“Something Happening Here”

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

SOMETHING HAPPENING HERE

“Man, this war is totally fucked!”

War? What war? Who’s at war? Whose war?

“Johnson’s really got his head up his ass.”

In my senior year at LeMoyne in ’63, I had obtained an A+ from Dr. Pulver who taught Political Science. I had achieved this with a thirty page term paper on the “Southeast Asian Conflict”.

In my ramblings, I had analyzed the nature of the Communist menace and had endorsed American intervention, initiated by Kennedy with military advisers, as a bold and necessary move. I had accepted the wisdom of the “Domino Theory”, which predicted the fall of nation after nation to tyranny and oppression if a line not be drawn through the rice paddies of Viet Nam. What if the French had failed? Fuck the French. They had gotten their asses kicked in both World Wars. Napoleon had been dead for more than a century. Viva-La-Kiss-My-Ass.

Everyone knew how the United Nation’s “police action” in Korea had been screwed up by political misjudgment. Eileen’s brother Larry had come back to Syracuse from the Yalu River with severe frost-bite, several souvenir slivers of shrapnel in his neck, two purple-hearts and a thorough distrust of leadership in any form. If nothing else, our government would never make those mistakes again. It was unthinkable.

Besides, if worse came to worse; we always had the bomb. Sure, the Russians did too. But, when push came to shove, I just couldn’t believe they’d really mind all that much if we took out a distant city or two. We could do a trade. Haiphong for Peking. Nha Trang for Canton. Hey, you guys are the ones with that fellow-shaded-yellow-sittin’-right-next-door. We’re a half-a-world away! What’d ya say? We’ll take out ours; you take out yours. Ba-da-bang; Ba-da-boom. We’ve already promised we’ll leave that cocksucker in Cuba alone. We want to get along!

In July of ’63, I dutifully had reported to the United States Army Induction Center in the Chimes Building near the heart of downtown Syracuse for my pre-enrollment physical. My 1-S Selective Service status (Student Deferment) had changed to 1-A upon graduation from Le Moyne. While I wasn’t especially thrilled over the idea of leaving WNDR for two years of active service in the military, I had resigned myself to the idea that there wasn’t any decision to be made regardless of how I might have felt. There would be no hesitation.

One of my earliest memories was of watching the victory parade pass through the center of Syracuse at the end of World War Two. I was four years old, but I recalled with clarity the bells and horns and whistles and sirens and hugging and kissing and all those brave men marching with heads held high, warriors and heros, valorous and victorious all. It was understood and unquestioned by most in my generation that those summoned would answer the call.

I joined a rag-tag bunch and went through all the drills. I answered all the questionnaires and took all the tests.

At lunchtime, a bored Lieutenant looked across the room of recruits and said: “Cavanaugh. Come here.” I was put in charge of bringing my fellow troops-to-be across the street to a cafeteria and provided cash with which to fund the transaction. I was to execute the maneuver, obtain change and a full receipt, and return with same along with all personnel accounted for.

Got that?’

“Yes, Sir! No problem, Sir!”

I hadn’t watched “Combat” for nothing.

Upon completing the mission with precision and efficiency, I spent thirty minutes in conversation with yet another recruiter, who appeared quite impressed with my test scores and background. There was talk and serious deliberation on my part relating to the possibility of extending my tour and attending Officer Candidate School. This seemed to offer a number of exceptional benefits, including the option of government-financed Law School. One could do worse.

The last phase of procedure was the legendary “Army Physical” and I stripped right down with record speed.

Yep. Got a pair. Cough-cough.”

“Embarrassed? Yeah, we’re all bare-assed. Yuk-yuk.”

“Harold Balls is in the room. We’re all lookin’ at Hairy. Ha-ha.”

I became convinced that my street-wise childhood and polished Jesuit grace would combine masterfully in Uncle Sam’s service.

The very last doctor ran through another long checklist reviewing whether a candidate for guts and glory had ever had measles/whooping cough/ typhoid fever/ gonorrhea/ syphilis/chickenpox/malaria/ta-da/ta-da/ta-da.

“Yes/no/no/no/no/yes/no/no/no/no.”

“Have you been under a physician’s care during the last two years for other than minor complaints such as a cold or the flu?”

A pause brought the query repeated with detectable annoyance.

“Yes. No, it was minor. No!”

Shit.

Assuming that I was hiding admission of something akin to the Black Plague or Terminal Testicle Tickle, the interrogation continued.

