Memorial Day Remembrance

The following is an excerpt from the sequel to my first book.  It relates and relives the tragic events of June 1969 when two wonderful young men sacrificed their lives  for their comrades and for their country.  Although it deals with the deaths of Daniel G. O’Connell and Dennis G. Murphy, those two young Marines are symbolic of the deaths of thousands of Americans during the tragic events in Viet Nam. Theirs is a story that was repeated day after day in homes all over our nation.  It is submitted in honor of all the heroes who made the supreme sacrifice in all of our wars.

Finals were over and teachers were finishing their end of the year procedures when the public address system crackled on. It was the voice of the assistant principal, Vito Amari.

“May I have everyone’s attention?” The voice was somber and faltering.

“Mr. O’Connell has just been summoned from the building. The Marines are at his home and all of the family is arriving there now.” There was a pause.
“Please say a prayer for the O’Connell family,” and the speaker snapped off.

There was nothing else to say. We all understood that whatever the branch of service, when members of that branch came to your home, the news that they brought was never good news.

Private First Class Daniel Gerard O’Connell was killed in action on June 19, 1969 by an explosive charge, while attempting to get medical aid for a severely wounded comrade while radio communication was down. Danny was five months short of his nineteenth birthday.

There was no way to describe the mood in the high school. It was beyond somber. Everyone knew Danny and the O’Connell family. Our hearts went out to our principal, Walter G. O’Connell, who had his building ripped out from under him the year before. The principal had stood proudly that June, as he watched Danny approach. He stood ready to hand his son his diploma. The former Marine knew full well the dangers that his young Marine son would face. Now, a year after he had proudly handed his son his diploma when his pride was twofold because Danny was both a high school graduate and a Marine, he had been informed that his son had lost his life. There can be no greater tragedy for a parent than to lose a child.

I was drained of emotion as I drove home. Danny’s image and our conversations kept racing through my mind. I couldn’t begin to imagine what life was like for his mother, Mary, his father and his brothers. I kept reliving the memories of him in class and of my last meeting with him and Dennis in the hall as they came to say farewell to me the previous June, before leaving for Parris Island.

The flag was at half-mast in front of the high school when I arrived the following morning. I walked into the high school office and the mood was as somber as it had been when we received the news of Danny’s death the day before. Secretaries were dabbing at their eyes. I went to the sign in book, and on the sign in desk I saw two Marine Corps pictures. One was of Danny and next to Danny’s picture was a picture of Dennis Murphy, and under it was written: Pray for the souls of Private First Class Daniel Gerard O’Connell, killed in action on June 19, 1969 and for Private First Class Dennis Gerard Murphy, killed in action on June 18, 1969.
I felt my knees buckle. No, no, no! It couldn’t be true.

And then I said out loud, “No, not the two of them. There must be some mistake. It can’t be. Not both of them, Danny and Dennis a day apart. Maybe they got their names confused with someone else. Oh no God. How could this be?”
One of the secretaries looked up.

“It’s true, Mr. Bilotti. Mr. O’Connell is over at the Murphy home right now,” and she turned around, her shoulders shaking gently as she cried into a tissue.
It was so typical of Walter G. He had received word the day before of the death of his own son, and yet he put aside his own feelings to console the family of Dennis Murphy, another fallen Marine.

Although Danny had been killed a day after Dennis was killed, Danny’s body came home first. As I viewed Danny’s body I couldn’t help but think how fresh and alive he appeared to be, almost as if he was sleeping under his plexiglass covered casket. The Marine honor guard stood by Danny’s coffin as throngs of people came to pay their last respects.

I don’t know from where he got his strength, or how he kept his composure, but Danny was eulogized by his father at his funeral Mass.

And then Dennis’ body came home, and as with his Danny, the Marine Corps honor guard stood by the young Marine’s coffin. Dennis like Danny wore his Marine Corps Blues. The top of Dennis’ head was covered with a bandage, and he as with Danny, was under plexiglass.

I didn’t learn as much about the facts of Dennis’ death as I did about Danny’s. What I did learn was that Dennis had been wounded already in combat but he insisted on going back to join his fellow Marines while he tried to get into Danny’s unit. He was killed by small arms fire and received the Silver Star for bravery in action against the North Vietnamese. Dennis Gerard Murphy, as was Daniel Gerard O’Connell, five months short of his nineteenth birthday.

