My Life as a Soldier: Part 1 of 4

Guns Were Forbidden in My Home

“I need a favor from you,” said Steven Arata, a man too likable to be a professional warrior. But that’s what he was the commanding officer of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Hofstra University and a veteran command officer in Haiti.

Being friends with Lieutenant Colonel Arata, even for a short time, was something that surprised me since the military and I were never on good terms. He went to West Point and made a career of the army; the moment I joined the army, I knew the date I was leaving. Arata went to West Point partly for a tuition-free college education but also as part of his family tradition. The only military tradition in my family was running from it. It began with my maternal grandfather who fled from being conscripted into the Czar’s army. I was proud of having served in the Peace Corps; no one in my family was proud of my military service.

Having a toy gun in my house was as forbidden as pork in my grandparents’ home. As far as I know, my father had never touched a gun. He had been too young for WWI and too old for WWII. Although he wasn’t in the military, he did serve, as an air raid warden, watching Brooklyn skies for German planes during blackouts. My father kept his gear after the war and stored it in a box of assorted galoshes and old coats on the floor of his closet. I often played with his heavy white helmet and gas mask with the crack in one lens, imagining shooting down German bombers over my school.

When an aunt bought me a cap gun as a present, my mother and her sister argued about its appropriateness, and the gun went into the garbage as soon as my aunt left. This didn’t put a stop to my attraction to guns, though. I used my forefinger and thumb to kill bad guys and put myself in the comic book ads for Daisy rifles. I played with a real BB gun in Junior’s basement when I was about ten. One of us took target practice as another ran past an open doorway with a pillow across his face. I also used a handmade gun made out of wood that used a rubber band to shoot small squares of linoleum.

Another difference between Arata and me is that I don’t put much stock in patriotism. Possibly I can trace this to the time when a relative gave me a small silk Japanese flag. I took it out to the street. Junior thought I was a traitor for carrying a flag of America’s recent enemy. He insisted that I grind the flag under my shoe. I refused. He took it from me and did it himself, thereby ripping a hole in it. Junior and I parted company when he went from guns that shot BB’s and cut-up floor covering to zip guns that used real bullets.

At that time, I didn’t know that my neighborhood was a Mafia center. That prosperous church by Linden Boulevard? Mob hangout. The weedy marsh by the abandoned waterworks? A burial ground. The candy store, the one I wasn’t allowed to go to? Headquarters for a numbers racket. I went to Mr. Flicka, the Jewish barber, but the other barbershop? A bookie joint. Some of the boys who frightened me from walking one block away, on Crescent Street, became infamous as mobsters. When, as an adult, I heard about all this for the first time, I thought about Junior’s father who was a bricklayer and parked his vehicle in front of his house, a black van that looked suspiciously like a hearse.

My mother didn’t want me to go to the local high school because it was a rough and dangerous place full of switchblades, black leather jackets, and engineer boots. I didn’t confront a real gun until years later, when at the gate to the Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi one night, a soldier stopped our two buses on an unlit road. Lyn and I were leading a safari to Kenya, and after two weeks we were heading home having safely taken care of thirty anxious Americans. He told Lyn to get out of her bus and opened the luggage bin.

“Out with the bags!” he ordered. “All of them.”

She talked to the soldier in Swahili.

I talked to him in English. I explained that we wouldn’t get to our plane on time. The bus owner began to berate him, as he began to examine the bags. I knew what his automatic rifle could do. It was more sophisticated than the M1 I had been issued in the army. After a bribe, we reloaded the luggage and just made it to the plane.


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