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ONE MAN'S JOURNEY
By Pete Ahern
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Pete Ahern
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It was the middle of December, 1965. I had been in the Air Farce for almost 3 years and at Perrin A.F.B., Texas just about 15 months. I had about 14 more months to do before I was eligible to re-enlist which was definitely my intention at the time. I was at work in the 4780th Field Maintenance Squadron this particular morning when I received a call from our unit's Chief Clerk to report to Personnel and see some T/Sgt. Not liking the sound of his voice, I proceeded to Personnel somewhat reservedly wondering what it was that I had done.
Upon my arrival, I met with T/Sgt. "Whoeveritwas" and to make a long story short, he handed me a set of orders advising me that I was being transferred to Vietnam. I was given a 10 day leave beginning the following week and my orders said that I was to report to Hamilton AFB, in California (SF Bay area) on 3 January, 1966 for "Training", then deployment "over there" on 7 January, 1966.
Shocked by the news, I remember thinking to myself, "I didn't join the Air Farce for this; I'm a Lover—NOT a Fighter". Besides, you had to have 12 months "retainability" to do the tour. Naturally, with my "Buzzard's Luck" (where you can't kill nothing and won't nothing die) I had 14 months left to do in Uncle Sam's Air Farce so I was eligible to do the tour. Other guys I was stationed with wanted to go. They held the same job classification I did and had the same time in grade as I did. I asked if the orders could be swapped with someone who wanted to go over there and was told "nope". We had seen stories on the TV News about what was going on over there and at this time, it was even LESS appealing. I had always wanted to go overseas, but this is NOT what I had in mind. The thought had even entered my mind to head for Canada but was quickly dismissed. With my Buzzard's Luck, I'd get as far as coming out of the latrine in the barracks!
It was very difficult for me to leave my buddy (the late James B. Calloway). We had formed such a tight bond that we could just give each other a particular look and we knew what the other one was thinking. We could even finish eachother's sentences. We had been stationed together for the past 11 months and to put it mildly, he and I raised all kinds of hell in the Southwestern United States! "Cal" was a "Lifer" (Career Military) and owned a tangerine & cream (reamsicle) 2 door 1956 Ford Fairlane with a dual exhaust system on it. It's a long story, but this vehicle wound up with the nickname "Benedict" which "Cal" had stenciled on both doors. I knew I was gonna miss the times we had.
I figured I'd better call my best friend from home (177th Street—"Lil" Larry who was now a U.S. Marine stationed at Camp LeJuene, N.C.) to let him know what had just happened. I called him and he informed me that he had just received his orders to report to DaNang, Vietnam and that he would see me at home while he was on his 30 day leave.
My mind drifted to thoughts of my Grandfather (Hugh Mulzac) who was the first African American to Captain a Merchant Vessel in the United States. I thought about all the experiences he had gone through in WWII sailing his Liberty Ship (Booker T. Washington) back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean in support of the war effort(s). I also thought about one of my 2nd cousins (Uncle Johnny Mulzac) who was an original Tuskegee Airman during WWII and what he had to go through as well. To be quite honest, I was scared but I drew on the experiences of these two in particular and in general all those who had gone to war before me. It really didn't help that I knew I wasn't going to be engaged in active combat like I knew Larry would be. On the other hand, with what I had heard about Mortar Attacks and Rocket Attacks, well, the prospect of going over there DID NOT become any more appealing.
How was I going to break this news to my Mom? Mom was a single parent at this time and raised me to ALWAYS take responsibility for things and live with the decision(s) I had made. It was ME who decided to quit High School and join the Air Farce. This assignment was part of what I had signed up for, like it or not. I knew that was what she was going to tell me and when I got her on the phone, true to form, that is EXACTLY what she said, maybe not in those particular words.
So, having taken the next week to process out, pack my worldly possessions and send them home ahead of my departure; after saying goodbye to Calloway, Booker, Arrington and the other guys at Perrin, home I went for the Christmas Holidays.
We (me and Larry) lived it up because we knew (although unspoken) it might be the last time we had to spend with each other. I don't remember exactly when it was, but on one of the days of my leave, my Uncle Timmy threw Larry & me a Big Party. Another friend of ours, Roy (who was in the Army) showed up with his two sisters Val & Yvette along with his Lady, Arlene. Friends from the block showed up and again, to put it mildly, Larry & me had one helluva send-off.
On the day before I left, I had a long talk with my Mom. I told her how much I loved her and how much I appreciated EVERYTHING she had done for me. She took me in as a Foster Child at age 13 months and I remained with her and Pop (they were now divorced) until they decided to go their separate ways when I was 16 years old. During this conversation, I assured her (as best I could) that I would be OK over there. All I had to do now was assure/convince myself. This conversation was the most difficult I had ever had with her because the reality of the situation was that the possibility DID EXIST that I might not come home in a vertical position or under my own power. However, the conversation was definitely NECESSARY!
