Welcome to the War—Welcome to Vietnam
Fifty years ago I left the Navy. Seems like a good time to reflect.
* * *
My first memory of Da Nang is walking into the squadron’s Administration office and seeing lemonade in the water cooler.
“This place might not be so bad,” I thought.
It was hot, and I was thirsty after the long flight from Japan. The air was thick, warm, and heavy. You didn’t walk through it. You wore it. Like a sweater.
The Admin office had a fan, but all it did was redistribute humid, suffocating air.
While my fellow sailors were checking in, I walked to the lemonade cooler to get a drink. Nearby were those cone-shaped paper cups that don’t hold much, just enough to wet your mouth. I filled up my cone, flicked my wrist toward my face, and waited for the cool, bittersweet drink to splash onto my lips.
But it wasn’t sweet. It wasn’t bitter. It wasn’t even cool. The mystery liquid tasted like warm, gritty water. I studied the cooler the way you look for fish in a murky aquarium. The water was yellow, all right, but not from lemons and sugar. Floating in the cooler was sand. Fat, beige sand.
“Welcome to Vietnam,” I thought. “Welcome to the War.”
I’d arrived in-country in the spring of 1970, after the Tet Offensive, but well before the Fall of Saigon.
At the time my wife, Bunny, was involved in the peace movement. She’d told me that I should refuse to go to Vietnam. Make a statement. Take a stand. Problem was: When I joined the Navy, I knew Vietnam was a possibility. How could I suddenly claim to be a conscientious objector?
According to Navy records, I spent 11 months in Vietnam. That means I received hazardous duty pay 11 times. But if you add up the days, you’ll find I only spent about seven months in-country.
This was no accident.
I was on rotation from my home base in Atsugi, Japan, sometimes ending up in Guam, sometimes the Philippines, sometimes Da Nang. (Atsugi, by the way, is where Lee Harvey Oswald was stationed in the early 1960s. It was a nest for spy planes, like the U-2. My squadron, VQ-1, a reconnaissance outfit, was based there. Big planes. Long flights. Secret missions.)
The duty rotation was devised in such a way that the squadron ferried us to Da Nang just before the end of the month, which meant we’d each get a month’s worth of hazardous duty pay ($55 as I recall) even if we were only in-country three or four days.
My suspicion is that someone in the Pentagon came up with this arrive-early approach for morale purposes. A low-budget perk. And it was a great incentive, at least it was for me: Fifty-five dollars goes a long way when you don’t have to pay for food and board, and cigarettes cost just 15 cents a pack. At those prices, I smoked three packs a day. Mostly Pall Malls, non-filtered. In the red package. I wasn’t worried about my health. I figured a Viet Cong rocket would take care of that, and I could just sit back and enjoy life.
Excerpted from "Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales."
“Which sports did you play in high school?”
In my junior year, I tried out for the baseball team at Windber Area High School. We were called the Ramblers. The school colors were blue and white. I played first base.
Though baseball was my favorite sport, I was initially terrible at it—well, maybe not terrible. Let’s just say that (on my best days) I was adequate, and let it go at that—though I did get better as time went on … much better my second year with the Ramblers than in my first.
Two incidents from when I played on the team are worth sharing. During the first year, I needed a new first-base glove because mine was falling apart. (It should be noted that first-base gloves are somewhat different from other gloves. Why? Because first-base gloves are designed to pick balls out of the dirt and make catching errant throws easier.)
When you play first base, you never know who’ll be throwing the ball to you—infielders, outfielders, pitchers, catchers—from which direction, and in what situation. It might be a grounder, it might be the second throw of a double-play, it might be a pitcher trying to get a guy out who’s standing too far off first base while anticipating stealing second.
One more thing: It’s probably going to be thrown hard from relatively close range — and that can be hazardous. (Trust me. I know.)
Once, while playing first, I got a blazin’ throw. The good news: caught the ball right in the pocket of my glove; the bad news: The webbing had malfunctioned prior to the game when a leather string broke. To temporarily fix it, I used a shoestring.
The string wasn’t strong enough to hold the webbing in place; it snapped, sending the ball directly at my nose, fracturing it vertically. My nose swelled so much that I could not wear my prescription eyeglasses. (When I tried to put them on, I could see under the glasses, but not through them)
For weeks afterward, my fellow teammates called me “Chief” because I looked like the guy on an Indian nickel.
