Summer Sanity

(Author’s note: In the interests of promoting my recently published book and in offering you some exciting summer reading, I present a chapter from said book.  And, after reading this exciting excerpt, you would like to buy an autographed  copy of Life with a Laryngectomee, please turn to The Dunery Press page on this blog for all the ordering information you will ever need.  Happy summer reading!)


Life with a Laryngectomee

Chapter Eighteen: Bicycle & Books

Yeah, baby: bicycles & books.

Or, books & bikes.

Say it loud and say it proud(ly):


Bikes & books kept me in the game of living with cancer and active alcoholism.

When the going got too tough for this little shaver, he would hop on his Schwinn bicycle—was there any other brand?—and ride over to the Walker Branch of the Chicago Public Library at 111th and Hoyne where I would take that magic carpet ride that only books can provide.

Books were my balm of Gilead.

My comfort.

My joy.

My solace.

My sanity.

Were it not for my trusty Schwinn and that repository of literature at the top of the hill on 111th Street at Hoyne we fondly called the Walker Branch, I would have gone mad.

Absolutely mad.

Of that I am quite certain.

I had no support group.

No sympathetic therapist.

No intervening child protection agency.

None of that.

Just suck up the cancer and ignore the elephant in the living room and keep those drinks fresh and those ashtrays empty.

Deal with it, Sonny Boy!

So I did.

In my own way.

And, as I said, the way to mental health was simple: bikes & books.

So how did it work for me?

Case in point:

One night, when I could take no more and was so full of adrenalin that I feared for my father’s safety, I went out to the garage, hopped on my black Schwinn with coaster brakes, and rode off into the night pretending to be that RAF fighter pilot I had just read about in a book I had borrowed from the Walker Branch.

I rode to the end of 106th Street, turned north on Wood Street and kept on riding until I found myself riding the trails of the Dan Ryan Woods Forest Preserve at 87th and Western, a good two miles northwest of my house.

Sealed in the cockpit of my make-believe Spitfire, I shot down one German bomber after another, defending my homeland in the dark.

I was a stealth fighter before there were stealth fighters, and I flew through the dark with the wind in my face and hope in my heart.

If I could be like the characters in the novels and stories of my literary pushers—Mark Twain, James Fennimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, H.G. Welles, and even Edgar Allen Poe, why then I could be every bit as brave as Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn.

I could stand up to the Martians and the wild beasts of the Alaskan wilderness and keep my head about me.

So, yeah, books and bicycles.

Or just: bikes & books.

And to illustrate just how far along I got on this escape route, let me tell you a true story from the summer of, oh, say 1962 when an actual Catholic was in the White House, and my two best friends in the whole wide world were actual Catholics.

I’m talking about Casey and Bowline here, and that’s all you need to know of their names.

Suffice it to say, we three were inseparable in the summer when we were free of that horrible Catholic/Public school separation from September to June. We pal’d around every day, and when it rained we holed up at Casey’s house where we would read his father’s books about World War II or play such militaristic board games as Risk, Broadside, Civil War, or Stratego.

We knew everything there was to know—without having been there—about the Bataan Death March and President Kennedy’s exploits in the Pacific as the skipper of PT-109. We each built the model and we knew how to torpedo Jap destroyers in the dark.

Casey and Bowline knew what I was up against at my house, so we did most of our playing there in the backyard. Best to keep it outside when Mac’s Bar & Grill was in session inside.

So one golden summer day we decided to pretend that we were joining Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark on their 1804-06 expedition to establish an American presence from sea to shining sea.

President Thomas Jefferson wanted us to go west with Lewis and Clark, and we answered the call that late June day and mounted our Schwinns and rode to Wood, and then to Prospect, and then to 111th Street, and then all the way west past Worth to Palos Hills and the Calumet Sag Channel and Saganashkee Slough, and finally to our ultimate objective: the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s toboggan slides at Swallow Cliff.