The two Marines are buried close to one another in Suffolk County, and their names are located close to each other on the Viet Nam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Daniel Gerard O’Connell. Panel W. 22, Line 92.

Dennis Gerard Murphy. Panel W. 22, Line 79.

The small town of Copiague and of Copiague High School sent many of their young men to fight for their country in Viet Nam. Walter G. O’Connell and his wife, Mary’s contribution to the nation that they loved went above and beyond what was asked of most Americans. Their oldest son, Walter, served in the Air Force, and their son, Francis, joined the Marines after he learned of his older brother Danny’s death. Francis, like his brother, Daniel, also served in combat in Viet Nam. A total of five young men from the tiny hamlet of Copiague made the supreme sacrifice.

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Nick's Story: You Can Get Here From There

I remember the groggy feeling.  Up, but not yet fully awake.  Slowly, so slowly things fall into place.  The room, not mine but still familiar.  The furniture old, not matching, but comfortable.  It seemed to me my grandmother must be so old.  All the knives were worn out from numerous honing.  The linoleum on the kitchen floor, worn down from the constant treading over the years to a dull brown base.  The wash tub on its two broad legs chipped through its porcelain, with its numerous scratches from a million different washings.  The three front steps leading into the kitchen, worn away in the middle from the countless feet and years of service.  The cabinets and doors, pasted with layers of thick paint over the years, each in its turn having known the story of life’s labors and of death, and those secrets muted by the layer above.  The dented…

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I remember the groggy feeling.  Up, but not yet fully awake.  Slowly, so slowly things fall into place.  The room, not mine but still familiar.  The furniture old, not matching, but comfortable.  It seemed to me my grandmother must be so old.  All the knives were worn out from numerous honing.  The linoleum on the kitchen floor, worn down from the constant treading over the years to a dull brown base.  The wash tub on its two broad legs chipped through its porcelain, with its numerous scratches from a million different washings.  The three front steps leading into the kitchen, worn away in the middle from the countless feet and years of service.  The cabinets and doors, pasted with layers of thick paint over the years, each in its turn having known the story of life’s labors and of death, and those secrets muted by the layer above.  The dented icebox and the tons of ice it had known, which over the years had melted into a dripping Niagara.  Door saddles, worn thin and cracked with time, and the wooden chairs that had grown in some long ago forest, worn smooth over the years, while those who rested upon them grew wrinkled.  The kitchen table, which had known feast and famine, its legs wobbly from its countless burdens.  Shiny doorknobs polished clean by a million spins from a million hands. ·Pots,-chipped and dented some from the old country, another world–another life.  It never occurred to me that many of these objects handed down to my grandmother were links to the past as much as a photograph would be  Each had its own story, and so was treasured by the old lady.  All of it was ageless and comfortable to me.  The idea that all of what seemed so permanent was actually temporary was remote to me.

My grandmother died soon after.  A dreary winter morning cold and gray outside.  The last few yellow leaves still clinging to the otherwise naked branches of the trees.  I heard people talking in husky morning voices.  Uneasy voice murmuring unhappily.  The air in my room felt thick and the gloominess of the voices made me unhappy–but I didn’t know why.  I heard crying someone running for water.

“I don’t want it, I don’t want it.”  It was my mother.  She walked into my room.  I sat up in bed. She took me on her lap, and rocked me back and forth.

“What’s wrong mommy?”  “What’s the matter?”

“My baby–my baby grandma’s gone–she’s gone.”  Hot tears started from my eyes, rolled down my cheeks. I could feel them salty on my lips.

“Mommy, please don’t cry.”  I put my hand up to her eyes to stop the tears as if it would stop the hurt.

“Baby–grandma’s gone away from us.”  Could it be I kept thinking?

“Mommy I love grandma—did she die?” I asked, saying the words that she could not.

“Yes baby.”

“But- why Mommy–she was happy wasn’t she?”

“God wanted her” she sobbed.  She was trying to control herself for me now.

“But Mommy—who is He–why did He want her while we were all so happy?  Who is He?”