The other incident (which took place in year two) was nearly as dramatic: Again, I was playing first. Again there was a throw. This time it was low. I stretched out as far as I could, scooped at the ball (downward) with my glove, and caught it—thereby getting the base-runner out. Unfortunately, as a result, my face smashed into the dirt, and a pebble went through my bottom lip, leaving behind a bloody hole.
The coach was duly impressed.
That play probably helped sew up my chances of making the team in that second year—but duty called: My Dad asked me to quit the ball team so I could help him finish building the house on Maple Drive.
Hated quitting because I’ll never know if I was good enough to play baseball in college or anywhere else. That’s always bugged. Even until this day.
Don’t thank me ... Thank my grandkids
For Father's Day, my lovely daughter-in-law signed me up at StoryWorth (https://www.storyworth.com). She wanted her two children (my little grandkids) to have something to remember me by. Some sort of connection.
How does it work?
StoryWorth sends me a year’s worth of story prompts. I respond to them. During the year, those responses are shared with a select group of friends and family via email. At the end of the year, my grandkids will get a hardcover book with a color cover.
Wasn't crazy about the idea at first. Why? Because it forced me to face my own mortality. (At age 74, that can't be far away.) How do I cope? By ignoring it, mostly.
And so I write. trying to be honest and insightful, but at the same time realizing that by the time they're old enough to read and understand these ramblings, I may be gone.
Not an altogether pleasant thought.
Then it hit me: "Why not share these little write-ups on Prose?"
Not that y'all are interested. (Most, probably not.) But, at the very least, you'll know I'm not dead ... yet.
Besides, some of you might want to respond to the questions I'm answering with your own thoughts.
There it is. The answer to the "Why?" question. Not complicated, but felt I had to do it.
So what do you think? Would you take on such a project? Either way, let me know.
Thanks . . .
“How is life different today compared to when you were a child?”
I was born in 1947, three years before the midway point of the 20th century, two years after World War Two, in the first wave of what was eventually called “Baby Boomers.” My Dad was Jim Lamb. His wife was Josephine Cassanese, the daughter of an Italian immigrant.
What was it like growing up in the 1950s?
Great question. Like Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”
Advanced technology developed during WW2 sent waves of change throughout society. It was an exciting time to be alive, but scary, too. On one hand, new inventions changed people’s lives forever, often for the better. On the other hand, new weapons—like Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles—meant no city, country, or continent was safe from the horrors of war.
The most significant innovation I can remember is television—also known as TV. Before that, we only had radio—which was sound with no moving pictures.
TV was a marvel. The image was fuzzy, black and white, and grainy—but who cared? We could watch the flickering images of people, places, and things glimmer and glow from the slightly curved glass screen poking from a wooden cabinet in our living room. TV people talked, sang, preached, ran, danced, and played baseball. It was captivating, enchanting, mesmerizing. All from a little magic box.
One problem though: Those images were transmitted and received via antenna—large ones at the broadcast station and skinny metal ones at home. Initially, we used what were nicknamed “Rabbit Ears”—small V-shaped antennas placed on top of the TV cabinet. Later, we had a large H-shaped antenna, on our roof, attached to the top of what looked like a flagpole.
Even with a TV and antenna, we were able to get only two stations: WJAC in Johnstown, PA, and KDKA in Pittsburgh. Both started broadcasting in 1949. (By the way, “broadcasting” was originally a term used to describe the throwing of seeds by farmers on the ground.)
Television opened doors and windows to the world. There were cowboys, puppets, preachers, jugglers, dancers, monkeys, dogs, and more.
My favorite show was “I love Lucy.”
There were no video games back in the ’50s, so we played cards and board games, like Monopoly, Chutes & Ladders, Scrabble, Candy Land, and Sorry. Checkers, too—a game I loved to play with my Grandpa Lamb.
We also built things.
My cousins and I put together little houses and other buildings made from Lincoln Logs, which were about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and notched at each end so they could be stacked together. When we were all-done playing, we’d take everything apart and put the logs back into a box and start all over again next time we got back together.
Of course, when the weather was nice, we played outside: baseball, football, hide and seek, etc. Sometimes we ran and ran and ran—just for fun.
