It was his eleventh day in the country. He hadn’t even set foot in a Huey helicopter, which he had learned to fly, and it wasn’t the enemy that killed him. It was a training accident. A sergeant teaching a class on grenade safety for new arrivals set off a live grenade by mistake. Nicky was badly cut up in the explosion and lost a leg below the knee. He hung on at first, but died in an evacuation hospital five days later, on July 15, 1969.
I went to Vietnam in 1998 and connected with Nicky at the former U.S. base at Chu Lai, along the South China Sea. Under the sun, in awful heat and haunting silence, I stood first where the orientation building had been, on a landing zone called Bayonet, and then at the hospital site on a bluff by the sea. It was part of my twenty-year effort to re-create Nicky’s life and learn the details of what happened to him – work that resulted in my book Tragedy at Chu Lai.When I started the project in the mid-1990s, I visited Nicky’s grave at Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer. “I know what happened to you,” I said. “Now I want to get to know you.” He was twenty when he went to Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot, and I was fifteen, a big gulf when you’re a kid. We came from a large Italian family, lived in different towns and saw each other only on special occasions. I remember he once smiled and said “Hi” to me at a family picnic. The only other time I recall seeing him was at a party at his parents’ home in Malvern, Pennsylvania, held to send him off to boot camp.
Last Monday, July 15, for the first time in years, I went to Nicky’s grave again, this time with roses to lay there. I sat on the grass in the shade of magnolia trees and spoke to him, some of it mere chit-chat. But I was solemn as well. How sad and unfair it was, I said, that he had missed out on fifty years of living. I wanted him to know that his family and friends remember him, mourn him and wish he were still here with us.
I like to think that somehow Nicky knew I was there and got the message.