I Still Remember Tony
When my father returned from Korea in the summer of 1952, I was six years old. En route to El Paso, Texas, for his next duty assignment, we visited with my grandparents on their south Alabama farm for a week. While there, my grandfather, dad, and I wandered one hot day into the cotton fields that surrounded the old farm house. This was always an adventure for me, ever on the lookout for some kind of game animal to make a dash out of the bushes in our path. Some atavistic instinct was already stirring in me that responded to the kind of setting which made me aware of nature and the possibilities it held, and I longed to be able to carry my own shotgun into those fields as soon as possible. I knew that I would be a deadly shot, bringing home a bountiful and endless supply of game for the family to feast upon. But on this day there were no rabbits to chase or deer to kick their heels in our faces. There was only the loose sandy soil of that cotton field and the heavy humid heat beating down from a pale blue summer southern sky. In a subconscious, weary gesture, my granddad stooped over and picked up a handful of drought-dried dirt and let it run in a fine powder slowly through his fingers back to the ground. With a wistful smile he glanced up and said in a conversational tone that I can hear like he spoke the words yesterday, "ah, Lord, give us a little rain; just a little shower will do the trick." "Amen to that," my dad said. I thought "fat chance" as I peered into the cloudless horizon, thinking of the dark walls of water that would often advance across that open expanse around us, bringing a fresh coolness to the parched air of August.
Thirteen years later, I met Tony Mintino when we lined up side by side on our first day of basic training at Ft. Benning in the humid furnace heat of south Georgia July. I took a hesitant dislike to him because he arrogantly proclaimed that he was from New Jersey like that was something special. Unknown to either of us at the time, we were en route to one of those quick close friendships that only the military can foster, and that endures for a lifetime. It turned out that he had studied American Literature at Columbia University with an emphasis on Faulkner. He knew everything about William Faulkner, you see, even if he had never been in the deep South until this "visit," and he pontificated loftily with a degree of Yankee self confidence on our culture and its influences on one of our most celebrated Southern sons. I responded with a personal challenge to educate my new pal and enhance his understanding, from a Southern perspective, of this man Faulkner. I was motivated by some lingering regional combative perversity that was to mellow over the next eight weeks and grow into a grudging admiration for his willingness to be home schooled by a Southern man with a different slant on things not historically amended by academia. His open mindedness and sincere interest in my Southern perspective won me over and became the basis for our friendship and my own learning experience about his particular culture and life. Our worlds were smaller in 1967, and our hearts were not as integrated as they are now. In that summer Tony may as well have been in France from his perspective. He later wrote to me that he had started a manuscript from the notes he made from the memory of our many conversations in the field and that they would contribute “color” for his graduate thesis after he left the Army and returned to New York. I was proud of that, although I would never see what he wrote.
"Tony, if you have never sat on the porch of an Alabama farmhouse that borders a dirt road twenty miles from anything at midnight in August with the bugs thick in your dripping sweat and the frogs booming from the swamp while your great grandmother spoke in barely a whisper about the Union troops that had burned her house and the chaos of reconstruction that tore the land apart worse than the Civil War itself did, then you cannot know Faulkner. You cannot know a thing about the causes of the anguish and passion in the soul that wrote about the brooding pains of his native land." And so I began to talk about my own unfulfilled loves, passions and haunted dreams and the elusive tone of a land whose memories were slowly being washed away by the winds of time and agenda history. We talked for the eight weeks that we were together, about our lives and families, and I believe that we both came away with an understanding of the similarities that our different backgrounds bore. I found myself eager to visit the "block" where he grew up, and meet the dark-eyed sister who played a part in some of his childhood stories that he would smilingly tease me with.
I had grown up all over the world in a military family as my father rotated between duty assignments. Personally, the rewards of this life had been many, to include a sense of geography, cultures and the history and language associated with each relocation. My family moved eight times before my sixteenth birthday. No matter how far away we were, however, we made a trek to my grandparents' Alabama farm on an annual basis to keep a sense of place and home burning brightly in our hearts and minds. The anticipation of those visits, fueled by the memories of past trips, caused an imprint of every moment of those reunions in my brain that remains with me these many decades later. No matter where I was living, I knew that I was a Southerner with ancestors and roots so deep and tangled that I was part of something proud. I liked to think Tony responded to my passion and that it touched something in his Italian blood, and maybe because it had been missing in his own life. His unselfish ability to listen caused me to reflect many years later that I should have done more listening myself, about his story and people, and that I had no monopoly on such feelings.