By the way, we didn’t have portable telephones back then. (Couldn’t even imagine a phone that could be carried in your pocket, take photos, play music, tell time, and send text. )
There were no home computers or Internet, either—which meant there was no Google, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.
There’s so much more to tell you that I don’t know where to start—so I’ll stop.
“What are your favorite musicians, bands or albums?”
“A Hard Day's Night,” the first film featuring The Beatles, came out in August 1964, the year I graduated from high school. Was already a fan of the Fab Four by then: John, Paul, George, Ringo. Had seen them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February of that year. Saw a black-and-white film clip of them on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar the month before.
Saw them. Heard them. Experienced them. Something clicked. What? Not exactly sure. They were hip, relevant, young, energetic, photogenic, and fun. With great music. A recipe for success. The right recipe for the times.
The Beatles were part of what was called “The British Invasion,” a cultural seismic event that erupted in the UK and spread to America. Other musical groups from the land of the Queen (and, later, Queen) followed, including Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Animals, and The Who.
That was just the beginning.
In a way, the invasion was an amplified, electrified, and electrifying echo in response to what America had sent out with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers.
We soaked it all in like a cheap sponge on a kitchen table.
I remember sitting on the ground in the rain at a drive-in theater near my college in Shippensburg, PA, with one of those heavy, football-sized, Art Deco speakers pressed against each ear to better hear the music.
Ended up getting pneumonia—but it was worth it.
On a related note:
In high school I played in a little band called the HI-FIs—as in “High Fidelity.” Gary Berkey (my almost-cousin) played lead guitar, Artie Yarzumbeck was on drums, I played bass. (There was another guitar player, but I can’t remember his name.)
We did mostly instrumental songs like “Walk, Don’t Run,” “Apache,” “Pipeline,” “Caravan” and “Sleepwalk.” We didn’t get many invites to perform—though we played for our classmates at an after-graduation party, probably because we did it for free.
No matter. It was fun.
The HI-FIs never really took off, though we did come in second at a Battle of the Bands contest. The musical group that won was talented, slick, and wore tailored Neru-style jackets, similar to the look The Beatles sported early in their career. Us? We couldn’t afford suits—or anything else that matched. But we did bring raw energy to the stage.
Didn’t matter. They won.
Anyway, I still play Beatles songs occasionally, mostly the early stuff—back when we were all young and innocent and idealistic. Before JFK got shot. And MLK got shot. And RFK got shot. Malcom X, too.
Whenever playing “I Feel Fine” or “Help!” or “Hard Days Night,” I feel young again. Like I’m sitting in the rain. With my eardrums pounding. Heart keeping beat. Lost in musical notes and raindrops. With a whole life still in front of me.
Then, “Poof!” it’s gone.
Those were they days, my friend. Those were the days…
“Did you have a job while you were in high school?”
To put things in perspective regarding my first “real” job, I started driving at age 16 in 1963. Why mention this? Because, at the time, the Lamb Family lived at what we still call “The Mountain House,” which was in the middle of nowhere, just over the Somerset County line, in Bedford County on Old 56.
You didn’t walk from the Mountain House to Windber or from Windber to the Mountain House (a distance of about 10 miles, plus-or-minus) though I did once (in my baseball uniform) when I couldn’t get a ride home after a game. Otherwise, until I got my car, I routinely hitched-hiked back-and-forth on 18-wheelers because the Mountain House was beside a truck stop, where I often washed dishes to get enough nickels to play pinball machines—one of the truckers' favorites pastimes.
When we moved to Windber, where I went to high school, I worked in the cafeteria in exchange for free food. (Mom and Dad gave me a dollar each week to pay for lunch. Instead, I used that money to buy gas for my 1957 Ford, dubbed “The Blue Diamond”—a two-door sedan with an inline six-cylinder engine and a “three-on-the-tree” manual transmission. Gas was about 30 cents a gallon at the time, so my lunch money put about three gallons in the tank of that old Ford.)
Anyway, my first real job was at Fairview Dairy on Graham Avenue in Windber, which was just around the corner from the house my Dad built (from scratch) at 407 Maple Drive.
From the road, Fairview Dairy looked like a cozy little diner with barstools around at the counter and slide-in bench seats near the windows. It was well-known for its delicious ice cream, probably because the diner was really a front for a small but efficient ice cream-making operation.
