Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself. --Anon.
My parents were part of the American immigrant experience. They came to the United States from Ireland in 1927. Their formal education was limited, but they understood its importance. Religion, education, family, truth, and country (both old and new) were important to them, so they passed on these values to their seven children. I was the third child and the first male. I graduated from Catholic grammar and high schools in White Plains, New York, and from Boston College. My family and these schools formed my character and prepared me, for better or worse, for what followed.
Dad kept a tavern, Dockery's Restaurant, at 11 West 31st Street in New York City for forty-two years before retiring in 1975 at age seventy-five. He was the vice commandant of the 1st Roscommon Battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and was imprisoned during Ireland's fight for independence. He told me he had nothing against the English people. The guards treated him well, but the government of England was another matter. He kept a donation jar on the bar for the Saint Francis Bread Line on 35th Street and one behind the bar for the IRA. My mom and dad fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated seven children with the tavern profits. Dad took the 6:10 a.m. train to New York City six days a week "to catch the early birds," those wanting a drink before work. He returned home tired and sober at 10 p.m. each evening. Advice he gave me when I was young showed he had qualms about his business: "Sure 'n' I sell the poison, but I don't want ye drinking it." At the time, I did not understand his concern. I know now. John Barleycorn is fun but not a friend. Do not invite him home. He will not leave on his own.
My father was proud to be Irish and proud of his adoptive country. "Martin," he once said to me, "this is really the land of opportunity. In the Old Country I couldn't have provided for and educated all of ye. And ye and yer brothers and sisters have opportunities here that wouldn't be possible for ye over there." As a thirteen-year-old, I told him I wanted to have a tavern when I grew up. He rested his hand on my arm, looked me in the eye, and said: "Tavern work is okay for an immigrant boy like me; twelve hours a day on your feet is okay for me, but not for my son. Ye go to school and stay there. Do something with yer brain. It will be better for ye and you'll feel better about yerself too." I wish I had accumulated enough experiences, a past, to ask the questions of my dad that come to mind today.
Diversity Training As a young person my world included whites and blacks--"coloreds" back then--as well as Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and Irish and Italians. In those days you weren't called an Irish American or an Italian American. You were simply Irish or Italian. My parents taught us tolerance and understanding and judging people by what they did and not by their race, religion, or ethnicity. They had felt the sting of discrimination when they arrived in the United States. At that time it was not uncommon for the last line in published job advertisements to read, "Irish need not apply." When I was old enough to understand, my mom told me why the Irish were not sought as employees. In 1927 alcohol was a problem for the Irish; my mom, in her honesty, said that was why it was difficult for the Irish to get jobs. I have memories of lessonlike talks dealing with slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws. Other times her talks were about the mistreatment of Jews by Christians and how that was wrong. She used the plight of the Irish under English rule and as U.S. immigrants as examples of prejudice. My parents also taught me by example how to treat people, the best way to teach.
My father cut the grass on Sunday afternoons. I was six and wanted to help but was not strong enough to push the lawn mower by myself. One Sunday we pushed it together, he from the back with his hands next to mine on the mower handle. We cut the whole lawn that way. It must have been painfully slow for him.
As we were mowing the lawn, a car pulled to the curb across the street. Three people emerged and approached my dad. A woman introduced herself and said she was a real estate agent. She was showing houses in the neighborhood to the couple with her and they wanted to know whether any Jews lived close by. My father and I stood there behind the lawn mower, with me in front, his hands on mine. My father's answer burned itself into my young mind so that today I can still hear him responding: "Some Jews are good neighbors and some Jews are bad neighbors, just like Christians. That's all I'm saying." After the people left, he explained to me what had happened and why it was wrong for them to ask those questions and think like that. I asked, "What's a real estate agent?" and "What's a Jew?" These are old questions from a young person. In answer to the second question, my dad said something like it's a different religion and they believe in different things than we do, but we are all the same in God's eyes.
Dad went to work every day. Mom raised, fed, and clothed us. She cleaned the house and dealt with teachers, priests, doctors, groceries, and schoolwork. Clean clothes for nine, meals for eight twice a day, seven lunch bags on school days, and supervision, supervision, and supervision seven days a week--that was my mom's lot. All this was hard for her, but she shepherded us through the pitfalls of youth and schooling.
Breakfast and supper were eaten in the kitchen around a big table. The food was hot and good, and we ate everything in sight. Fourteen quarts of milk, two dozen eggs, and a pound of butter were delivered three times a week. At the evening meal she would make a point of asking each of us what we had done that day, where we had been and with whom. During one supper when I was ten, I answered that after school I was playing ball on the street with Barry and Steve Levine, our neighbors. Then as an aside I said, "Barry Levine's a kike." Within seconds, mom dragged me by my hair over to the sink and pushed a bar of soap in my mouth. All this while she called me a "little Hitler" and asked, "Where did you hear that word? Who did you hear it from?" With tears streaming down my cheeks and soap bubbles coming out of my mouth, I said I didn't know what the word meant but that Steve Levine had called his brother, Barry, a "kike" while we were playing ball that afternoon. Mom was taken aback. Her initial reaction was out of character. She always was caring and reasonable with us. Gamely, she said it was a hateful word and did not care where I had heard it; I was not to use it again. That evening before my bedtime, she said she was sorry about the soap and should have let me explain first, but prejudice and hateful words made her angry.
ROTC When I started at Boston College in 1956, I enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, commonly known as ROTC, with the purpose of spending two years in the army as an officer. I was hoping to fulfill my military obligation while at the same time gaining experience that would be useful upon return to civilian life. The ROTC program required one class a week for four years plus summer camp after my junior year.
