead remember, sonny, that rabbit’s foot didn’t save the bunny. . . BURMA SHAVE
* * *
Dissent hadn’t yet reached my NJ burg when I left for war. What had was news that Ron O’Kane died there. An Army draftee, he was 21 when killed by “hostile action, multiple fragmentation wounds” three months after arriving.
War lost its abstraction with his page-one item in the Camden Courier Post. I searched back issues of NatGeo to locate Vietnam on maps, three weeks before leaving for Parris Island. I was 20, wondering whether I’d take Ronny’s place as happened in John Wayne films when flag-bearer falls.
O’Kane, a fellow mick in a high school whose student body was mostly Italian, would pump me for answers during catechism quizzes. One learns deadpan and ventriloquism early in nun-run schools.
“Joe… Number four,” he whispers.
Head down, my eyes rise cautiously from paper to locate Sister Brutina. I pause till she looks down at her catechism, readying the next question.
“Immaculate Conception,” I hiss from right corner of unmoving lips toward Ron’s left ear.
Algebra and geometry I fear. Both seem cold and bloodless. But religion and history come easy. They’re live theater; math is abstract, like war till Ronny’s death.
I did well in Sister Brutina’s religion bees. Pupils stand against the classroom’s four walls as she quizzed us from the Baltimore Catechism. You miss, you sit. I stood longest. Classmates voted me Most Likely to Become a Priest.
That enthused Nana, who was keen for clergy in the family. Seven grandsons yet none had shown signs of The Calling. I’m her last hope.
She mailed me scapulars, medals, holy cards, rosary beads, and tiny bottles of miracle water from Lourdes, which I’d dab on my pitching arm. When she and granddad visited, Nana would distract me from carnal TV dramas. As hero is about to kiss heroine she’d ask, out of the blue, “So, Joseph, what did you learn in catechism class today?”
Fate was herding me toward a seminary till war detoured me to Parris Island. Then on to Vietnam’s killing fields, via this hitch west.
One Friday Sister Brutina assigns two catechism chapters for all to read and be ready to answer questions. Monday morn she queries three pupils but none can answer. Two admit they didn’t open their catechism. The third hadn’t taken his home. Blood rises to Brutina’s face, framed in flat black and crisp white.
“Did anyone obey?” she asks, seated at her desk on dais before blackboard.
If seated in the rear row I would’ve looked before leaping, noticing that no hands were up. I raise mine and Brutina glares at me, then left and right. I think I’m safe after she looks down at her catechism.
“On your feet,” she says 30 seconds later, without looking up.
I look left then right, hoping she’s addressing another. Her glare is on me when my head returns to center. I slide left out of desk, stand, tweak necktie’s knot and wait, arms parallel to trunk.
Brutina thinks I’m lying. I can’t blame her on realizing that mine was the only hand raised. She lowers her gaze, then fires without looking up.
“Name the Seven Deadly Sins.”
“Uhh, the Seven Deadly Sins are… Anger, Envy… Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Pride… and Sloth,” I say, having memorized their alphabetical order (AEGGLPS). Hope Brutina is done with me but should’ve known better.
“Name the Seven Heavenly Virtues and the sin that violates each.”
The classroom is tomb quiet. I’m thinking I did wrong by studying as directed. Usually I avoid the spotlight by doing as told, hiding within regimentation. This time it got me what I most shun.
Brutina hasn’t raised her Franciscan boxtop to face me from the catechism spread flat on her desktop. I’m tempted to say I can’t name them so she’ll let me sit and escape the spotlight. Pride gets the better of me.
“Anger violates Kindness,” I say, “… Envy violates Love, Gluttony violates… Temperance, Greed violates Generosity, Lust violates… uh, Self Control, Pride violates Humility… and Sloth violates Zeal.”
Still she won’t face me. “Define Zeal.”
“Zeal… Zeal is the energetic response of the heart to God’s commands…”
Brutina starts to ask her next question but I continue.
“The seven sins deaden our spiritual senses, so we first become slow to respond to God and then drift into the sleep of laziness.”
“Define Self Control.”
I sense Ron O’Kane smiling below and to my right.
“Father Joe,” he hisses, face parallel to desktop so she won’t see his lips move. A girl up front glances back but quickly, lest Brutina catch her.
“Self Control prevents pleasure from killing the soul by suffocation. Lust…”
“That’s enou…” Brutina says—but I’m in a zone. The carnal parts were easiest to memorize.
“… is the self-destructive drive for pleasure out of proportion to its worth. Sex, power, or image can be used well, but they tend to go out of control. Self Control is the soul’s natural response to unnatural, animal Lust.”
Math is bloodless, religion engorged.
Ron O’Kane is eight months my elder but years more worldly. When I mention animal Lust I can hear him grin.
“Sit down,” Sister Brutina replies, with emphasis. She sounds angry but I can’t be certain. Her face is still parallel to desktop.
* * *
“Up and at ’em, marine,” Deegan says. “We’re coming to my exit, so I’ll drop you near this city’s best entrance to the road west.”
“I’m ready,” I say while raising the seat back, “thanks to you, Master Chief Deegan.”
“Ooorah, PFC Nickerson. You’ll do fine over there,” he says with my right hand in his meaty grip. “Remember what your DIs taught, stay alert, and write to mom. Godspeed.”
“Aye, aye, chief. And thanks a million.”
* * *
Three hours and two short rides later, a vehicle approaches as I walk in darkness toward an overpass that’ll provide tonight’s shelter. Turning to face a possible samaritan with sign high and thumb out, I recognize a ’59 Caddy by its soaring tailfins silhouetted in moonglow behind beams from four headlights. Fins like locust legs jackknifed aft of bug eyes.
Plenty of room therein for me. I could doze on leather instead of concrete. Maybe its driver is going two or three states west.
It doesn’t even slow. But its driver beeps after passing then cycles the Caddy’s lights off and on twice, as aviators dip a wing at those below. I walk west while watching the red cups of its four taillights fade.
Engine hum and tire whine yield to a choir of insects that’ll lull me to sleep beneath the flyover. My left hand rotates the sign from words-up to words-down and right grips ditty bag tighter.
Jogging to generate heat for use as blanket, I scan the roadside for discarded cardboard to serve as mattress. Maybe there’s already some up in that nook where hill receives concrete slabs spanning this highway.
Full moon behind me as I jog. Landscape before me has but two tones: silver beams on a canvas of black felt. Except for red eyes that vanish as the Caddy rounds a curve far ahead.
“I hope you’re satisfied,” Ollie gripes to Stan while struggling to keep up. “Who knows what rodents and reptiles await us on that horrid ledge.”
Eyebrows arched, mouth dipped and voice squealing, Stan is crumbling.
“Reptiles! Do you mean snakes?”
“Yes… or the lair of a Komodo dragon.”
Stan’s shriek echoes off the pillars and slabs of our destination.