“Shhh, you mustn’t say that baby.”  And she held me.

I remember a few days later they asked me if I’d like to see grandma one last time, so I went.  The same house–the doors, the walls, the tables, the chairs but not the way grandma would’ve liked it.  There were coffee cups in the sink, pots on the stove. I remember a mustard jar on the old table.  The cap was off and the mustard dried black along the rim of the jar.  A loaf of bread nearby, and a knife smeared with mustard.  The floors needed a sweeping–grandma would have been unhappy.

There were many faces, some familiar and some strange.  They were all tired looking ‘with black rings under their eyes, and sallow complexions. I wondered why they all just didn’t go home.

I walked through the house into the room I stayed in when I slept at grandma’s.  Grandma seemed to be high up surrounded by flowers.  I often think now it wasn’t that she was so high, as much as it was that I was so small.  There was the stench of stale cigarette smoke–drying flowers–overheated coffee.

It didn’t look like her.  Her face was powdered white, and her nose looked bent.  I felt sad, but I couldn’t cry.  I still loved grandma, but all these people staring up at her made me unhappy and I couldn’t cry, and I was glad when they took me away, but for a long time after I was afraid of the dark.  Afraid to be alone.

The happier days were fun to remember.  Lying in the big double runged iron bed, so cold to touch.  My cousin Jackie told me never to sleep in grandma’s iron bed during a rainstorm because lightening would hit it, and I’d be electrocuted, but I felt safe with the shade down.

Over my head was the big picture of the Virgin standing on the whole world with a snake under her foot, with little baby angels flying all around.  Grandma told me the snake was the devil and the Lady was crushing him because he was evil.  I asked her if the babies had died, and she said they hadn’t died, but they weren’t alive.  I felt sad for the dead babies, and thought that their mothers must be terribly unhappy.

I remember an old dresser with another holy picture on it, with two candles in small jars in front of the picture.  One candle always burning.  Its yellow light flicking back and forth casting weird shadows on the wall behind it.  The other candle was usually burnt out with just a trace of ashes at the bottom, and a little square piece of metal in the middle of what was left.

I used to lie in bed listening to the cold winter wind whistling outside my window, searching for the slightest opening to seep in, and sent its chilly draft around the room.

The big, old fashioned feather quilts were a comfort and gave a secure feeling in those days.  I remember the wonderful odor of coffee drifting in from the kitchen, and the hungry feeling it gives you.

I used to dash out of bed across the floor.  The bottoms of my feet ice cold, after the warm covers.  I’d tuck my feet under me as I’d, jump up on the chair, and sit on them to get them warm again. My grandmother would tell me in Italian to go get my slippers, but I would laugh at her, and squeeze my face into her round soft belly, and play and tease, and soon we would both be laughing, and it was fun.

Grandma had long thick hair down to her waist in the morning.  It didn’t have a speck of gray.  After a while she’d roll it into a knot, and it was hard to imagine how long it really was.  She spoke Italian to me all the time, and I’d always understand her, but I couldn’t understand my grandfather.  He carried a policeman’s whistle on the end of his key chain, because he was afraid he would be robbed again, and he said he could whistle for the cops with it.  My cousins and I used to grab it from his pocket, and blow on it before he could catch us.  He’d try to hit us, but we’d run behind grandma real quick, and she was so roly-poly he could never get us.  We used to laugh at him and giggle, and grandma would tell us not to do it or he’d get us, but we always did, and he’d get mad every time.

I remember little plum tomatoes on the window ledge.  Grandma would put them there to ripen, and we’d eat them all.  They were always juicy, and we always knew they’d be there, and she knew we’d eat them, but pretended she was mad, and just put some more on the ledge, and we’d eat those too.  It was a happy game, and it was just as much fun watching grandma pretend to be angry when she found the plum tomatoes gone, as it was eating them.

Grandma made delicious fish, and we loved it.  She baked clams and mussels, the way they did in the little fishing town she lived in as a girl in Italy.  She made fish and potatoes with olives that stunk the house up, but tasted delicious, and we used to float our Italian bread in the juice, and say they were boats, and eat every single drop.