After graduating in 1960 from Boston College, where I studied philosophy, economics, and theology, I received a reserve commission as a U.S. Army second lieutenant of infantry. Officer Infantry Orientation School and Paratrooper School at Fort Benning, Georgia, preceded my assignment to Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Sensitivity Training I was a late bloomer, both academically and emotionally. I was not particularly susceptible to the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others. My mom and sisters endeavored to teach me to be sensitive. They tried hard, but I never mastered it.
Paratrooper School consisted of one month of strenuous physical conditioning and instruction in the techniques of parachute jumping from an airplane and the niceties of landing on the ground unhurt. Graduation occurred after five jumps from 1,200 feet. I was proud of completing the course and sent my parents a recording of the paratrooper song. I thought they would like to share in my accomplishment and the humor of the song. Alas, I was insensitive again. My mom was horrified, and my sisters roundly criticized me for sending the recording home. "Blood on the Risers" is a song about the fate of a paratrooper whose parachute fails to open. The last eight lines of the song are:
There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the chute
Intestines were a-dangling from his paratrooper's boots,
They picked him up, still in his chute, and poured him from his boots.
He ain't gonna jump no more.
Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,
Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,
Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,
He ain't gonna jump no more.
There was something about the song that upset mom. This lesson in sensitivity was not lost on me. The letters I wrote to my parents from Vietnam were devoid of hardship, danger, and combat. They touched on politics, weather, food, geography, and religion. I was learning to be sensitive, incrementally. Still am.
Fort Knox Recruit training is probably the worst assignment a second lieutenant can receive, and that was my assignment. I learned that I would be training recruits at Fort Knox for the balance of my two-year military commitment. Caring for and training inductees was not appealing. After eight weeks the recruits leave for other training at other posts and the eight-week cycle begins again, ad infinitum. Regular army (career) officers were not assigned to recruit training; they received choice postings. Not so with reserve officers.
I remember Fort Knox as a large, sprawling, dreary place. The barracks, bachelor officers' quarters, and classrooms available for recruit training were built in 1942 and were made of wood and tar paper. The army, with hope, called them temporary buildings; they are probably in use today. In cold weather, coal furnaces in hundreds of temporary buildings spread soot everywhere. Skin, clothes, cars, and indeed the sky were darkened with coal soot. Snow quickly turned black.
Senior officers have great tolerance for the mistakes and poor judgment of lieutenants. They let them learn in peacetime when their errors are not costly. And always the senior officers tell the lieutenants, "Ask your sergeants what to do and follow their advice. They know, they have the experience." Newly commissioned second lieutenants do not come to the army fully formed leaders of men. Only with training and experience do the judgment and maturity necessary for leadership develop. Mistakes are part of the process and, in most cases, a harmless and valuable learning tool. Junior officers test the patience and require the understanding and guidance of their commanders and sergeants. All of these things were true in my case. Fort Knox is where I learned what was expected of a young officer and what kind of conduct and values were essential for successful leadership.
If a man will make a purchase of a chance
he must abide by the consequences.
--Sir Richard Richards
Mind-set Any discussion of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam should begin with an understanding of the mind-set in America that had existed since the end of World War II. It is paramount for an understanding of U.S. motives. The country was involved in an intense competition, at all levels, in all fields, with the champions of communism. The Soviet Union and China, allies during World War II, were now our enemies. It was a fierce, protracted struggle in a time of great fear and uncertainty. Most Americans were aware of this conflict and many were touched by fear. I was. Grade schools across America held nuclear bomb drills. I remember them. Children were taught in school what to do if the Soviets dropped atom bombs on us. "Get under your desk," the teachers said. For the survivors of a nuclear attack, the government stockpiled food, water, and equipment in basements of public and private buildings. Signs with nuclear symbols were affixed to buildings notifying the public that survival stores were in the basement. New York State encouraged citizens to build atom bomb shelters in their backyards or basements, and many people did. Ethicists discussed the morality of letting a neighbor into your shelter if, by doing so, there would not be enough food for your family.
The great fear was of communism. It combined an attractive doctrine, a calculated use of power, and an unusual staying power. Americans thought that it was a force unparalleled in history and a global movement that was intent on overthrowing one noncommunist government after another. Our leaders believed that we were involved in a desperate struggle with enemies who swore to bury us, and we were not winning. These leaders grew up during the 1920s and 1930s and had participated, in one way or another, in World War II. They remembered the losses and felt the pain, and they believed that the appeasement of Hitler led to World War II. They were determined that it would not happen again.
This was the challenge of our age and for our leaders, and in time most of the American public accepted the fact that we were in an enduring contest against a foe intent on destroying us. The United States decided on a policy of containment to stop the communist advance.
The Soviets and the Chinese had developed a theory of guerrilla warfare earlier, and they had better trained and more organized forces for its implementation than did the United States. To our dismay we learned that guerrilla warfare was a successful way to wage war for small, ill-equipped forces fighting against great odds. Moscow and Beijing were supporting armed coups and guerrilla movements in third-world countries and had done so in the past. In Indochina, French troops had been engaged by guerrillas for eight years, and the French forces were defeated by them at Dien Bien Phu. In Algeria, an estimated 30,000 rebels engaged 500,000 French troops; in Cuba, Fidel Castro's small invasion force eventually brought the downfall of the Cuban government, which had a 43,000-man army.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lost in Translation by Martin J. Dockery. Copyright © 2003 by Martin J. Dockery. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.