Thursday, May 22, 2014

Army Days - Part 1

When I graduated high school at the age of 17, I had no plans to enter college and no clue what to do with my life. The war in Viet Nam was just heating up, and the military draft was still very much in place for healthy young men. Having a serious aversion to bullets, I decided on a preemptive strike and joined the U.S. Army Reserves. At the time it seemed like the safest alternative to being drafted. So, in May 1960, two months shy of my eighteenth birthday, my father "Tony Boots" walked me to the subway station. My dad had never given me the "birds and bees" talk. As I shook hands with him before descending the steps, he pressed two condoms into my palm and asked: "Do you know what these are for?" I dumbly nodded yes, and he walked away slowly, mentally crossing off another item on his parenting "to do" list.

When they tested me at the recruitment center, as they do all new recruits, they determined that my M.O.S. (Military Occupational Specialty) was Medic. My friend Lefty was assigned an M.O.S. of Cook. Having grown up in an Italian household on Hull Street eating his mother Dolly's cooking was his main qualification for this assignment. Lefty and I left for Fort Dix, New Jersey, and although we would later be assigned to North Carolina and Texas respectively to pursue advanced training in our different M.O.S.'s, I was glad he would be with me for eight weeks of basic training. Contrary to all the guys who bitch about Army basic training, I loved it. I was seventeen years old and just too dumb to know any better. I was in great shape with a 33 inch waist and an athlete's body. They gave us free clothes, guns to play with, and all the food you could eat, so I just did what I was told and went with the program.

The older guys in my company, including Lefty, complained constantly about how dumb the Army was and adopted an air of superiority over the regular Army staff who were training us. Even at seventeen, I sensed the folly of this attitude; it only made the redneck Sergeants want to torment us more. One Corporal in particular made it clear that as a Louisiana boy, he had no use for smart-aleck Northerners, especially Eye-tal-ians as he sneeringly pronounced it. This guy was tall and skinny and as mean as they get. He went out of his way to make our lives a living hell, and in the Army, someone with one stripe more than you is your lord and master. I did my best to stay out of his way, but I came in for my share of crap. Only a bit of serendipity saved me from eight whole weeks of pain.

I think it was Irving Berlin who wrote a song called: "Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army", and that's exactly what my mother used to do. Every week she sent me a box of goodies from home, and always included a pepperoni. One Saturday afternoon we were off duty and, since I had no weekend pass to leave the base, I was moping around the barracks. I had the pepperoni out and was snacking when this Corporal walked over: "Whatcha eatin' Panalena" (Southern for Pantaleno). I told him and offered him some. He was amazed that something Eye-tal-ian could taste so good. Said it reminded him of the Andouille sausages they ate back home. 

We finished the pepperoni together and a strange bond was formed. In conversation he turned out to be a decent guy who was as homesick as the rest of us. I was golden from that day forward. Every once in a while he would ask" "Hey Panalena, got any of that pepperona", and of course, like some drug pusher in a back alley, I had.


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The Whiner said...

God Bless Grandma Panalena and her pepperoni. As for mandatory military service, I wouldn't last 10 minutes. Remember Private Benjamin? "Is green the only color these come in?"

Jim Pantaleno said...

Who would have thought that my military career would get a boost from cured meat. I think you would have made a splendid soldier.