Happy 65th birthday, Nicky

Nicholas L. Venditti of Malvern, Pa., as a 19-year-old soldier at Fort Polk, La., in the summer of 1968.

Nicholas L. Venditti of Malvern, Pa., as a 19-year-old soldier at Fort Polk, La., in the summer of 1968.

If my cousin Nicky had survived Vietnam, it’s a fair bet that he’d still be alive today. He would have turned 65 on Tuesday.

That’s 45 years of a life unlived.

I can only guess how it would have turned out for him if he’d come home to Pennsylvania in 1970, after a one-year tour. He would have married his fiancée. They would have had children. He might have made a living as a pilot, having learned how to fly helicopters in the Army.

And maybe I would have gotten to know him better. As it was, I only remember that he said “hi” to me once at a family picnic and that I saw him at a party sending him off to boot camp. We came from a big Italian family that was close and got together often. Still, he was five years older than I and lived in another town.

Nicholas Louis Venditti had grown up fast. He was born Nov. 26, 1948, at Chester County Hospital, the son of Louis and Sally Gable Venditti. The family lived in the first block of East King Street in Malvern, but the marriage didn’t last. Louie left Sally when Nicky was a second-grader at Malvern Public School.

Nicky became a star pitcher in Little League with a daunting fastball. He went on to General Wayne Junior High and Great Valley High School, where he played some baseball. But mainly he spent his time pumping gas after school and on weekends so he could indulge his interests in guns and fast cars. He graduated from Great Valley in 1966 with no particular plans for his life.

He met Terri Pezick while working at the Sinclair station on King Street. They were engaged when Nicky left for Vietnam.

Besides pumping gas, he worked at plastic cup maker Plastomatic in Malvern. In 1967, he got the idea that he wanted to be a helicopter pilot in the Army, knowing he would almost certainly go to Vietnam. During World War II, his father had been a ground crewman with a fighter squadron of the 8th Air Force in England, and his stories might have influenced his son.

Nicky took a flight aptitude test in December 1967 and got the nod from the Army. He enlisted and had boot camp at Fort Polk, La., completing his training there in August 1968. He went on to the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter School at Fort Wolters, Texas, where he learned to fly helicopters.

In February 1969 he started Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Ala., and flew the UH-1 “Huey.” He won his wings June 3.

Now the newly minted warrant officer, with the rank of WO1, had orders sending him to Vietnam to join the 16th Combat Aviation Group, which was attached to the Americal Division at Chu Lai, in the northern part of South Vietnam.

He had a three-week leave at home in Malvern, then left for Vietnam from Washington State, arriving at Cam Ranh Bay on the Fourth of July, 1969. A C-130 transport plane took him up the coast to Chu Lai.

As a new arrival, part of his training was to attend a classroom lecture on grenade safety. On July 10, he and several dozen other replacements were trucked off the base to a landing zone called Bayonet, home of the Americal’s 198th Light Infantry Brigade and the site of a firing range and orientation building.

Nicky and three other warrant officers ambled into the building and sat at a table up front. The instructor, a sergeant in his early 20s, held up an M26 fragmentation grenade and talked about it. As part of his routine, he pulled the pin and tossed the grenade at the class. It was a gimmick to see how the new guys would react.

The grenade wasn’t supposed to be live, but it rolled under the table where Nicky was sitting and detonated. He lost his left leg below the knee and clung to life at Chu Lai’s 312th Evacuation Hospital. But at 4:15 a.m. July 15, his life ended. Two other soldiers also died from the blast, which the Army determined to be an accident.

Nicky had not been at the Americal Division base long enough to be assigned to an assault helicopter company. He had not even survived 11 days of his 365-day tour.

He came home to Malvern in a silver metal casket by way of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. On July 28, 1969, he was laid to rest in Philadelphia Memorial Park, near his hometown. I was a clueless 15-year-old, standing with my family in the crowd by the grave.

Nicky will always be 20 years old. But just for today, I’m going to pretend he’s turning 65.

Happy birthday, Nicky.

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