There was no way I was going allow her (or anyone else for that matter), to accompany me to the Airport the following morning. This was something I had to do by myself and it was VERY difficult to do.
The 3rd of January, 1966, was the 4th day of my 20th year on this planet. I flew from JFK in New York to San Francisco then caught the shuttle bus to Hamilton AFB just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. There, I went through "Training" which in hindsight can only be termed (politely) as a JOKE. All we really did was practice on the M-16 which I already knew how to use and I learned to throw a Grenade. BIG FUCKIN' DEAL! This bullshit only took two days! The Air Farce considered this to be sufficient preparation for the troops to react to anything that might happen once we got "across the water".
Due to an administrative snafu, I didn't wind up leaving the States until 1/22/1966. Now, keep in mind that when I left Texas, it was about 40 degrees so, naturally, I wore my Winter Uniform. While at Hamilton, it was about the same temperature so I still had my Winter Uniform on. Onto the plane (we flew commercial via Flying Tiger Airlines) and off to Vietnam we went. As I was pretty much by myself with not knowing anyone on the flight, the "fear of the unknown" began to manifest itself. I had met two guys while at Hamilton and they were also on this flight but were seated away from me. So, alone with my thoughts, I conjured up all kinds of "fiction". How was I going to make it through this year of 1966? I had no earthly idea but I made up my mind that I would. In hindsight, that's probably the same (or at least similar) thought that roughly 58,000 other guys whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. thought. I don't remember there being a lot of noise, chatter or conversation on this flight. I attribute that to each one being alone with his thoughts as I was with mine. I found it amazing (and still do) that my previous 20 years were so very clear to me on this trek to the other side of the planet.
In the Beginning
I was born on December 31, 1945 at 7:10 p.m. in Bay Ridge Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. I am the son of George W. Allen and Mary Malarky Ahern (both now deceased). They are my Birth Parents.
Ever since I can remember, (approximately age 3, maybe 4), I lived in the home of Thomas and Elaine Hackley (both now deceased). They are my Adoptive Parents. On my Adoptive Mom's side of the family, my adoptive Grandfather was Hugh N. Mulzac, the first Black man to Captain a United States Merchant Vessel (The Booker T. Washington). I also have an adoptive 2nd cousin, Lt. Col. John I. Mulzac, who is an original Tuskegee Airman.
I don't know very much about my Adoptive Father's side of the family as he was not very close to them. The only contacts I remember were Uncle Danny and Aunt Mary who lived up in the Bronx. Aunt Mary was his Mom's sister (whom I never knew) and Uncle Danny was Aunt Mary's husband. There was also a niece of his named Bertha and her husband Jessie. Mom told me that Pop's sister was killed during a fire some years before I came into their lives.
Mom's side of the family would take up another book. If they ever decided to hold a family reunion, they'd hafta hold it someplace like Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium. The extended adoptive family is quite extended.
My earliest memories are of living on 105th Avenue off of 177th Street in what is still known as "Bricktown". It is a small enclave of about maybe 10-15 square blocks in a section of Jamaica, Queens, New York. Down the street from the house in which we lived is Liberty Park where I can remember going to "Miss Muriel's Nursery School". There were two brothers that lived across the street from me named Guy & Jerry. They moved away and I never saw or heard of them again.
Approximately 1951, we moved to the Alfred E. Smith Projects in Lower Manhattan. This neighborhood (more specifically 180 South Street, the building in which we lived) is located directly across the street from the Brooklyn Bridge and can be seen in many of the pictures of the Manhattan side of the Bridge. I used to sit in my bedroom window on the 13th floor of this 17 story building and watch the ships traverse up and down the East River. These ships included U.S. Navy ships on their way to and from the Brooklyn Navy Yard which I could also see from my window. I specifically recall Aircraft Carriers going under the Brooklyn Bridge and it seemed as though the masts of these Carriers would just miss the underside of the bridge by mere inches. From my window, I could also see the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.
My best friend was a guy named Cliff who lived on the 15th floor. He and I were inseparable. We went just about everywhere and did about everything together. I remember going to Chinatown with him which was within walking distance from our building. There was a motion picture called "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" which we both watched being filmed on the Brooklyn side of the Bridge. I also remember General Douglas MacArthur riding in a motorcade past our building although I had no idea why or his significance at that time. One of our favorite pastimes was going to the drug store on the opposite end of the projects and getting ourselves an egg cream. Cliff now lives in Arizona and we reconnected about 7 or 8 years ago although we haven't seen each other in just about 50 years.