A year and a-half before, I had undergone a complete physical prior to taking out my first very own Life Insurance Policy. Routine X-rays had detected a small duodenal ulcer. I didn’t even know I had one. My physician had told me that the duodenum was part of the small intestine between the stomach and the jejunum. I didn’t know I had one of those either. He said that I should watch what I eat and filled out a prescription. The druggist later gave me a bottle of little pink pills to take before meals. When I got home, I took two as instructed. They tasted like rotten strawberries. I went out for pizza and beer. It tasted like pizza and beer with a delicate hint of rotten strawberries. You’re not supposed to eat dessert before dinner anyway. I threw the bottle out. And I pretty much forgot about my phantom, though not fictitious, ulcer.

A future officer would not lie to a superior, especially one with at least twenty years of formal education and a name ending with the initials M.D., so I raced through an accounting of my dubious duodenal distress as casually as good form would allow. Notations were written and I was scheduled for a series of X-rays to be taken the following day at the Veteran’s Hospital next to Syracuse University.

I went and got taken; stirred but not shaken. James Bond was just coming into vogue. President Kennedy loved him.

Several weeks later, I received official notification that my Selective Service designation had been changed to I-Y . Why? There were two words. “Inactive Ulcer”. Although the latest X-ray negatives had been negative, as all good negatives positively are, since the original X-rays had shown something (they’d gotten a note of official confirmation), the best thing to do was “wait and see”, I was told. I went back down to the Chimes Bulding to fight for my right to fight. It was a matter of patriotic principle. Oh, and there was that free law degree.

“It might come back. On government time! ”

I could be taken prisoner and the enemy might be tempted to feed me nothing but beer and pizza until the ulcer returned. Paralyzed with pain, I would reveal the secret, sacred sequence to the combination lock on Annette’s chastity belt. Or worse. On Doris Day’s.

I had pretty much decided I wanted to sign-up. I had told them so and had sworn that I never even knew I had any problem until that dumb life insurance exam. The problem was gone by their own admission. This meant nothing. I would just have to “wait and see”. They’d check again in six months. They didn’t. I got another notice in February ’64 that I was still 1-Y. By then, I had lost enthusiasm for the law and “waiting and seeing”. I was WTAC-ing.

I was married in May ’64; a father for the first time in February ’65 and again in October ’66. My draft status shifted with each happy new event.
Although oblivious to it at each moment, fortune had clicked me one notch away from call-up three separate times. Random chance. Favored fate. Irish luck.

After getting my grade from Dr. Pulver at LeMoyne, I pretty much put aside any thoughts or questions or concerns about our involvement in South Viet Nam. It was still in the newspapers and I would read the brief summaries racing through radio news headlines, but it wasn’t at the forefront of everyday conversation. Not by a long shot. We were talking about The Beatles and the Stones and Bonanza and the Dick Van Dyke Show. We were worried about who’d win The Series. Who’d be Miss America? Who’d be Best Actor? Who’d get to the Moon first? Who had the fastest car? Who had the finest fame?

Sure and it was a befuddled Peter C. who asked Bob to elaborate further, which he proved more than happy to do.

They were much closer to the realities. Friends were being drafted. There was reasonable expectation that the numbers being summoned would increase proportionate to the extent of ever-increasing American involvement.

There were those few who had been there and already returned. There was talk of dissension in the common ranks. Discussion of conflicting military agendas and disassociation from approved perspective were becoming the new perception. There was disagreement on direction. Consensus was confused.

Unlike other immigrant groups elsewhere, for whatever locally indigenous reason, affiliation with Democratic Party politics was unknown to most Syracuse Italians. They tended to be proudly Republican. Bob’s Dad had made a good life for his family with enterprise and initiative exercised in the asphalt business. What he had was earned. Hard work, dedication and perseverance had paid off for the Del Giorno clan in the finest American tradition.
With his own self-sponsored efforts already productive and represented by significant worth, Bob Dell was hardly a screaming liberal. He was about as “pink” as a shamrock. This realization made his position of opposition all the more credible and, not in a small measure, persuasive.

Basic assumptions were being questioned. Suppositions were becoming suspect. Values were under review.

Where was our allegiance, if not to the flag? Where was our holiness, if not in the churches? Where were our hearts, if not offered in grateful, unequivocal affirmation of that which had been determined by all who had come before? So much had been provided, far more than any people ever assembled in political union on the face of the earth had ever enjoyed.

Nobody appeared worried about the Viet Cong. Or the “conflict”. Or governmental escalation. Or an increased enlistment quota. Or Selective Service.

Well, perhaps a few.

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