In addition to ice cream, Fairview made Joe-Pops, their version of Popsicles, sometimes called frozen treats or ice-pops. (They were available in a variety of flavors.)
The brothers who ran the family-business hired me to help out two of my buddies, Ron Vitucci and Gary Berkey.
Here’s how we Three Amigos worked:
There was a large round vat that looked like a short fat silo in the Joe-Pop room. We’d fill the vat with sugar, flavoring, and water, then hand-mix the ingredients using a canoe paddle. There was an on-off spigot at the bottom of the vat that enabled us to fill Joe-Pop juice into heavy metal molds.
Elsewhere in the room, thin wooden sticks 4.5 inches long and about a half-inch wide were placed into precisely designed steel contraptions that locked the sticks into place. The pre-positioned sticks were placed into the molds, which were carried over to a large rectangle tank filled with specially treated water that was very cold but didn’t freeze.
The molds were carefully lifted and slowly eased into long slots with rails. As the ever-growing length of juice-filled molds were hand-pushed from one end of the long tank to the other, they looked like a train of slowly moving box-cars.
At the end of the trough, molds with the now-frozen juice were taken out of the water, and the stick-holding contraptions were loosened and removed. Pairs of Joe-Pops were then taken out of the mold, slipped into the flimsy pre-printed paper bags, placed into cardboard boxes, and hand-carried to the freezer.
It was a slick operation.
Three weeks after I got the job (which kept “The Blue Diamond” filled with gas) the owners of the dairy told us they had to let somebody go. Since I was the last hired, I was the first fired.
Too bad because I liked the job. It was “cool” in every way—plus, I was allowed to eat all the Joe-Pops I wanted, and I did.
“Did you ever get in trouble at school as a child?”
On my first day of school at St. Benedict’s in Geistown, PA, there was a bunch of boys fighting in the middle of the playground at lunchtime. They were tangled together like a squirming mountain, with arms and legs popping out here and there. Looked like fun so I jumped on top of the pile.
A nun came out to break up the fight and grabbed me. Have no recollection who she was or what she said, but I knew I was in trouble. The problem: Didn’t know why.
Never got in much trouble after that. Didn’t want to get humiliated. Didn’t want to get smacked.
I remember one time Sister Mary Grace (our principal) came in from outside where it had been raining. As Benedictine nuns did at the time, she wore a long black robe with flowing sleeves and a thick bright white rope as a belt. Her face was encased in what looked like a white, starched headpiece that covered her forehead, ears, and neck. A black veil hung down from the top of her head to her shoulders—or thereabouts.
Sister Mary Grace was carrying a black umbrella at the time. She’d just closed it up and wiggled it back-and-forth to get rid of excess water-drops. That’s when she noticed two little kids talking in the hallway—which was forbidden.
The Sister moved her umbrella backward, like a tennis pro would with a racket, then swooped it down, bringing it upward in an arc at just the right angle to catch the bottoms of both kids at the same time.
It was quite impressive.
The only other time I recall getting in trouble was whistling while the rest of the class was clapping during a song. The nun in charge (can’t remember her name) stopped the music and yelled, “Who’s whistling?”
I froze. Couldn’t answer. Fortunately, no one turned me in. That was a relief.
In first grade I had As and two Bs. It was all-downhill after that. Why? I was always asking questions: “Why this?” and “Why that?” which irritated the nuns. Stopped asking questions. Grades tanked after that.
Too bad …
Don’t Let Truth Get in the Way
One of us is lying;
the other's not true:
You lie to me,
& I lie to you.
Why don't we try
getting close to the facts—
then we'll really know
how the other one acts.
(Please don't put poison
in my chocolate eclair.
I could not forgive you
for putting it there.
Put it in my soup,
& I won't mind.
Never gonna eat it,
'cause I've never tried.)
One of us is lying;
the other's not true.
We make up little stories
of things we don't do.
Why don't we try
sharing what's real—
then we might know
how the other one feels.
“What sports team did you like as a kid?”
Johnstown, PA, where I was born, is about 70 miles from Pittsburgh — birthplace of pop-art culture-king Andy Warhol.
I don’t know if Warhol ever went to a Pittsburgh Pirates game, but I did. Two in fact: double-header with Cincinnati. The dreaded Reds won both games.
That visit to Pittsburgh, with my Uncle Johnny, was one of two I made to “Steel City,” which is in the southwest part of the state, where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio River.
