"I Had A Background"

As a kid, I grew up in NYC; I was born Catholic, and my mother made me attend mass each Sunday. In those days, mass was performed in Latin, and the service was strictly orthodox. I was later permitted to join the East Harlem Protestant Parish on E.104th Street. The Parish was youth oriented. No longer was I made to go to church; I went on my own, in fact it was my favorite hang out. We went on picnic outings, had chaperone dances, rummage sales, collected can goods, summer camp, sang songs, art classes, but most of all, there was ‘Friendly Town’. Friendly Town was an arrangement established between a church in Haydenville, Massachusetts and the Parish in NYC. Its mission was to provide inner city kids a week get-a-way in the country, free of charge. That’s how I met Ed and Nettie Graves. Ed and Nettie, my host, were the nicest people I had ever met. Nettie made ‘real’ homemade cookies. Ed gave me rides to town in his Willies stake-bed truck, took me fishing (my first time), showed me real live cows, bought me chocolate ice-cream cones, and gave me a John Deere straw hat. At the end of each day, Nettie would ‘tuck me in’ by reading me nursery rhymes/fairy-tales, giving me homemade gingerbread cookies/warm milk, and making sure I blessed everyone in my "Now I Lay Me’s". I’ll always remember how Ed laughed when I told him I once seen a cow in the Bronx zoo. All this love and attention was new to me. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. When my week was up, Ed and Nettie asked me if I wanted to stay longer. I ended up staying a month, then returning year after year, until moving to Long Island. I joined the Air Force at 17 and after just turning 18 had orders for Viet Nam, to a place named Hue. All of a sudden I became obsessed with watching the news. They often talked about an Imperial City pronounced "Way" getting overran, being so many clicks from the DMZ, and so on. Boy! was I glad I wasn’t going there. That place pronounced "Way" was a death sentence. Then while in a day room, playing double-deck pinochle, the news came on. There was a map! Finally seeing a map of Viet Nam for my very first time. This map only showed north and south Viet Nam; it didn’t show Laos and Cambodia. All of us watching figured Viet Nam was surrounded by water. Well, I almost went into shock when the newsman pointed to the word Hue and said, "the Imperial City of Way just got overran again." Shortly after this, I paid what I thought was my last respects to my mom, girlfriend, and the Graves. I was in-flight to Viet Nam when I heard that our destination had been changed. We were now going to Phu Cat, and not Hue. To this day, I feel if I had gone to Hue…I wouldn’t have made it home alive. While others got letters from their wives, families, and friends…I got letters from the Graves. Whenever anyone in my hootch received mail, the others 7 wanted to hear or read all about it. If you read a letter to yourself, they would stare at you, trying to guess its contense from your facial expressions. I remember when I got the one and only letter from my girlfriend. Man was I excited! We were all excited, my 7 hootchmates and I. Well, when I got it open and began reading…it was a 'Dear John'. But, SSgt. Gatson (my mentor and role model) quickly got my mind off of her by teaching me how to play Tonk. He won most of my RR money. Looking back on it, I think he hustled me (smile). The frequent care packages I received from Nettie, full of homemade cookies, were always a delight, although I missed the milk. Don’t remember ever having milk in Nam. Nettie used to use stationary that had pictures of little ducks, toy soldiers, and toy trains on them. Once when I opened a letter from her, a blue and a red balloon fell out. I remember someone yelling "Hey! What you gonna do? Blow them up and fly home?" And everybody laughed. I was 18, a grown man, old enough to drink and fight, taller then Nettie and taller then Ed. I was a Redhorseman; my motto was ‘Can Do – Will Do’…how could they still have looked at me as if I was some little kid? And what were the balloons for? And why are my eyes watery?

At Our Expense

They learned that the standard issued fatigues, which we wore when we first arrived, were not practical nor suitable attire for the conditions and environment we had to contend with. We needed something with bigger pockets, a looser fit, lighter weight, water-resistant, and quick drying. This led to the design of the Jungle Fatigues, which we were later provided with. Prior to that we would cut off our sleeves, used our sewing kits, and simply make do. They told me that the M-16 never needed to be broken down and cleaned; consequently, I never did nor even knew how. Many Nam Vets may find that hard to believe, because the exact opposite was found to be true. They also discovered, sometime after my end-of-tour, that our colorful unit patch, blue/white stripes and blue/white name tags made us easy targets. Now the Air Force has, as the Army has had for years, both dress (colorful) and combat (subdued) patches, stripes, and name tags.

It’s a long story, but if you were ever curious as to why the M-16 jammed so much, and think you can handle the truth, click HERE!