We ran silent, and we rode deep, and we had no maps or spare tires or any money to speak of. We were just three boys off on an adventure with absolutely no parental knowledge or approval.

We had pretty much decided by that point that the adult was an animal not to be trusted.

So we took flight on our Schwinns, and, yes, we made it to the foot of those daunting toboggan slides that we had shushed down so many times in winter, and we dared one another to push our clunky bikes to the top and ride down.

Crazy, right?

Oh yeah.

Nuts as they come.

That we were: the Apache Runner, Casey, and Bowline.

Yes, I was the Apache Runner.

Casey and Bowline tagged me the Apache Runner because although I could never catch them on foot, I never stopped trying. They were faster by far, by I was more persistent by far.

Just like an Apache runner.

So I was the Apache Runner, and there I was at the summit of the Palos toboggan slides with my best buddies, Casey and Bowline.

We looked down that mountain of wintry pleasure that was woodenly reflecting the summer sun, and chorused: “Last one to the bottom’s a rotten egg.”

I don’t know who the rotten egg was that day, but oh boy, did we boys have fun.

We didn’t fall or fail or get hurt or have a flat on the long, long ride home.

And we didn’t tell a soul what we had done that day.

When our Moms asked what we had done that day, we just said we had done what we always did in summer: “Went bike ridin’.”

That’s what we did.

Bike ridin’.

And books.

And that’s what kept me afloat: Bikes & Books.

Thank you, very much, both: Bikes & Books.


Posted in Bicycling, Chikaming Township, Travels with Charley | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chamber Music in Michigan City


This would not have been me were it not for the Michigan City Chamber Music Festival.

This would not have been me were it not for the Michigan City Chamber Music Festival.

The annual Michigan City Music Festival (MCCMF) will offer 10 FREE events August 8-16. This year’s festival features their usual cadre of Grammy nominated musicians, with some new special guests. Co-founder/violinist, Nic Orbovich is back with unique offerings this year. The title of the 2015 MCCMF is “Hidden Gems and Beloved Treasures”, and will emphasize works of the repertoire that have been lost or forgotten, peppered with some of the most beloved works in the chamber repertoire.

For the first time, the MCCMF will have a tribute to women composers. This is a special evening that features a world premiere by one of the world’s most accalimed composers, Libby Larsen.

Other highlights include Franz Schubert’s incredible “Octet for strings and winds”, a grand work that maintains an effervescent elán throughout; and Anton Arensky’s great piano quintet. Arensky was a student of Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff’s teacher, and his music is of their same grand, Russian romantic style.

The festival offers another first, “Crossing Over”, a night of pieces of the chamber genre that have been strongly influenced by the pop genre. Some of the styles include blues, tango, rock, Motown, and even hip pop! The artists that offer influence to this evening’s festivities include Billy Joel, Nirvana, Van Halen, Metalica, James Brown, Iggy Azalea, and more. This particular evening will be a perfect introduction to chamber music for those more accustomed to popular music. The night ends with the world premiere of Rudolf Haken’s “Michigan City Mashup”, a virtuosic whirlwind that combines riffs and original music from heavy metal and hip pop.

The performers for the 14th season are …

Nic Orbovich, Artistic Director and violin; Sunny Gardner-Orbovich, co-founder and Educational Director; Wesley Baldwin, cello; Melisa Barrick Baldwin, soprano; Rudolf Haken, viola/composer; Robert Auler, piano; Jasmin Arakawa, piano; Zofia Glashauser, violin; Gabriel Schlaffer, viola; David Peshlakai, cello; Kimberly Jones, soprano; Jennifer Muniz, piano; Trevor O’Riordan, clarinet; Kurt Civilette, French Horn; Eric Varner, bassoon; Ed Randles, double bass; Petar Jankovic, guitar.

The festival is also featuring a different kind of guest this year. A 6’11” Steinway grand piano from Steinway, U.S.A., donated for the festival’s run by Shirk’s piano in Mishawaka.