The other visit was to see "Seven Wonders of the World" on Cinerama, a mega-sized, widescreen process that used three synchronized 35mm projectors to splash huge images on a dramatically curved screen. Quite a multi-sensory experience for the mid-1950s.
But back to baseball ...
The Pirates, founded in 1881, are Pittsburgh's oldest pro sports franchise. According to WIKI, they won three National League titles from 1901 to 1903, played in the inaugural World Series (1903) and won their first World Series in 1909.
But it was in 1960, when the Buccos (as we called them) played the mighty New York Yankees, an American League power-house at the time, managed by the wise (and funny) Casey Stengel.
If you're a genuine baseball fan, you probably know something about the 1960 World Services. It was a classic, featuring legendary Yanks like Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris.
The Pirates had a great line-up, too. Remember it well: Don Hoak at third base; Dick Groat, shortstop; Bob Skinner, left field; Dick Stuart, first base; Roberto Clemente, right field; Smoky Burgess, catcher; Bill Virdon, centerfield; and Bill Mazeroski at second base — but more about him later.
The pitching staff included Bob Friend, Elroy Face, Harvey Haddix, and Vern Law.
Danny Murtaugh, a native of Chester, PA, who (in his third full season managing) guided the Bucs to winning the first of two World Series championships under his command.
Going into game seven of the 1960 Series, the big-time, high-powered, well-paid Yankees were tied three games to three with the nitty-gritty, blue-collar, Steel Town team.
The face-off took place at Forbes Field, the first all-steel and concrete ballpark in the nation, a sports castle long since crumbled, long since gone — except for one special part of the wall where history was made.
What happened there?
Let me set it up for you:
The final game of the Series took place Thursday, Oct. 13, 1960. It was like a heavy-weight fight. Both teams gave it their all. "Bam. Bam. Bam!" It was tied up 9-9 going into the bottom of the ninth when No. 9, second baseman Bill Mazeroski, stepped up to bat.
Even now, all these years later, I can feel the tension.
Here's how one of the announcers described the scene:
"Here’s a swing and a high fly ball going deep to left! This may do it! Back to the wall goes (Yogi) Berra ... It is over the fence — home run! The Pirates win! ... Ladies and gentlemen, Mazeroski has hit a one-nothing pitch over the left-field fence at Forbes Field to win the 1960 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates!"
In that spectacular moment, Mazeroski became the first player in baseball history to hit a game-ending home run in Game 7 to win a World Series.
"I thought it would go over (the wall). I was hoping it would," Mazeroski later told reporters. "But I was too happy to think. All year we’ve been a fighting, come-from-behind ballclub. We always felt we could pull it out even after the Yankees tied it in the ninth, but I didn’t think I’d be the guy to do it.”
What an ending!
For years, that was the highlight of my life—before I got married, had kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren.
It's funny how sports adds a little somethin'-somethin' in your life. It's not cake. It's not icing. It's just a little sprinkle-sparkle here and there—sometimes when you need it most
What Is/Was Your Favorite Subject in School?
In high school, I loved history. We’d get our books just after Labor Day, and by Christmas I’d already read them from cover-to-cover.
The stories, mostly. Perhaps that’s what planted the seed of my eventually becoming a writer.
The period of history I was most interested in was World War Two. This was in the 1960s—less than 20 years after the war, so everything that had happened in Europe and Japan was still relevant; ripples and repercussions were still being felt on a daily basis: Stories were on the TV and in the newspaper.
Plus, the Atomic Age had begun.
For example, the nuns at St. Benedict’s Parochial School in Geistown, PA, would routinely hold “Duck & Cover” drills, making us hide under our desks and cover our eyes to protect us from a nuclear blast.
They also closed the blinds.
(When I got older, I learned what a waste of time those actions were. Had a bomb hit anywhere near us, we would have been burned to a charcoal-like crisp.)
My love of history was probably one of the reasons I majored in Political Science when I went away to college at what was then called Shippensburg State College.
Ironically, even though I became a writer, I wasn’t particularly interested in English classes — but I really enjoyed studying Latin. Why? Maybe because of its connection to history. (Also, at the time, the Catholic Mass was in Latin, so it was relevant, from a religious standpoint.)
That’s about it.
So, tell, me: "What is/was your favorite subject in school?"