When I got the news about Lou, I drove up to Elmira that same weekend. The imposing red brick walls and lofty watch towers of the prison were depressing enough, but the hospital there was about the dreariest place I’d ever seen. A guard buzzed me in through a chipped porcelain-coated steel door that clanged shut behind me. A gray-haired sergeant pointed toward the back of the ward. I followed his direction and found Lou in a small cubicle on the left. He looked like hell.
I swung a small metal chair around to the side of the bed and sat down. Lou’s eyes were closed, and he appeared to be in a deep sleep. A clear IV solution trickled steadily into his left arm. I looked around. The walls had probably once been white, but were now a nondescript shade of gray. There were no windows to let in the late spring sunshine that might have brightened my somber mood. I glanced down at the sheets on the bed. They were a little threadbare, but at least appeared clean. Sitting there, I was struck by the irony of the situation. With all that Lou had probably done wrong in his life, it was a relatively minor weapons charge that had landed him here. And weapons were something we both knew much about.
I was beginning to wonder how long I might have to wait when Lou’s eyelids suddenly fluttered and opened. For a moment, he stared vacantly at the ceiling. Then with a grimace he turned his head just to the right and noticed me. “Frankie,” he croaked. “Is that you? What the hell are you doing here?”
I forced a smile, hoping to hide my concern. “What the hell do you think I’m doing here, you asshole? I came to see you. Maybe you could show a little gratitude?”
Lou’s face brightened, although he seemed to be in considerable pain. “It’s good to see you. Really.”
“Well, you don’t look so hot, that’s for sure.” I knew how bad his brain cancer was, but I waited for him to bring it up. It didn’t take long.
“I guess I’m not doing too good. Brain tumor. The doc says the cancer’s probably related to Agent Orange exposure.” He furrowed his brow, licked his cracked lips, and then smiled weakly. “Looks like the ’Nam finally got me after all.”
I nodded but didn’t reply. There was nothing to say.
My name is Frank Orsini, and Lou Pizzitelli is the best friend I’ve ever had. Having written that and seen it now on paper, I’m struck by the peculiarity of that statement. Lou and I were almost polar opposites. He was a tough street kid from Staten Island. On the other hand, I was a laid-back college dropout from Long Island. Although we’d shared some very dramatic experiences together, Lou and I sometimes went a year or more without seeing or talking to one another. I can’t really explain why, and that is perhaps the most peculiar element of our entire friendship. But then again, maybe the way our relationship played out over time might be considered even stranger.
We were virtually the same age, having been born just weeks apart in 1942. Our adolescent years were spent in the 50’s, but it was the turbulent decade of the 60’s that truly defined our lives. We both graduated high school in 1960. Lou was the personification of a “greaser” then, with slicked back hair and a cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve of his tee shirt. In contrast, I usually wore my sandy hair in a crew cut. I guess I was kind of a self-imposed misfit. I hardly ever wore sneakers like most of the guys. In fact, I didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of the day. That’s still one of my problems.
Lou was the product of a highly dysfunctional family. His dad was a low-level “wise guy” who disappeared mysteriously when Lou was just a child. His mom was never the same after that, virtually withdrawing from life and leaving her only child to make his own way in the world. She finally passed away shortly after Lou graduated from high school. All things considered, it’s amazing that he even got that far. Lou may have been a street kid, but he was quite intelligent. He drifted through a succession of menial jobs after high school, mostly near his home in Stapleton.
I navigated through one miserable semester at NYU on a Regents scholarship before getting kicked out. This confirmed what I already knew: I simply wasn’t the Joe College type. I then spent some time doing construction work during the day, and trying at night to figure out where I was going to fit into the world. Mercifully, “Uncle Sam” made the decision for me and for Lou as well.
The envelope arrived in July of 1963. My high school chums and I had often kidded about getting the “greetings” letter from the military. Now holding it in my hand, I was mildly surprised to find that it actually read, “Greeting”. Funny how something as insignificant as a missing “s” can stick in your mind. To this day I remember that “Greeting” as though I had received the letter this morning. Reading further, I found that I was supposed to report to Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan for a pre-induction physical in September. I was twenty-two, and my world was suddenly careening in a totally different direction. Had I known how different, I would have been shocked.
My family has a brief but impressive history of sending its young men off to fight Uncle Sam’s battles. During World War II, my father volunteered for duty with the Army Air Corps, although he wound up spending his entire enlistment stateside. One of my uncles was a B-17 tail gunner who flew fifty missions out of North Africa and Italy. Another on my mother’s side was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. Other relatives fought in the Pacific and in Korea.
Somewhere in our past the tradition of going off to war became known as “Passing the Torch”, or just simply, “The Torch”. And we weren’t always good warriors, either. My father’s brother was a prime example. The Navy slapped him into a ball and chain for desertion during World War I. Well, maybe he deserved it for going to sea instead of pounding the ground like most of the family. But however well we did or didn’t do our duty, the tradition had been established. It was a strong one.
As an adolescent I was fascinated by the military. My friends and I all had our collections of toy guns and lead soldiers. We played war games in our back yards. Our favorite movie stars were John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Gary Cooper. War seemed glorious then. In retrospect, I guess we still had much to learn.
In the early-sixties Vietnam began to make its first serious inroads into the national consciousness. When my time came to serve, The Torch passed to me, and I accepted it somewhat reluctantly. Trust me when I say that I wasn’t looking to march off to the sound of the guns, but neither was I capable of avoiding it. A trip to Canada was not an option for me. Idealism like that can bring you a lot of grief, as I would find out. When that letter arrived, I still had a benign innocence. But not for long.