For more details on this year’s festival, see their new website, Here is a complete listing of events…


“Hidden Gems and Beloved Treasures”

This year’s MCCMF is the biggest one yet!

First Presbyterian Church, 121 w. 9th St., Michigan City, IN

August 8

“Opening Night – You Go Girl! (A night dedicated to female composers), featuring a WORLD PREMIERE BY LIBBY LARSEN

This will be one of the MCCMF’s most exciting nights ever! This celebration of women composers features a WORLD PREMIERE by one of theworld’s most acclaimed composers, LIBBY LARSEN!

Piano Trio – Clara Schumann

(Zosia, David, and Robbie)

World Premiere – Libby Larsen

(Rudolf, Trevor O’Riordan, Jennifer Muniz)

Song to poetry of W.B. Yeats (celebrating Yeats’ 150th birthday) – Joyce Hope Suskind

(Melisa, Jasmin)

Piano Trio #2 – Camile Chaminade

(Nic, Wesley, Robbie)

August 10

“…as the songwriter wrote…”

Some of history’s greatest songwriters are featured in this stunning program! The different textured and styles used throughout history are showcased in this concert.

Après un Rève – Gabriel Faure

(Gabe, Rob)

Sonata for Cello & Piano – Michael White

(Wesley & Robbie)

“Apparition” – George Crumb

(Melisa & Jasmin)

Octet for winds & strings – Franz Schubert

(Zosia, Nic, Gabriel, Wesley, Ed Randles, Trevor O’Riordan, Eric Varner, Kurt Civilette)

August 12

“Hidden Gems”

This concert perfectly showcases works by well-known composers that have, somehow, become forgotten in the standard repertoire.

“Scherzo” for viola & cello – Paul Hindemith

(Gabe & David)

Viola Sonata – Rebecca Clarke

(Rudy & Jasmin)

Art song selections – Erich Korngold

(Melisa & Jasmin)

Piano Quartet in g minor – Gabriel Faure

(Zosia, Gabriel, David, Robbie)

August 14

“Crossing Over”

This promises to be an unforgettable night! The MCCMF will offer great works of the solo and chamber repertoire that have been strongly influenced by blues, tango, rock, Motown, and even hip pop!

Sonata for violin and piano – Maurice Ravel

(Nic & Robbie)

La Calle 92 – Astor Piazolla

(Gabriel & David)

Billy-Tude for solo piano (Fantasia based on Billy Joel “licks”) – Joel Puckett


“Michigan City Mashup – Eruption/Enter Sandman/Iggy Azalea – for 5 string electric viola – Rudolf Haken


Spanish Dances by DeFalla, Jongo, more …

(Nic, Zosia, Rudy, Wesley, & Petar)

August 16


Our close to our 14h season opens with a surprise beloved works of the chamber repertoire, our Harold A. Smith Youth Chamber Competition winners, and Arensky’s great Piano Quintet, a work akin to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff!

A surprise musical selection!

Youth Competition Winners

Piano Quintet – Anton Arensky

(Nic, Zosia, Rudy, Wesley, Robbie)


August 13, noon

“Open Rehearsal”

Urban Soles, 624 Franklin St.

Michigan City, IN

Come join us in experiencing chamber music in its creative processes; an open rehearsal! This annual event has grown in popularity, and gives

audience members a unique opportunity to witness the intensity and

intimacy of high artists working together towards an artistic goal.

August 16, 4:00 p.m.

“Play-In Picnic”

Arturo’s Baked Goods, 2613 U.S.-12

Michigan City, IN

This wonderful, informal, familial concert has become one of the MCCMF’s favorite events! The “Play-In Picnic” features area adult amateur musicians performing with our own MCCMF instrumentalists in an outdoor setting. Bring a lawn chair, blanket, or sit on the beautiful deck. Bring your own refreshments, or purchase delicious food for your unforgettable concert experience!