I remember making a fruit punch with my cousins.  We cut pieces of orange, tangerines, lemons, grapefruit, grapes, chunks of apples and mixed them all together after we got the juices out of them.  We thought it tasted delicious, and grandma let us do it, and laughed and drank it with us.  She told us in Italy where she was from the lemons were like grapefruits, and the olives like plums, and memories so many memories.

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Thank You Miss O’Mara

Even in the beginning, in kindergarten, I could never adjust to school.  And it only grew worse as I progressed through the grades in elementary school.  It seemed unnatural then, and it still does to some degree now, to expect little kids bursting with energy to sit in one spot at a desk and not to move unless you were asked to.  In my case, it was too much to expect.

I’d look at my classmates and it didn’t appear that they were having the same difficulty as I did being tethered to a desk.   As they stared at the blackboard and listened to the teacher, I was off in my mind somewhere else.  Although I was mostly inattentive, I was never disruptive.

Soon I was far behind the others, and as a result I was always placed with the kids who found learning a challenge.  I would gaze out of the window, and like a pint sized Walter Mitty, I would create in my mind a world much more exciting than the mundane world of a stuffy class room. At recess time, or at the end of the school day, I would gallop home, past the saguaro cactus, the fresh prairie breezes caressing my face and whipping the mane of the horse that I rode.

As I became a teenager, it seemed that even graduating from high school might be the impossible dream. Never in my wildest moment could I ever have imagined that someday I would be a teacher in similar stuffy classrooms, and yet I spent thirty-four of my adult years as a teacher.  The unlikely events that led me into the field of education are a part of my book, but in this blog I want to briefly tell what it was that hopefully made me a successful teacher once I determined that teaching would be my profession.

There were many memorable teachers whose classes I was fortunate enough to be enrolled.  Certainly there were also ineffective teachers too, but there were many more effective teachers than there were bad or ineffective teachers.  As you might expect, the effective teachers were the ones who helped shape my career.  I imitated them when I had classes of my own.  They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery.  Ask anyone who ultimately became a teacher and I am certain that he or she will credit some long ago educator as the one who probably unknowingly influenced them to pursue education as a profession.

Now take all of those wonderful teachers, most of whom have gone to the great school house in the sky by now, God bless them.  All of them collectively have not had the influence on my career as one single detested teacher that I had in the eighth grade, circa 1949-50.  Miss O’Mara was pure and unadulterated evil and she disliked and distrusted kids.  She found fault with girls who all their lives had always been teachers’ pets.  These were fresh faced girls who always completed all of their school work and earned good grades.  They came to school wearing pretty dresses each day with tiny triangular handkerchiefs pinned to the dresses, but even they could not escape the wrath of O’Mara, and they were often brought to tears.  If she found fault with them, I was red meat for O’Mara.

Suffice to say that O’Mara made my life so miserable each and every day in her class room that I would begin vomiting on Sunday nights knowing that the first two periods each Monday would commence with me standing alongside my desk while O’Mara laced into me about the quality of my work, my haircuts or my physical appearance in general.  She even got me a conduct card to be signed by each of my teachers after each class, and ultimately by one of my parents. Those cards were usually reserved for kids with disciplinary problems, one of which I certainly was not.

I know that my classmates felt bad because of the abuse that O’Mara heaped on me, but in doing so, I kept the spot light off them for the most part, and for that they were probably grateful, but the rest is grist for another short story.

I think that you might be starting to see the irony of how the evil and totally destructive and negative Miss O’Mara had the greatest positive influence on me, even more than any of the other wonderful teachers I knew.  By the way, she would be turning in her grave if she knew that the likes of me had become a teacher.  What wonderful revenge!

With O’Mara constantly in my mind, I vowed that I would never humiliate a student of mine, and make education so unbearable as to make them physically ill in anticipation of going to her class. So thank you Miss O’Mara. I can’t say that you didn’t leave many of us scarred in your infamy.  I know that you did in my case, but you also made me better person, and better professionally.

