Derek Gentile: Flashing back to my father's lesson on war

Friday November 16, 2012


I was in North Adams last week to cover the road race to benefit Mike DeMarsico, the local solider who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year.

The finish line was at the North Adams VFW, and after I parked my car, I walked into the building, which, at that point, seemed very familiar.

There I met Dennis St. Pierre, who is the commander of Post 125. He reminded me that Post 125 was my late father’s post, and I realized that my father had brought me here many, many, many years ago.

As I was driving back to Pittsfield later that day, a day in my life a long time ago popped into my head. I don’t know if these kinds of flashbacks hit everyone. (I hope not actually. But they seem to come to me when they are triggered by something.)

Anyway, I remembered being in the kitchen of my house on Glen Street in Adams years ago. I was eating breakfast with my father. This was not unusual. I’m a terribly light sleeper, even now, and in those days, my father would get up, rattle around the kitchen making his breakfast, and I would come downstairs and have a bowl of cereal. (Remember corn flakes and freeze-dried bananas? It was like being in a Jetsons cartoon! Space age!)

We had a radio in the kitchen, and the news that day, as always, was about the conflict in Vietnam.

It’s somewhat interesting to me that there is a great uproar when two or three or four servicemen are killed overseas. And that’s a good thing. Anytime an American dies somewhere it’s a bad thing. But the one thing I will always remember is that almost every day, thousands of soldiers were killed in Vietnam. It was a "good" day if "only" a few hundred died.

We listened to the radio in silence, as I recall.

"How far away is Vietnam?" I asked.

"A ways," my father said.

"How do people get over there?" I asked.

"Fly, usually," he said. "Sometimes by boat."

"Hmm," I said. "When I go, I think I’ll see if I can take the boat."

I had never flown at that point. It seemed a little sketchy.

"Why will you go?" asked my father.

"Well, you know," I said, "to kill those Cong guys."

There was a long silence. Now, at the time, when my dad didn’t say something, that usually precipitated something bad for me. Even at age 11 or so, I knew my father didn’t suffer fools very well.

"OK," I said quickly. "I’ll fly if I have to."

That’s what I figured the problem was about.

"You probably won’t have to go over there," he said finally. "That war will be over by the time you’re old enough."

"Oh," I said. "OK."

"You don’t want to get involved in that," he said. In 1944, my dad had volunteered with the Navy. He didn’t see a lot of action, but I know now that he lost a number of friends, including his brother-in-law, my uncle Kenny, to the war. To me, this was abstract. To him, it was reality.

"Well," I said, completely misunderstanding his fears for me, "I would go, because you went."

Dad nodded.

"You have your lunch money?" he said at last.

"Nah," I said. "I’m coming home for lunch today."

I think back about that day, because as I remember it, I was such a goofy-looking little monkey: Big head, skinny as all heck, probably one of those razor haircuts. Yow.

"Well," he said, pulling a dollar out of his pocket. "You’re a good son. I hope you know that. Buy yourself some comic books."

"Oh man," I said gratefully. "Thanks, Dad!"

I didn’t know then, but I know now what was going on. My father had been there, done that and war wasn’t Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes comic. It was real. And it would have been hard to see me go. In the end, I didn’t. But I’m always grateful, very grateful, to those who did.

Derek Gentile is an Eagle staff writer.


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