August 11, 6:00 p.m., First Presbyterian Church

Michigan City, IN

“Girl Power!”

This concert is a celebration of the contribution of female composers and musicians everywhere! We will feature some of the country’s best female performers in a fun and educational concert for girls and boys of all ages!

Children’s Concert, FPC

August 13, 6:00 p.m.


This is a very special concert aimed at very young audience members. Our education director, Sunny Gardner-Orbovich will offer an interactive musical

evening that will delight and educate children. Our own Rudolf Haken’s “The Animals Which Escaped From the Zoo” will be performed as well; a piece that “Rudy” composed when he was only TEN years old!

Children’s Concert

August 15, noon

MC Public Library

“Concert for Children by Children!” – Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Michigan City Children’s Choir!

Our final Concert for Children will feature songs performed by our own Children’s Choral Institute singers! Performers from our own Michigan City Chamber MusicFestival will accompany the children! A fun program for all!




Posted in Chamber Music, MCCMF | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Road Work

We spotted this work train on Amtrak's high-speed line that runs through Three Oaks, Michigan.  Workin' on the railroad, all the live-long day!

We recently spotted this work train on Amtrak’s high-speed line that runs through Three Oaks, Michigan. Workin’ on the railroad, all the live-long day!


Posted in Amtrak, railroad photographs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Travels with Charley:

A Trike Down Memory Lane

by Charles McKelvy

Natalie goes where no Natalie has gone before.

Natalie goes where no Natalie has gone before.

So, Natalie got this notion that we needed to head up to Grand Rapids (Michigan, of course) on Saturday, July 25, 2015 (Christmas in July, of course) and try out these three-wheelers known as Terra Trikes.

She had fallen with her two-wheeler in Kalamazoo last September and had decided that three-wheelers were the way to go for us. She showed me the videos, and I could see that the rider is seated with plenty of back support and pedals with legs outstretched. No more sore backs, aching wrists, and saddle rash. We would join the legion of old farts flocking to tricycles.

Hey, we started on trikes, so we should end up on them, right?

Right on!!!

So, on the first really blazingly hot day of summer 2015, we motored up the coast to Grand Rapids and caught the tail end of the second-annual Terra Trike Rally. We missed the ride, but we did get to the warehouse in time to take a test ride on vehicles that featured two wheels forward and one aft, behind the rider. The control arms were set low for comfortable access, and we liked our initial rides on a model called the Traveler, which can be folded after use and easily stored. We have a small house and an even smaller car, so that was the trike for us, especially after a Terra Trike representative demonstrated the folding and unfolding of a Traveler.

We were impressed.

We were motivated buyers.

So we asked if we could go for another test ride.


Go for it.

So off Natalie went on her trusty Traveler with the zippy red frame, and off I went on a sport model with 24 gears and a big rear wheel for extra speed.

Natalie had gotten the jump on me, so I worked the gears to catch up.

Now, I should pause at this point and note that we had been properly warned about the perils of pedal slip. Meaning that if you let your foot slip from the pedal, it will get caught under the bike and bent backwards with force and conviction.

Well, wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what happened to yours truly.

As I shifted to catch up with Natalie, I felt the trike shudder, and I watched helplessly as my left foot slipped from the pedal and caught the rushing road. The unforgiving pavement grabbed my shoe and took hold of my foot. The trike and I continued forward, bending my foot as far back as it has ever been bent back.

I hit the brakes and tumbled out of the seat and onto the pavement, braking my fall with my hands.

Natalie was horrified by my sounds, and I was mystified that such a strange accident could befall me so abruptly.

I pulled myself up and away from the trike and put my weight on my left foot. It took the load, but complained loudly.

After I assured Natalie I wasn’t dead, I got back on the trike and rode back to the warehouse, where I reported my mishap and was given a bag of ice for the ride home.

Return of Crutch.2.

Return of Crutch.2.