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If I Knew Then What I Know Now…

As a child I would listen with interest to many adults as they speculated about how different things would be for them today if they only knew then what they know now. Implicit in such speculation was an admission in every case that somewhere in the past the decisions or choices that they made in their youth were responsible for the negativity of their lives in the present. They truly believed that those long ago decisions were responsible for failed personal relationships, abbreviated educations, or perhaps dead-end careers and the list goes on.  Of course there is no way of knowing if those people could really go back in time, if they were given some sort of an H.G. Wells time machine, that they really would take advantage of it.  Would they make totally different choices, which would cause them to lead entirely different and more satisfying lives?

It’s my guess, based on what I know of human nature, the changes that they would make would have minimal effect on their lives.  Of course they would not put their hand in the fire this time, or try to jump over that three foot picket fence which resulted in a trip to the emergency room the last time.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  This time would they strictly and without protest follow the advice of their elders, their parents, or teachers?   Even those advising them had more than likely ignored the advice of their elders when they were young?

The American hard-drinking comedian, W. C. Fields, was asked the same question.  What would he do differently if he could go back or if he could live his life over?  The reporter who asked the question did so because he knew that Field’s bouts with inebriation were legendary and that on more than one occasion the police or friends were called upon to get Fields home.  Fields thought about it for a second and then he answered.  “If I had my life to live over, I’d live it over a bar.” In a period of lucidity Fields was admitting that very little would change even if he could have a redo, but this time at least he could spare his friends and the police.

A more discouraging example of how humanity never learns from its mistakes even as individuals don’t is that even when we actually do have the opportunity to correct our mistakes and makes things better, we don’t.  What did we learn from World War I to be sure that there would never be a World War II?  We have gone back to give wars names as we have done historically.  The Korean War, the Viet Nam War. There’s no need for me to continue.  You get it.

Having said all that, what advice would I give myself if I could go back in time in order for me to avoid the mistakes that I made as a young man?  I would probably say the usual things such as pay attention in school, don’t be influenced by the bad acts of others and don’t behave in a way that would embarrass your parents.  Those were the things that were told to me.  I understood what was being said to me and I ignored that advice because I had to learn on my own. I am fairly certain that I would probably behave in the same way that I had in the past because I would still believe that I had to experience things myself despite the best intentions of those who were concerned for me.  In my case the mistakes I made have brought me to where I am now and have made me the person that I am so I believe that even though I did not always take the smoothest road everything I did has brought me to where I am today, has made me wiser and has made me a better person.  So if I knew that the young man to whom I was speaking was to ignore the advice that I was giving but would turn out the better for it, I would be content to allow him to follow his own path.


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Get to Know Me: Nick Bilotti…

The seven years between the ages of thirteen and nineteen is a crucial time for young men and young women.  It’s a time when parents relinquish, sometimes reluctantly, the complete autonomy that they had over their children, and their children have no choice but to find a way to live for the next sixty or seventy years in a world for which many of them are unprepared.

Those years were perhaps the most desperate years of my life and my book begins at that precise moment, when as a seventeen year old I believed that most people my age were now at a cross road.  I knew that their futures, successful or unsuccessful, would depend on whether they chose the correct road, but I didn’t see that choice for myself.  Rather than a cross road, at seventeen, I believed that I was at a dead end.

Failing grades in school, and deception of family and friends caused me to see the military as the only way out.  There I could hide and allow the army to order my life.  My only responsibility would be to follow orders and allow fate to rule my life.  I would allow the “chips to fall where they may.”

I could not have known that fate, or a guardian angel, call it what you may, would not let me off the hook that easy.  I surely have thought about it all and I have no real answers, only conjecture. A series of unlikely events, which are still inexplicable to me more than seventy years later, threw a life preserver to me. When the swells of life caused me to not see them, other life preservers were thrown my way.  Is it that someone up there likes me, or is that we are all offered redemption in some form?  I liken it to the story of the God fearing man caught in the flood on the roof of his house who turned down first a boat, and then refused a helicopter offered by rescuers because he believed God would cause the waters to recede and save him.  After he drowned he blamed God for his demise, and God answered, I sent you a boat and then a helicopter, and both times you refused, and now you blame me.

When opportunity is offered it’s up to us not to squander it, and if we do, do not blame everyone else for our own bad choices.

So years later, and as an octogenarian, I felt compelled to tell my story and the events and the characters many of them memorable in their eccentricities.  Not to share this story would be such a waste for anyone with the slightest interest in the human condition.

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