ERNIE PALMIERI: I HEAR YOU SINGING IN THE WIRE
Ernie Palmieri sat by the radiators in Sister Mary Malachy’s haunted classroom. I sat a few rows away in the dead zone in the back of the crowded room, reserved for misfits and troublemakers. Tall, with startling green eyes and coal black hair, Palmieri was no wiseguy. Quiet, easygoing, seemingly marking time, even in elementary school. He lived up Carroll Street toward Fifth Avenue; I lived down by the Gowanus Canal. He had two sisters, maybe twins, with that olive complexion you see in medieval frescoes and southern Italian farmsteads. He mostly avoided the nun’s wrath ,waltzed stiffly with the rest of us in our overblown Christmas production to Verdi’s “La Donna e mobile” in the parish recreation center. My cousin JuJu and his thugs jeered and hooted in the darkened auditorium. And then Ernie was gone.
We were just 14-years-old.
I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Park Slope. Wore ill-fitting jackets and ties every day. Endured more years of beating and bullying, this time by Christian Brothers. Learned things.
Ernie would have gone to Manual Training (now John Jay H.S). on Seventh Avenue. I don’t know if he graduated. Walking home from school, I’d see him behind the counter at Ben’s Pork Store, a salumeria on Fifth Ave near Carroll Street. The place was fragrant with Parmigiana Reggiano, marinating mushrooms, prosciutto, salamis and wheels of civiletta sausage, tastes and smells that intoxicate me to this day. Ernie is his white butchers apron, always smiling, sneaking me a hunk of soppressata I couldn’t afford.
I went to Brooklyn College. He and an older brother, Julio planned to open their own butcher shop in Bay Ridge. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. I remember being achingly lonely as the umbilical that bound me to the Gowanus began to rupture. War was on the horizon. We were 18-years old.
Ernie met a girl, Mary Lou Lobianco, planned to marry. When the call-ups began in earnest in 1965, I, native-born, couldn’t think of enough ways to avoid Vietnam. Ernie Palmieri, an American by choice, enlisted. After basic training, Ernie was assigned to the Army’s 71st Helicopter Assault Company, jockeying thin-skinned UH-1 Huey choppers into very bad places, inserting and extracting grunts, pulling out the wounded and dead.
I didn’t know any of this. Most people I knew didn’t care. I was teaching English to mechanics at Automotive High in Williamsburg, a very different Williamsburg from today. I found my father’s records in the school basement. He’d made it past second year, then left to fight in the Pacific. On Carroll Street, we listened to doo-wop music, the Four Seasons, Young Rascals, Sinatra like the wise guys in the Capri Club. I was late coming to the Beatles and Stones but I remember, of all things, a country song about the war, not mocking or bitter, but devastating in its power to pierce me like a dagger and bleed longing and loss:
“… Galveston, oh, Galveston,
I still hear your sea waves crashin’,
while I watch the cannons flashin’.
I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston.
…Is she waiting there for me,
On the beach where we used to run?”
I’d never run on a beach with a girl, but there was another song seemingly about a telephone lineman in Kansas. I understood that guy better than I knew myself.
I became a reporter. The war ended, but another was beginning. Out of concern, guilt or a need to make amends, the working class kid who missed the working class war, I began covering Vietnam veterans. I wrote the first story on women vets, skilled nurses, kids themselves, who tended the horribly wounded and comforted the dying—for Newsweek. One of these women, Lola McGourty, is still my friend 35 years later. I wrote a book, Uneasy Warriors about Vietnam’s Green Berets, JFK’s own soldiers, elevated as heroes and then cast down in defeat. I went to Hanoi to visit an American vet who’d returned to assist children damaged by Agent Orange and the aftereffects of the conflict. I was there a month and found a new generation of Vietnamese. The posters in Hanoi now depicted B-52s dropping long strings of Coca-Cola bottles but the war was a distant memory. The young Vietnamese wanted iPhones and flat screens.
In Washington, D.C., I found Ernie Palmieri at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was waiting there for me on Panel 13E, Line 23. Ernie was killed on December 8th 1967, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on a rescue mission extracting soldiers who’d come under attack near Cu Chi, the site of a massive underground tunnel complex built by the Viet Cong that is now a major tourist destination in Vietnam. The bullet may have been fired by a sniper in a schoolhouse the choppers spared because there were kids playing outside the building.
Ernie’s parents, Rocco and Maria, were waiting at Penn Station to claim his body when it arrived from Delaware by train. If they were anything like my parents, a trip into Manhattan in the middle of the night, in itself would have been daunting. Specialist 4th Class Ernest Palmieri, the smiling kid who sat by the whistling radiators in Our Lady of Peace school, who made his First Communion in a white suit with me, who attended mass every Sunday—attendance was mandatory–is buried in Long Island National Cemetery.
The story doesn’t end there. On August 16, 2008, U.S. Army UH-1 helicopter (tail number 65-10068), Ernie’s chopper, arrived in tiny Mineral Wells, Texas where it was mounted on a steel pillar as one of the city’s National Vietnam War Museum exhibits. Four men from Ernie’s unit, the 71st Assault Helicopter Company, old men themselves, showed up to honor him. The museum provided free hot dogs for the first 500 attendees.
Even this was nearly a decade in the past. And yet, yesterday, when the media mentioned the death of Glen Campbell, and inevitably began playing the haunting strains of Galveston and Wichita Lineman, Ernie came alive again, as I knew him so long ago, as I never knew myself, and the loss was such I thought my heart would burst with a grief that had lain dormant for fifty years.
Vince Coppola grew up on the infamous Gowanus Canal in the 1960s. He taught at Automotive H.S. in Brooklyn, graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, spent 10 years as a Newsweek reporter, but always returned to his Italian-American roots. Among other works, he wrote an acclaimed biography of the impoverished Sicilian immigrant, Anthony Alaimo, a bomber pilot who took part in the Great Escape of WWll and went on to become a respected federal district court judge in Georgia.. “Ernie Palmieri” is one of a series of unpublished remembrances of Coppola’s Brooklyn life.