Well, thanks to Natalie, the ride home featured an unscheduled stop at the emergency room at Lakeland HealthCare in Saint Joseph where they confirmed that I had indeed sprained my ankle. They wrapped said ankle and sent me on my way with my own pair of crutches and a bag of ice.

Now, do you remember how I used to call Natalie Crutch after her bike boo-boo last September?

Well, it’s her turn now to call me Crutch.

I can dish it out, now let’s see if I can take it.

Oh, as for trikes, stay tuned.

But feel free to channel surf in the meantime.



Posted in Bicycling, Michigan, Travels with Charley | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


Alert readers may remember the bulletins I posted last September after Natalie’s bicycling mishap on the Kal-Haven Trail in Kalamazoo.  She was on the DL for weeks afterward, and I cheekily took to calling her Crutch.  Well, as a result of certain events in Grand Rapids on Saturday afternoon, Natalie can now aim her satirical sights at me and dub me: Crutch.2.  That’s right: Crutch.2.  I will post a full account of my misadventure right here on Vector Charley after I have had sufficient R&R.  Meanwhile, here is a teaser (or two or three):

There was this, and then . . .

There was this, and then . . .

. . . this, and then . . .

. . . this, and then . . .

. . . this beached whale.  All the news that's fit to print Monday (unless I do something even dumber in the meantime).

. . . this beached whale. All the news that’s fit to print Monday (unless I do something even dumber in the meantime).

Posted in Bicycling, Charles McKelvy, Travels with Charley | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Perpetual Help

St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish as seen from the Cell.

St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish as seen from the Cell.

Fans ramping down from the upper deck at the home of the Chicago White Sox often wonder as they face west about that magnificent green-domed church they are beholding.  What in the world?  Is it a cathedral?  A basilica?  What is it?  Well, having finally been blessed with a visit to St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish at 1039 W. 32nd Street, I can say that fans are facing a vibrant Catholic church that was founded circa 1880 as Polish immigrants began settling in the Bridgeport area.  I made my first visit to St. Mary of Perpetual Help in June for the Procession of the Holy Eucharist to the nearby Monastery of the Holy Cross, where I am an Oblate of Saint Benedict.  I was so impressed with the magnificent church on 32nd Street just west of Halsted that I have since returned.  And, as I leave U.S. Cellular Field, I always smile when I see that green-domed church shimmering in the near distance, regardless of the day’s final score.

A cornerstone of faith in Bridgeport.

A cornerstone of faith in Bridgeport.

St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish is located at 1039 W. 32nd Street, Chicago, Illinois 60608.  Phone: 773-927-6646.

St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish is located at 1039 W. 32nd Street, Chicago, Illinois 60608. Phone: 773-927-6646.


Posted in Catholic Church, Chicago, White Sox | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

War & Peace

(Author’s note:  This is an excerpt from my most recent book.  To order a copy, please turn to The Dunery Press page on this blog.)

Life with a Laryngectomee

Chapter Twenty: Shipmates


As I write this, I am looking at a photograph of Utility Squadron Fifteen.

I mounted it over my desk so I could gaze daily at the unit that was commissioned 23 June 1943 at U.S. Naval Air Station, Brunswick, Maine to help prosecute the War in the Atlantic against the Third Reich’s dreaded wolves under the sea, or U-boats. And there in the back row is Lt. (JG) McKelvy. My Dad, was by far the most handsome officer in that squadron of dashing men in dress blue. He had already served in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army by the time he earned his commission in the U.S. Navy, and he talked often of his wartime experiences, and we will too, but first to two other framed objects on my wall:

  1. I have only to shift my gaze slightly up and to the left from the black-and-white photograph of Utility Squadron Fifteen to see my Honorable Discharge from the United States Navy Reserve in 1979.
  2. And then, if I drop my eyes from my discharge, I see a photograph I took of Honorably Discharged Lieut. Cmdr. James S. McKelvy, U.S.N.R. aboard a U.S. Navy frigate that was visiting Chicago in 1978 as part of a goodwill tour of the Great Lakes.

