Mid-August in Brooklyn NYC can get real hot and humid. The summer of '66 was no exception. When you're sixteen the focus narrows a bit: Playing ball and ogling girls. We guys on East 24th Street were no different than most of our peers. The mornings were dedicated to meeting up outside of Fat Frankie's house in the middle of our block. By 10 AM we had four, just enough for a punch ball game. It would be Fat Frankie's younger brother Carmine and me against Frankie and Big Harvey from around the corner. Big Harvey was going steady with Larry the K's tenant Pauline, so he practically lived at Larry's house. The home run line was chalked down the street, by my house, and we went at it. After an hour and a half of sweating and arguing over calls ("Come on Harvey, he caught the ball before the line. No home run! ") we called it quits.
Time for the beach. No one had a driver's license so we could either bike it or take the bus. Manhattan Beach was about 2 miles away, across the Sheepshead Bay footbridge. We decided this day to 'bike it'. Off we went, racing each other and using all the rank-out verbiage we could think of. Isn't that what pals did? We arrived at the bay, and walked our bikes across the foot bridge, saying "hi" to Carmine's schoolmate Jimmy Rossi, who liked to dive off the bridge for dimes and quarters from passersby. We then continued our bike trip to Manhattan Beach and it was paradise! Man, all the sexy looking girls in bikinis and pure white sand, and nice soft waves... not like the rough ones at Coney Island beaches. Who could ask for more?
The summer of ' 66 saw us oblivious to the world around us. We played ball in the mornings, went to the beach or hung out down Larry the K's finished basement, replete with ping pong table. We had the girls from our block to flirt with, plenty of spending money for malted milks, Egg Creams or Lime Rickey's at Miller's Luncheonette on Avenue U. Most of us had part time jobs doing deliveries in the neighborhood, either at the pharmacy or the produce or grocery stores. The evenings were spent either playing slap ball or "ring a leeveo" in the street, and then hanging out a Joanne's stoop down the end of the block. It was great to be sixteen! We watched what was happening in that place called Vietnam from the evening news, but we really didn't care. Yeah, some guys from our block, the ones over 18 and not in college, did join up the Navy or Air force, or get drafted. It all seemed so distant to us in the summer of '66. I was going to be a senior in high school, and knew from my older brother's experience that in college you got a deferment, which meant NO draft. Vietnam and the protests or rah rah stuff was so distant from my mind. Besides, in two weeks I would start ' Hell Week ' on the football team, which, being my first year on the team, scared the stuffing out of me.
The bubble of apathy about the world around me most likely burst when we heard the news that a guy named Vito P. got killed on one of those hills in Vietnam. Vito was the son of the Polish building superintendent in my friend David's building on Ocean Ave, a few blocks away. The image from my memory bank that haunted me was when I ran into Vito one Sunday at Mass when he was home on leave. We were standing in the back of the church, as usual, myself and Eddie Y. and Vito was right next to us, dressed in his Army Ranger uniform, beret in hand. He looked so regal and serious, and I noticed those boots that ran way up towards his knees.
He was the first of a few others who did not return home alive from Nam. I knew his kid brother, two years younger than me, who idolized Vito, and I witnessed over the years his demise. Soon after Vito got killed, his brother started doing drugs. We would see him hanging around the schoolyard while we played ball, just sniffing glue... which moved him on to more powerful things... until he got hooked on heroin years later. He may have died, but I moved away by then. I think he started to die the day he got the news about his hero Vito. My second bubble burst when a second guy from our neighborhood returned home from Vietnam in a box. We knew his mom, Mrs. L., as our crossing guard nearby to St. Edmunds Church. She would be there, each and every Sunday, to give us her famous big smile. She obviously loved her job, and loved us kids. When the news came about her son Tommy, Mrs. L. still did her job... but the smile became a ' Mona Lisa grin' that said so much with not one word needed.By the summer of '67 and finally the summer of '68 none of my pals from East 24th Street had much innocence left. The MLK and RFK assassinations, the war that divided America and the racial strife surrounded all of us. It seems, to this writer, that it never eased away.