When we got our first weekend off from basic, Tony and I hitch-hiked 40 miles from Ft. Benning to my grandparents' farm west of Columbus, Georgia, just into Alabama where I had begun my childhood adventure. We were 20 years old, in uniform, and very proud. Who could have known the rigors of our previous weeks and the sense of superiority and accomplishment that it had instilled in our young hearts? My grandparents greeted us with warmth and food, both of which had been absent in our previous six weeks. Here was an Italian Jew sitting in the farmhouse of old Southern people born before 1900, gaining their respect and love with his quiet dignity and amazement at just being there. What must my grandmother have been thinking, having seen three sons off to World War II just 23 years before? I am sure that she saw them sitting before her, once again, us having no clue what awaited us, or what she must have endured while they were gone.
Tony and I spoke once on the phone after basic, and bumped into each other in the bar of the officers' club in Ft. Benning on another occasion, quite by accident. We had both returned from our branch basic courses for paratrooper training and were feeling pretty good about those new wings on our chests, back when jump school meant something. I eventually wound up in the central highlands of Vietnam as an artillery forward observer with an infantry unit in the First Cavalry Division, and I had one note from Tony telling me that he was a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne far to the north near the DMZ, which was very bad country. I lost contact with Tony, but I made many other friends that only come to you in the Army during wartime, and my life went forward after Vietnam and the military. I thought about Tony occasionally; I thought about a lot of people whom I had known during my three years of duty, but youth drove me on with 'Nam becoming a repressed memory. My grandparents would always ask about him when I saw them before I lost them, too. My granddad would smile and ask me whatever happened to that "Eyetalian Yank."
I was visiting Birmingham, Alabama, several years ago, and I ran into an old ROTC college buddy on the street in broad daylight. I greeted him and we caught up with each other's lives. I learned that he had served in the 101st during Tony's tour and casually asked if he recognized the name. As those things so often happen, he had served in the same rifle company with Tony, also as a platoon leader, and that is where I learned Tony's fate -- killed on a hot LZ in some remote valley north of Phu Bai. Numb and empty, I bade farewell to my old college acquaintance and wandered abstractly around my father's home town, trying to come to grips with what I had just been told. I never did, and still have not. I had dealt with the deaths of many friends, but that was long ago, and this fresh news confronted me once again with the need to try and make some sense of the whole thing. There were hundreds of Mintinos in the New Jersey phone directory, but I never found his family.
I left Birmingham and drove down to visit my old school, Auburn, where I took a solitary drive out to my grandparents' old place. I have done that too many times in my adult life. I think I am trying to put something in its proper place, to assign an order to those days, so that the memories there can be put to bed. Looking back, I can see the book in its entirety, I just can’t focus on the chapters, much less the words. We all die, I think, wishing that we had left things a little more in order, and I think that we are mostly tired when our time finally comes, having tried to sort out the poignant places and events in our pasts so that our hearts can rest. But those defining moments from our youth call to us across the years no matter how old we become. The old farm had changed a lot since my last visit. The fields were green with grass instead of crops, and the house had been completely redone. The orchards were gone and so was the cotton. Dismayed and surprised that nothing was as I remembered, I pulled down the little dirt road that ran beside the old house. I wanted to peer into the windows, my grandmother’s eyes, see her memories in there, all mine as well. Instead, I sat and stared out across the empty fields of my grandfather's farm, and I tried to focus on all of the people in my life that I had known and loved. I thought about Tony and his animated face as he watched my grandfather make buttermilk biscuits on an old iron stove. I tried to remember all of the lost faces and voices that had played parts on this small piece of land that meant so much to me when it started to rain. I got out of the car, strangely comforted by the distant soft, crumping rumble of thunder impacting in the distance. I walked into the field that I had been in so many times long ago, and I turned my face into that soft sweet familiar sky. As the rain began to soak into my skin I opened my mouth to cry, yearning for some release. But instead, I just closed my eyes and started laughing out loud, screaming, trying to drown out the rising wind and wet warm drops, thankful for the beautiful rain in this special place that my grandfather had asked for so long ago.
Bob Flournoy grew up as a military brat, spending summers on his grandparents' Alabama farm. He is a graduate of Auburn University and a Vietnam veteran. After 35 years in the corporate world he now lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife Lorrie, son Brent, and daughter Madison. He was published in Southern Cultures Magazine (A Southern Memory/ Spring 2004), and has had many stories printed in Dispatches, a magazine for military writers. He also had a book, Just a Little Rain, published in 2004.