I have run the thread of my life with my father through these three frames, and I can tell you now that it was the U.S. Navy that brought my father and me together.

We were bound by the Navy from my earliest childhood.

Permit me, if you will, to quote from an article I wrote for WORLD WAR II Magazine in March 2002:

Although Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, I thought they were still at war with us in September 1954 when I was all of 4 years old and living on the south side of Chicago. My peculiar belief arose from the fact that my parents and their friends had taken me to the Museum of Science and Industry, where they were in the process of rolling a captured German submarine, U-505, across Lake Shore Drive to its final resting place outside the museum.

I remember hearing my parents and their friends joke about the “Submarine Crossing” sign posted along the drive, and I distinctly recall one of the adults solemnly telling me that “the Germans are invading Chicago, and there are German sailors hiding aboard that U-boat.”

Alarmed, I told my parents we had better high-tail it out of there as fast as possible. They laughed and reassured me that their friend had been joking with me, but I was not so sure. In fact, when my wife (Natalie) and I paid a recent visit to the U-505, I looked behind every bulkhead just to be sure the boat was truly free of Marinesoldaten. Although my return to the submarine was perhaps a little less terrifying than it had been when I was a young boy, I found the museum’s account of its capture by a carrier-destroyer task force commanded by Chicagoan Daniel V. Gallery as compelling as ever.

And I still find it compelling because I know my father and his shipmates in Utility Squadron Fifteen helped make it possible for Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier Guadalcanal and accompanying destroyers to cripple the U-505, capture it and, well, back to my narrative from WORLD WAR II:

According to the museum, Captain Gallery and his task force of six ships on patrol off West Africa hit the jackpot just a month after sailing from Norfolk, Va. On June 4, 1944 (when my Dad was on patrol elsewhere in the Atlantic with Utility Squadron Fifteen), the destroyer escort Chatelain made sonar contact with U-505, which in its 404 days of service had become a terror of the sea, sending eight freighters to the bottom.

And, as an editorial aside, be it known that my father saw ships torpedoed by U-boats as he was standing on the beach in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dad saw, heard, and smelled how real the threat was and how absolutely essential it was that the U.S. Navy launch such effective countermeasures as the carrier-destroyer task forces commanded by the likes of Captain Gallery.


Chatelain fired again and again at the sub as Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters from Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier Guadalcanal circled overhead, marking the sub’s position with machine-gun fire. Six and a half minutes after Chatelain’s first attack, the U-boat surfaced and her crew surrendered. But the excitement was far from over. The attack had jammed U-505’s rudder; the sub was out of control, and the German crew had already jumped into the water. Waves washed over the sub’s deck as she slowly began to sink.

The Americans did not know how long U-505 would stay afloat or whether she might be booby-trapped inside. Undaunted, a volunteer boarding part of nine men from USS Pillsbury—only one of whom had ever been in a submarine before—tumbled down the hatch.

Water was pouring in from a 10-inch sea strainer. Thinking quickly, Engineer’s Mate Zenon Lukosius searched for the scuttle valve and secured it. For the first time in 129 years, Americans had captured an enemy warship on the high seas.

In capturing U-505, Gallery’s men also seized the submarine’s addressbuch (code book), which provided the Allies with the information they needed to keep shipping lanes open in preparation for D-Day, just 48 hours later.

I share all this because I am so very proud of my father for his role in what he always called the Battle of the Atlantic.

He often said that after he became what he called a ninety-day wonder, he hoped to serve aboard a ship like Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier Guadalcanal.

He joined the Navy to serve at sea.

But the Navy would have him serve above the sea with Utility Squadron Fifteen doing everything that a utility squadron did from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945.

