I was fortunate to make it back from Vietnam in one piece, but my experiences in that country ten thousand miles away had left their mark on me. I arrived home from the war in the spring of 1970 as damaged goods. I was having flashbacks and nightmares, and I didn’t know what to do or how I might get better. I was also embarrassed to tell anyone about my issues.
This new series of nightmares featured a disparate cast of characters in a maddening kaleidoscope of incidents that produced a frightening, nonsensical and eclectic stew of hallucinations, like these:
A Pittsburgh mob guy is firing an M-16 at me in the Vietnam jungle; Hey You Luchessi is chasing me out of Sally’s Club 20 with a ukulele; a North Vietnamese sapper, dressed only in a loin cloth and covered in mud, is mounted atop Spud’s Appaloosa and smiling at me through yellow teeth; Banana Koreski is pulling the pin on a hand grenade and tossing it at me ...
It was the night before Easter when I returned from Vietnam to the “World.” On Easter morning, I walked across the street to my Grandparents’ home to visit with them. I entered their home and saw Grandma Luisa at the stove stirring something in a large pot. It had to be pasta sauce because the room was suffused with the spicy, rich aroma of simmering marinara. Grandma turned, and when she saw me, she made the sign of the cross and mumbled a silent prayer. Then she opened her arms to me.
We hugged for a long while. When we separated, I watched grandma wipe tears from her eyes. I got down on one knee and took her extended hand and in Italian asked: “Posso avere la tua benedizione, Nonna?” (May I have your blessing, Grandmother?)
Asking for the blessing of the patriarch and matriarch of the family on Easter Sunday is an Italian custom that immigrants from Calabria brought with them when they came to this country. It was something my family – especially we children – had always been encouraged to recite on Easter Sunday. It was a tradition, and we kids felt proud that we could utter the phrase in Italian. For weeks before Easter, we would practice repeating it to our parents and to one another to get the pronunciation just right.
Through my cannabis and booze-fueled mind haze, I started looking around the bar. Someone was standing behind the empty barstool next to me.
“Are you saving this seat for anyone?” I heard a female voice ask.
I turned and looked into the liquid green eyes of a raven-haired woman. “Been holding this seat just for you,” I replied, slightly slurring my words. “What took you so long to get here?”
“Sounds like you’ve been here since about noon,” she said, and smiled slightly at me as she took a seat.
I was transfixed by this woman. She was dazzling. I felt spell bound as I looked back at her.
“Sorry. My name is Augie,” I said, and extended my hand.
Once again, she flashed me her delightful, slightly crooked smile and replied, “My name is Louise. But you can call me Louise.” This time her smile almost turned into a laugh.
I was finding it difficult to turn away from the woman. She had an oval face, a milky white complexion with full lips and a slightly aquiline nose. She also had long legs and an athletic-looking body, but it was her incredibly deep, liquid green eyes that sealed the deal for me.
“Actually,” she said, “you can call me Lou. It’s shorter and I can tell you’re having difficulty enunciating words with more than one syllable.”
He had wound his way through the rolling foothills to Elkins and finally into the mountains that led to Canaan Valley. It was after four a.m. when Hambone pulled off of State Route 32 and onto Cortland Road. After a half mile, he turned into the grass yard just off his back deck.
He grabbed the guitar case sitting on the bench seat next to him, got out of his truck and walked to the back door on the deck. He reached into his pants pocket, got his key and opened the door. With his hand still on the door handle, Hambone felt, rather than heard, a heavy presence moving quickly behind him onto the deck.
In one fluid motion, he dropped his guitar case, slipped his right hand into his pants pocket and quickly pulled out a .45 caliber pistol. He turned and fired the gun at the huge figure now flying through the air toward him. With a deafening roar, the pistol shot just missed the right ear of Frankie Three Fingers Bonamico.
It had taken the enemy sapper just twenty minutes to cut through the wire and crawl on his stomach over almost 250 meters of open ground, pushing a bandoleer of high explosives in front of him with one hand and dragging his AK-47 assault rifle with the other. The man was clothed only in shorts, and the rest of his body was blackened with mud. He was aided in his mission by a very dark and cloudy night with no visible moon.
The sapper could now hear the hum of the giant American generator. He silently cursed it and the searchlights it powered, which swept over the kill zone, where he was hoping to avoid detection. Now twenty-five meters from his target, he located the deadly enemy claymore mine just to his left and moved to it. Satisfied that the Americans had not booby-trapped the mine, he gingerly picked it up, turned it around 180 degrees and angled it up toward the bunker directly in front of him….
Aunt Lia was renowned for many dishes. Her stuffed squid and other seafood treats, which she prepared on Christmas Eve, were truly delicious. But Aunt Lia did not like following recipes. She viewed them only as a guide and objected to following them strictly, feeling they would inhibit her culinary creativity. She could also find fault with certain food traditions, even sacrosanct ones. For instance, she didn’t really object to participating in the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve; she was just offended that the saints had limited the feast to only seven edible sea creatures.
“So where do they get off telling us what we can and can’t eat?” Aunt Lia asked my mother. “I mean, they scare the shit out of us by saying we’re going to burn in hell for eternity if we eat meat on Friday. That it’s a mortal sin. But then they tell us it’s okay to eat fish. Isn’t fish meat? I bet it was Saint Peter that made that rule up. He was a fisherman, right?” Aunt Lia looked pained in her exasperation…
At 4:40 a.m., the whistling whine of 100-pound rockets played their brief warning melody and then began to rain down on us. The rockets exploded in thunderous roars, indiscriminately spewing chunks of hot metal that landed harmlessly in open areas or tore through structures and into sleeping human beings. If you heard the impact, you were safe, at least for the next few seconds, and usually able to scramble outside your hooch into the protective bunkers.
Rolling out of my cot, I ripped the mosquito netting and in a rush, fueled by pure adrenalin, I stumbled out of the hooch and fell hard, tripping on the wooden steps. I was vaguely aware of men running over and around me. I lay there for a few seconds unable to move. Stunned by the fall, I was now also paralyzed by the sensory overload, as the sights, sounds, and smells of the attack overwhelmed me. I drank it all in: the bright white flashes and red flames, the searing heat, the acrid burning stench, and the deafening explosions….
My grandfather, Salvatore Emilio Costanza, was the founder and proprietor of the Chestnut Baking Company, a business he had dreamed of and saved for during fifteen years of backbreaking labor in the coal mines of north central West Virginia. His and Grandma’s journey to, and success in, this country reflect the prototypical American Dream story. And I was able to learn about it in bits and pieces through the years from the adult relatives in my large Italian-American family.
The two Italian immigrants began their life together in a company house, amid the squalor of the coal camp. In particularly dark moments, Grandpa would shake his head at the irony of his situation. “La Bella America,” he would mutter, feeling as much like an indentured serf as those friends and family he had left behind in Calabria. But here, he would reassure himself, there was still hope. Here, there was opportunity and Salvatore Costanza would make the most of it…