... Why you won't see me in the line of March on Memorial Day.
Both the letter and envelope were tossed into my kitchen wastebasket about forty seconds after I opened it. For sure I wasn’t going to follow through on Mayor Dolan’s invitation to participate in the Memorial Day parade. It was an invitation to veterans and God knows I qualify. It would be harder to find someone my age who isn’t a veteran rather than finding someone who is.
Even so, I cannot bring myself to participate in a parade of veterans. For a reason I cannot identify I would feel uncomfortable representing myself as a veteran in a parade that goes down the main street of our city.
This is not to demean the guys who will, for sure they’re veterans, too. They have every right to participate in an event that is a recognition of their military service.
Birthdays were what you knew back in 1951 when the Selective Service was methodically drafting guys my age to be in the Army. You knew every friend’s birthday because that’s what determined when he’d be called. When the June birthday guys got their draft notice I knew I’d be getting mine soon after.
Sure enough, on March 6, 1952 I was standing in an office in Malden City Hall with about 40 or so guys I had graduated high school with. Harpo Belansky, Richie Harkness, Charlie O’Connell, we all nodded to one another with sad little smiles of recognition. We were being, “sworn in.” This was the beginning of a process that would eventually make us all veterans.
The reason for the call up was the war in Korea, a vicious, bloody little war that would leave 33,000 American troopers killed in action or, as better described in GI lingo, “wasted.” I was there on July 27, 1953 when we took an incoming round directly into the middle of our Battery. We were standing there in formation to hear the announcement that a cease fire would start at 10 o’clock that night. The round didn’t detonate. If it had maybe some of us wouldn’t have had to wait until 10 o’clock.
A lot happened between Malden City Hall 1952 and December 24, 1953 when I was released from active duty at Fort Devens. I guess that’s when I became a veteran. To this day I have been uncertain as to what it means.
The reason for this could go back to October 1952 in Cape Drake just outside of Tokyo, Japan. We had been issued rifles, steel helmets, and the rest of the gear that meant, no question, the next stop was Korea. We were waiting to hear our individual assignments. To which outfit in Korea were you to become a member?
The master sergeant who was reading out these assignments was embellishing them by emphasizing words like “infantry” or “combat” and each of these descriptions evoked audible groans when we heard them.
I stood in frozen anticipation when my name was called out as part of a list that included five or six other guys. We were assigned, bellowed the sergeant, to a field artillery battalion of the 25th Infantry Division. I know he said, “Infantry” but I knew that the Field Artillery was a separate job. I was not going to be a rifleman.
Even knowing that I didn’t have enough knowledge to justify feeling relieved, I was relieved anyway. I wasn’t happy about where I was going. I was happy about where I wasn’t going. The field artillery, not the infantry, Thank you, Jesus.
I wonder if my uncomfortable feeling about calling myself a veteran goes back to some unrecognized guilt about the relief I felt when I knew that I had not been designated for the infantry.
No day at the beach.
For sure the Field Artillery was no picnic, especially for the guys who were the forward observers operating on line with the infantry. We were light artillery, 105 millimeter howitzers that could be towed around by trucks. These are mainly anti personnel weapons and trained gunners can lay down a murderous field of fire.
There were plenty of instances of anxiety and fear but there were good times, too. Guys who turned into great friends and although it’s been over 60 years since we said good bye, I think of them today.
Less than a month after I got home I was enrolled at BC in an accelerated course that would complete my freshman year in eight months. Included were about 40 guys like me who were going to school on the GI Bill which meant you got $110 a month to pay for everything.
The rest of our classmates who were much younger than we were called us “The Vets.” I felt this term had more to do with classifying me as a student than with my military service. That’s what being a Vet meant to me then.
At my BC 50th class reunion a guy walked up to me to exchange how-ya’-doin’ hellos and said, “You were a Vet, right?” It occurred to me he said, “were.” He was talking about me as a student. I chuckled and said, “Yah, I still am.”
What it was that I knew.
BC factored in again in my early 70's when, along with my late wife, I joined a learning in retirement program there. I picked a writing group. The instructions were, “Write about what you know.” I diddled around with a few stories and then decided I would write something about what happened in Korea.
It was a trigger. I wrote one story after another about Korea. Names, places, what we wore, what we ate just poured out into those stories. I was amazed at what I remembered, they were more than memories, they were reruns.
Curiously enough, my name never appeared in even one of those stories. My main character was Joe Rattigan a name that I had invented so that I wouldn’t have to use my own. This ploy sounded like something out of a Woody Allen joke, that is, someone who needs a standin in order to write a story about himself. But I knew for sure, I wouldn’t have been able to write even one of them if I had to use the words, I, mine, or me.
After writing each story I would go back to clean it up for grammar, spelling, and the like. When I would see the names of the guys I had written about I’d start to cry. Not a lot, but I definitely cried. I was bewildered by this reaction. I knew then that there was an aspect to being in Korea that I would never figure out.
Until I was in my mid seventies I had never joined a veterans group or attended a veterans occasion or wore a baseball cap that referred to the military. A hat for some reason made me feel conspicuous.
The big turn around.
A change came one summer when I was walking around checking the shops in P-Town. There was this one place that looked like a neglected warehouse. Stuff, new and used, were displayed like salvage which a lot of it was. In the mix were used uniforms from the German army which reeked of their dry cleaning to a point where it made my eyes water.
As I wandered toward the back of the store I came onto a four-foot square, brown, piece of corrugated cardboard . Someone had written on the top with a black marker, “Take your pick $10” Underneath was a swarm of badges and pendants that had been stuck into the cardboard. There was an array of military insignias, replicas of shoulder patches that represented army units.
I stopped dead when I saw a lapel pin displayed down in a dog-eared corner. The pin was only about a half-inch high, it was a bright red Taro leaf with a gold lightning bolt that zigged down its middle. It was the insignia of the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, my old outfit. I felt like I had found something that I’d been looking for my whole life.
I wear that pin in my lapel twice a year. In May as a memorial to the troopers in the 25th who didn’t make it and in November as a recognition of the guys in the 25th who are still around. I only wear my blazer jacket to Mass, so it’s not like I have the pin on every day. What I like about it is its inconspicuousness, I think maybe only two people have ever asked me what it represents.
Old folks at home.
Year-before last I went to the Veterans’ recognition party that the Middle School kids run. I am so impressed that someone thought to do this. I was wearing my blue blazer with the lapel pin. I was standing in the breakfast line when I got a little tap on my arm. I turned around to see what must have been an active duty soldier. He was about thirty and dressed in what I would call a fatigue uniform.
He smiles when he turns over his right arm so that I can see the insignia patch on his right shoulder. It’s the same 25th Infantry Division insignia that I have in my lapel. “Eighth Field,” I say. “Nice to see ya’, ” he says.
I’ll never explain my discomfort with being called a veteran. There is one name that really sticks, though, Dogface. I know that’s what I am. It’s not a derogation to me and I bet it isn’t to a lot of other guys. It's the guys who knew that they were on the bottom rung but who also knew they were valued for their absolute reliability to deal with whatever came along.
It’s a good feeling, a satisfaction, to know that you were part of something like that. If there is ever a parade for the Dogfaces you can bet that it will be a big group. I’ll be there.
May 3, 2013