Meaning that my Dad and his fellow officers searched for the likes of U-505 and flew supplies to the Royal Navy in Bermuda and just basically did whatever was needed to open the shipping lanes and keep the materiel flowing to embattled England and Russia.

Thanks, Dad!

If I didn’t say it before, I’ll say it again:


So I grew up listening to my Dad talk about his war in the Atlantic and looking at pictures of him in his dress blues with Utility Squadron Fifteen and hearing him sing the praises of Captain Daniel V. Gallery and Winston Churchill and the U.S. Navy in general.

Dad presented the Navy in such a positive light that I positively resolved to follow in his footsteps and serve as an officer in the U.S. Navy after graduation from college.

To that end I took the Naval-ROTC qualification examination during my senior year at Morgan Park. My plan was to earn a NROTC scholarship to Northwestern University where I would major in Journalism. I would be commissioned as a Naval Officer upon graduation, serve my active and reserve duty time in this man’s navy, and then work as a reporter for, oh, the Chicago Tribune would do.

The self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Newspaper was what Dad read every morning, so I would report for the Tribune, probably as a foreign correspondent in Beirut and Saigon and Moscow and Peking (yeah, Beijing was called Peking in those days before political correctness).

Well, I should have known from the location of the NROTC exam at Illinois Institute of Technology, or IIT, that my bold plan was, as Bobby Burns penned in his ode To a Mouse: apt to: gang aft a-gley.

I was done with math and science by my senior year and walked into that exam without a slide rule and minus even a rudimentary understanding of ship’s navigation.

I took one look at the other applicants and realized that I was a flounder swimming with the sharks.

I am sure they all aced the test and went on to become brilliant naval officers, probably serving in and around the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam.

All I know is that the Navy was not long in informing me that I had failed miserably.

I was no ship driver.

I couldn’t navigate my way out of a paper bag.

And then Northwestern dropped the other shoe by curtly informing me that the best I could hope for from them was to be put at the end of an endless waiting list.

Dad said it was time to get real.

Time to pick a state university in Illinois and apply there.

No chance of following in his footsteps to Penn State, because the out-of-state tuition was too high.

A state university in Illinois would have to do, and it did:

Illinois State University in Normal.

Or, as we fondly referred to it: Abnormal.

Illinois State University, ISU if you will, accepted me, and I went there, and Dad loved it.

He loved driving me back to school on old Route 66, and I must say that we had some great times together motoring back and forth between Chicago and Normal on that iconic American highway.

We were very much on the same political page my freshman year of college in 1968-69. So much so that when some recruiters from the U.S. Marine Corps appeared at the student union one gray day, I gladly glad-handed them and took the test they offered to qualify for the Platoon Leader Class, or PLC. They said that if I qualified I would receive intensive training during the summers after my sophomore and junior years and then be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marines upon graduation.

I aced the test that very day, and I was as gung-ho as they come and quite willing to go to Vietnam as a Marine second or first lieutenant.

I bought the whole Domino Theory deal and believed that the Red Horde would be landing on California beaches in no time flat if we didn’t stop Ho Chi Minh and his pals in South Vietnam.

Yeah, baby.

So of course Dear Old Dad and I were on the same political page as he drove me up and down Route 66. We were getting our kicks on 66 all right, but when I broke the news of my acceptance into the Marine Corps officer-training program, he was less than enthused.

Quite a bit less, and then I remember him telling me how he had been in Marine boot camp before he was accepted by the Navy as a candidate for officer training. The drill sergeants were drilling Dad and his fellow recruits for hand-to-hand combat with the Imperial Japanese Army on the islands of the South Pacific.

Remember the name of Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier?

Guadalcanal ring a bell?

Yeah, well, that ship was named for that island where Dad was headed with his fellow Marines before he washed out due to a thyroid deficiency.

I wouldn’t be here right now writing this or any other chapter if Dad’s thyroid hadn’t gone haywire on him in the early days of America’s involvement in World War II.