This neighborhood is where I began Grammar School at St. Joseph's Catholic School on Madison Street (or is it Catherine Slip?). I can vividly remember my first day of school when my Mom ushered me in to meet the 1st Grade Teacher, Sister Carla. I remember another kid from the projects named Emanuel ("Manny") crying his eyes out because he didn't wanna go to school. I did notice that Sister Carla kept addressing my Mom as "Mrs. Hackley" and I thought it kind of strange because my last name is Ahern and that is how I was referred to. But, in a child's mind, I dismissed it and set about checking out who was in my class.
From the 1st until the 3rd Grade, I attended St. Joseph's School. This is where I had my introduction to Nuns and the Catholic Faith. It didn't take long to understand / realize that these women ruled with the Proverbial "Iron Fist". You just didn't goof up or you got your ass handed to you. Their word was Gospel (LAW) and you DID NOT question anything. If you did, you were subject to one of this 1950's Catholic School "ASS WHIPPIN'S". Sister Carla was a nice teacher however and there were no "Ass Whippins" in her class that I recall. Sister Martha in 2nd grade was a different story. She handed out Ass Whippin's at the drop of a hat. Almost 60 years later, I am unable to remember the name of my 3rd grade teacher. I wanna say she was Sister Maria, but I just don't remember. Also, EVERYDAY you wore a uniform which consisted of a white shirt, blue tie and blue pants. Public School kids got to wear whatever they wanted and NO TIES!
Mom also has a daughter Gert but she didn't live with us. She lived in a Foster Home someplace in Brooklyn. There was a time when Gert did come to live with us but it didn't last for some reason. As I remember it, she stayed with us for roughly a year and then went to live with my Mom's two sisters out in Jamaica, Queens where she remained until she reached adulthood. As I was to find out later in life, Pop didn't want her in his house for whatever the reason was and for lack of a better way to put it, she was "banished". Why I was allowed to stay remains a mystery with me to this day. But, she is my sister, I love her and NOTHING will ever change that.
During this time, I became cognizant of my Mom taking me to "The Foundling" (New York Foundling Hospital) to see the doctor roughly every 6 months. I also remember a Social Worker from "The Foundling" coming to the house periodically to see me too. I wish I could pinpoint the time when I came to know that The Hackleys were NOT my birth parents, but I am unable to remember. Maybe I always knew. I did notice that Mom was a brown skinned Lady and "Pop" was relatively dark complexioned. I'm what would be known in "The Hood" as "High Yella"—NOT to be confused with "Old Yeller". But once again, in the mind of a child, I dismissed it. Mom was Mom and "Pop" was "Pop", end of story. What else did I know?
After the 3rd Grade, we moved back to Jamaica, Queens into the "South Jamaica" Projects (Also known as the "40 Projects" due to the close proximity to Junior High School 40). I was NOT in favor of this move because I would have to leave my buddy Cliff and go to a new school which I didn't want to do. But, not having much of a choice in the matter, the move was reluctantly made.
I didn't blend into this community too well at first as it was predominantly African American and I had come from a more integrated community in Manhattan. Although I could not describe it, I do remember that the kids in this neighborhood were much different than those where I had just come from. I didn't realize it at the time but I had just moved into "The Hood". Not only that, but I transferred to St. Monica's School and the majority of the kids in the "Hood" used to make fun of us Catholic School Students. For lack of a better term, initially it was "Culture Shock". There were only two white families that lived in the building behind me. The rest of the neighborhood consisted of Hispanics and "US" meaning Black Folks. At this time in my life, racial differences had not manifested themselves and it was quite an adjustment which took me a little bit to become accustomed to.
This is where I met another life long friend, Rick. Rick is Hispanic and eventually became known to everyone both inside and outside of our family as my "shadow". Pretty much except for school, you NEVER saw one of us without the other. His mom only spoke Spanish and his dad was even more strict than my mom and dad were. Rick & I used to go all over the City of New York together. We'd ride the subway & bus to Coney Island, take in a movie in Times Square, walk from the projects out to Kennedy Airport; a distance of about 7 or 8 miles, walk around there all day while Pop was working and then walk back home. Sometimes, we'd catch a celebrity passing through. I remember seeing Roy Rogers once, Katherine Hepburn another time and then seeing Floyd Patterson on another occasion. If one of my Aunts had something going on, they invited Rick to go along as well. We were like family and remain that way to this very day, even though he now lives in California. And you talk about Beauty? You should see his 5 sisters. Each one looks better than the one before her. His younger brother Frankie has no problem with the Ladies either. But, I digress.
Excerpted from 3-Pete by Pete Ahern. Copyright © 2013 Pete Ahern. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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