Friday, July 18, 2014

***From The Brothers Under The Bridge Series- The Road Less Traveled- Johnny Prescott’s Choice- With A Tip Of The Hat To Poet Robert Frost


From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin:

In the first installment of this series of sketches space provided courtesy of my old 1960s yellow brick road magical mystery tour merry prankster fellow traveler, Peter Paul Markin, I mentioned, in grabbing an old Bruce Springsteen CD compilation from 1998 to download into my iPod, that I had come across a song that stopped me in my tracks, Brothers Under The Bridge. I had not listened to or thought about that song for a long time but it brought back many memories from the late 1970s when I did a series of articles for the now defunct East Bay Eye (Frisco town, California East Bay, naturally) on the fate of some troubled Vietnam veterans who, for one reason or another, could not come to grips with “going back to the real world” and took, like those a Great Depression generation or two before them, to the “jungle”-the hobo, bum, tramp camps located along the abandoned railroad sidings, the ravines and crevices, and under the bridges of California, mainly down in Los Angeles, and created their own “society.”

The editor of the East Bay Eye, Owen Anderson, gave me that long ago assignment after I had done a smaller series for the paper on the treatment, the poor treatment, of Vietnam veterans by the Veterans Administration in San Francisco and in the course of that series had found out about this band of brothers roaming the countryside trying to do the best they could, but mainly trying to keep themselves in one piece. My qualifications for the assignment other than empathy, since I had not been in the military during the Vietnam War period, were based simply on the fact that back East I had been involved, along with several other radicals, in running an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Devens in Massachusetts and another down near Fort Dix in New Jersey. During that period I had run into many soldiers of my 1960s generation who had clued me in on the psychic cost of the war so I had a running start.

After making connections with some Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) guys down in L.A. who knew where to point me I was on my way. I gathered many stories, published some of them in the Eye, and put the rest in my helter-skelter files. A while back, after having no success in retrieving the old Eye archives, I went up into my attic and rummaged through what was left of those early files. I could find no newsprint articles that I had written but I did find a batch of notes, specifically notes from stories that I didn’t file because the Eye went under before I could round them into shape.

The ground rules of those long ago stories was that I would basically let the guy I was talking to give his spiel, spill what he wanted the world to hear, and I would write it up without too much editing (mainly for foul language). I, like with the others in this current series, have reconstructed this story as best I can although at this far remove it is hard to get the feel of the voice and how things were said.

Not every guy I interviewed, came across, swapped lies with, or just snatched some midnight phrase out of the air from was from hunger. Most were, yes, in one way or another but some, and the one I am recalling in this sketch from 1979 told to me by my friend Peter Paul Markin about a corner boy from back in his old North Adamsville neighborhood fits this description, had no real desire to advertise their own hunger but just wanted to get something off their chest about some lost buddy, or some event they had witnessed. I have presented enough of these sketches both back in the day and here to not make a generalization about what a guy might be hiding in the deep recesses of his mind.


Some wanted to give a blow by blow description of every firefight (and every hut torched) they were involved in, others wanted to blank out ‘Nam completely and talk of before or after times, or talk about the fate of some buddy, some ‘Nam buddy, who maybe made it back the “real world” but got catch up with stuff he couldn’t handle, or got caught up in some stuff himself that he couldn’t handle, couldn’t handle because his whole blessed life pointed the other way. Let Markin tell the tale his way and you will see that it exactly fits the series and the times, the times of the Vietnam two roads. The sign to place this one under, easy; the road not taken.


Added Comment:

I am not a big fan of Robert Frost's poetry (although his public readings were very interesting with that old swamp Yankee wisdom voice although don’t borrow anything from him or let him borrow because that is the way of the swamp Yankee) but this one, this one about the two roads (hell, maybe more but two makes the point nicely), one not taken, not taken like some childhood door choice   every once in a while "speaks" to me when there are two (or more) choices to make in life. That choice business certainly applies to the characters below, certainly speaks to their respective predicaments. o

Robert Frost (1874–1963). Mountain Interval. 1920.

1. The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. 20


Sergeant John Prescott, “Johnny P.” to his pals gathered around a small table, drinking sodas (although in their North Adamsville neighborhood in the old days everybody, everybody in New England too, maybe, called it tonic but that term fell out of usage with mass national advertising of soft drinks and so soda) and coffee, in the next room was a quiet, unassuming guy, no great scholar in high school just getting by although mainly getting by because being quiet and unassuming his teachers found no reason not to push him on until graduation. Quiet and unassuming too around with his corner boys, not the leader, a rank and filer really, but always ready to “show the colors” when some other corner boys wanted to take a run for the store front corner of Salducci’s Pizza Parlor, his hang-out corner boy place. Quiet and unassuming with the girls too, a little shy really being raised in an all boy family and so not wise to girl ways, silly or profound, never without a date when it counted but also never the subject of “can’t wait to tell you” talk in that manic Monday morning before school girls’ room talkfest where what did or did not get done to whom, and by whom, over the weekend was hashed out. Johnny was “nice” was the best that any girl ever uttered about Johnny later when the dust had settled.    

Yeah, Johnny P., a guy with just that barebones patriotism that animated many working class kids, North Adamsville neighborhood kids no exception, to “do their duty” and join up when America was in danger, no questions asked. Father, an ex-Marine, who had seen all the action a man could want in the Pacific island-hopping war during World War II (somebody once said there were no ex-Marines but we will let that pass since his father, a taciturn man, taken to occasional bouts of heavy silent drinking never talked about those Pacific experiences like many in his generation, except for the life-long after-effect trouble from malaria). Scads of uncles, grand-uncles (one killed in World War I and who had an eternal square up near the high school named after him like too many squares in this wicked old world), older cousins, older neighbors all taking the oath, all going through the male neighborhood rite of passage.

Not quite some gung-ho “my country, right or wrong,” that dividing line came later, but never questioned because nobody would have thought to pose the question then, but pretty close when all was said and done. Yeah, everybody just quietly and assumingly did their duty and quiet unassuming Johnny followed suite. And as the early 1960s, the time of high school fun and frolic and for sturdy football lineman Johnny P, fun and frolic with one fetching Chrissie O’Shea and their quiet romance that was the decidedly not the talk of the Class of 1964 at old North Adamsville High, turned to mid-1960s and clarion calls that the country was in danger in some place called red-infested Vietnam Johnny, and not just Johnny, answered the call. Answered the call like father, uncles and forbears had done for generations before (it would be later that a few, too few, North Adamsville boys would join the draft resistance movement, a few, again, too few, would join the military resistance when the American Army was half in mutiny in the late 1960s). And here, gathered around a small table, in early May 1968 his old corner boys from in front of Salducci’s Pizza Parlor “up the Downs” (the local section of  town was called Norfolk Downs like in bloody England and hence the “up the Downs”) were chatting away like mad.

Suddenly, Frank Riley, fabled Frankie, the king of the be-bop Salducci’s night in those fresher days, in Johnny corner boy rank and filer days  yelled to no one in particular but they all knew what he meant, “Remember that night after graduation when Tonio threw us that party at the pizza parlor.” And all the other five gathered at the table became silence with their own memories of that night. See, Tonio was the king hell owner and Zen master pizza maker at Salducci’s who had even those waiting for that never coming local bus in front of the shop looking in amazement through the glass windows at Tonio flipping pizzas.  And a guy for some unknown reason, call it Frankie’s charisma (or blarney which amounted to the same thing in Irishtown) who treated Frankie (and therefore most of Frankie’s friends) like some prodigal son. So Tonio put out a big deal party right on the premises, closed to all but Frankie, his friends and hangers-on (and girls of course, many girls because although Frankie was “hitched” to his sweetheart from junior high, Joanne he had many “girl friends”). Tonio, at least this is what he said at the time, appreciated that Frankie brought so much business his way what with his corner boys, their corner boys, and the, ah, girls that gathered round them and who endlessly fed the juke box that he had to show his appreciation in such a way. And everybody had a great time that night, with the closed-door illegal wine (against a state-mandated twenty-one but hell it was only wine), Tonio-provided wine, flowing like crazy and nobody, no authorities or parents the wiser for it.

Part of that great time, the part the guys around the 1968 table were remembering just then, the part of that great gun-ho 1964 time occurred late that night when, plenty of wine under their belts, Frankie and the corner boys, talked “heroic” talk. Talked about their military service obligations that was coming up right on them after graduation. And this was no abstract talk, not this night, for not only was this a party put on by Tonio to show his gratitude for the business sent his way but a kind of going away party for sturdy football player and increasingly part-time corner boy, Johnny P. (the other part, the more and more part, with one fetching Chrissie O’Shea who many guys coveted but who deferred to the age old tradition of not cutting some fellow corner boy’s time until he was dumped, a tradition unlike some others that was actually honored, had been for a long time ever since a big blow-out back in the early 1950s when some guy tried to cut another guy’s time and wound up face down on North Adamsville Beach ruled a drowning but everybody knew the real score), who signed up right after graduation and was getting ready to leave for “boot camp” at Fort Dix, New Jersey in a few days. So everybody was piling on the bravery talk to Johnny about “killing commies” somewhere, maybe Vietnam, maybe Germany, hell, maybe Russia or China. And Johnny, not any rum-brave kind Johnny, not any blah blah-ing about bravery, football or war, Johnny just kind of sat there and let the noise go by him. His thoughts then were of Chrissie and doing everything he could to get back to her in one piece.

Of course heaping up pile after pile on the bravery formula was one Frankie Riley, ever the politician and well as keenly acknowledged corner boy king, who had so just happened to have landed, through a very curious connection with the Kennedy clan, a coveted slot in a National Guard unit. So, Frankie, ever Frankie, could be formally brave that night in the knowledge that he would be far away from any real fighting. His rejoinder was that his unit “might” be called up. The others kidded him about it, about his “week-end warrior” status, but just a little because after all he would be serving one way or another. Also kind of silent that night was Fritz Taylor just then ready to “do his duty” after having had a heavy-duty fight with his mother about his future, or lack of a future, and her “hadn’t he better go in the service and learn a trade” talk.

Most vociferous that night was Timmy Kiley. Yes, Timmy, the younger brother of the legendary North Adamsville and later State U. football player “Thunder Tommy” Kiley. He was ready to catch every red under every bed and do what, when and where to any he caught. Timmy later joined the Navy to “see the world” and saw much of some dreary scow in some dry-dock down in Charleston, South Carolina. Even Peter Paul Markin, Frankie’s right-hand man, self-described scribe, and publicly kind of the pacifist of the group, who usually got mercilessly “fag”-baited for his pale peace comments was up in arms about the need to keep the “free world” free. But that was just the way he talked, kind of a studied hysterical two-thousand facts diatribe. Markin, student deferred, at that 1968 table had just gotten notice from his friendly neighbors at the North Adamsville Draft Board that upon graduation he was to be drafted. And he was ready, although kicking and screaming about some graduate school project that the world really needed to know about, to go. That was the way it was in the neighborhood. Go or be out. Frank Ricco, the so-called token Eye-talian, of the Irish-laden Salducci’s corner boy night (and a kid that Tonio actually hated, some kind of Mafioso, omerta thing with his father) also displayed super-human brave talk that night but he was credited , not so many months later with not only going in the Marines but of seeing some heavy-duty action in jungle-infested Kontum, and some other exotic and mainly unpronounceable places farther south in the water-logged rice paddles of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.

Quiet, quieter than Johnny Prescott thinking of Chrissie, or Fritz, sullenly furious at his mother or at his hard-scrabble fate, or both, was Johnny Callahan. Johnny no stranger to corner boy controversy, no stranger to patriotic sentiments, at least publicly to keep in step with his boys, secretly hated war, the idea of this war coming up and was seriously hung up on the Catholic “just war” theory that had been around since at least Saint Augustine, maybe earlier. See Johnny had a grandmother (and also a mother, but less so) who was an ardent Catholic Worker reader and adherent to their social philosophy. You know, Dorothy Day and that crowd of rebel Catholics who wanted to go back to the old, old days, the Roman persecution days, of the social gospel and the like.

And grandmother had the “just war” theory down pat. She was the greatest knitter of socks for “the boys” during World War II that the world may have ever known. But on Vietnam she was strictly “no-go, no-go, no way” and she was drilling that in Johnny’s head every chance she got (which was a lot since Johnny, having, well let’s call it “friction” with his mother sought refuge over at grandma’s). Now grandma was pressing Johnny to apply for conscientious objector status (CO) but Johnny knew that as a Catholic, a lapsing Catholic but still a Catholic, the formal “just war” theory of that church would not qualify him for CO status. He wanted to, expected to, just refuse induction. So that rounded out that party that night. Hell, maybe in retrospect it wasn’t such a great party, although blame the times not Tonio for that.

Just then, as each member at the table, thought his thoughts started by Frankie’s remembrance sipping their sodas and coffee sort of absent-mindedly someone from the other room called out, “pall-bearers, get ready.”

Postscript: Sergeant, E-5, John Phillip Prescott made the national news that 1968 year, that 1968 year of Tet, made the Life magazine photo montage of those killed in service in Vietnam on any given week. Johnny P.’s week was heavy with casualties so there were many photos, many looks of mainly working-class enlisted youth that kind of blurred together despite the efforts to recognize each individually. And, of course, Johnny P.’s name is etched for eternity in black marble down in Washington, D.C. John Patrick Callahan served his two year “tour of duty” as federal prisoner 122204, at the Federal Correctional Institution, Allentown, Pennsylvania. The road less traveled, indeed.

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