He was headed for Guadalcanal, and if I have to spell out what it was like to be a U.S. Marine on Guadalcanal in 1942 then you need to take U.S. History again.

Suffice it to say, Dad dodged a whole hive of Jap bullets, and he never forgot that. He was haunted by the fact that his boot camp buddies had gone to Guadalcanal to meet the Japanese in some of the worst fighting of the campaign to take the island, and he never even considered buying a Japanese car as a result.

Dad seemed to think the Germans were fair fighters because they were fellow Europeans, while he considered the Japs, and he never called them anything better than Japs, to be barbarians, bound by no civilized code of warfare.

And although he didn’t say it, I think he feared that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong would do to me, as a freshly minted lieutenant in this man’s U.S. Marine Corps, what the Japs would have done to him in the South Pacific.

So Dad did not say much about my enlistment in the Marine PLC program.

He was, now that I think of it, strangely silent.

But his brother-in-law, Booth Mattson, was not.

Uncle Booth had served as an officer in the Marine Corps, and he took great pride in being a Marine, for after all one is always a Marine. He took pride in showing me the sword he had been presented at his commissioning and said it was earned, not given.

So naturally I wanted to earn my own sword, and I wanted so much to share my good Marine Corps news with Uncle Booth that I told him straight away of my exciting news.

Rather than look pleased, Uncle Booth looked alarmed and said: “Can you get out of it?”

“Well, sure, but—“

But nothing.

Uncle Booth had served between the wars in Korea and Vietnam. He had been a peacetime Marine, but he knew what the Marines were up against in South Vietnam. He knew from friends in the Corps how ugly and dangerous and totally deadly it was becoming over there in the jungles of Vietnam.

So he told me to quit, if I could.

And, shortly thereafter, I was at a party in the neighborhood bragging to anyone who would listen about how I was going to be a big, bad-ass Marine officer in Vietnam, and—

A friend who had just returned from serving in Vietnam grabbed me by the shoulder and hauled me outside and hollered in my face: “How long do you think you’re going to last over there with that stripe on your helmet?!? If the Vietcong don’t shoot you in the face, your men are going to shoot you in the back when you give them some dipshit order to attack some position they can’t possibly take.”

His advice was the same as Uncle Booth’s: quit as soon as you can.

And so I did, eventually.

That was a journey worthy of a separate book, but suffice it to say I changed my thinking about the war in Vietnam and the Domino Theory.

Okay, I was a 19-year-old who didn’t want to die, for his country or anyone else.

I didn’t want to die, period.

Quite simple, really.

And I am really sorry to say I wasn’t able to have that conversation with my father.

When I began to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he spoke all the louder for it.

We argued in the living room and at the local watering hole where we would drink together.

I was a hippie pinko and he was an Archie Bunker redneck warmonger.

Ne’er the twain shall meet.

But it did, eventually.

After my successful attempt to stay out of Vietnam played out at the seminary that had given me a 4D deferment, I enlisted in—you saw this coming miles back—the U.S. Navy.

Yep, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and I let that recruiter sweet-talk me into a hitch in this man’s Navy over beers and billiards at some gin mill not far from the seminary I was falling out of for lack of funds for tuition and for lack of a real order to Holy Orders.

My life was a mess, and the Navy was looking good, and when I came home from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in my dress blues, my old man hugged me so hard my eyeballs are still popping.

So there’s your full circle, down to that third picture of him aboard a U.S. Navy frigate in 1978 and looking out to sea.

The sea might have only been Lake Michigan, but it was a sea change for both of us to be on that ship with him a proud veteran of the U.S. Navy and me still serving in the United States Navy Reserve.

And what did we do that fine day after being aboard ship together?

Why we cemented our nautical bond by doing what sailors do the world over: we went and had ourselves copious measures of grog at a public house in the Loop worthy of our salty patronage.



Posted in addiction, alcoholism, U.S. Navy, World War II | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment