If Only It Were True

In the village of Skaneateles, NY, at the base of its gorgeous lake, is a war memorial. Bronze plaques list the names of those who died. The first one, dedicated after World War I, is simple in its optimism. Above the names is its title: “The World War.” And then, of course, in a steady stream of more plaques next to it, comes the truth. Still, I love that bright anticipation. If only it were true.

I posted this blog entry about growing up in Massapequa with Ron Kovic last year on the Fourth of July, his birthday. And because this weekend is Memorial Day, and Memorial Day is more than picnics and mattress sales, I’m placing it here again.




“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.



In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”



When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.


The Neighborhood Bully, 50 Years Later

The first time I heard “Hey, Buzzard!” I was 12, and I knew he was talking to me. With a small crowd around him, Walter  began flapping his arms wildly in the air, and making loud “caw, caw, caw” sounds. His friends were already laughing and didn’t need an explanation, but they got one anyway: “I call her that because she’s so ugly and her nose is so big,” he told them as they moved down the street.

My nose was way ahead of the rest of my face. In fact, my whole body was just one big adolescent disappointment that summer. My hair had the consistency of steel wool and would puff out like a blow fish as soon as the humidity raised half a percent. I was taller than anyone on my block (including a few short adults). I kept forgetting about my feet. I tripped a lot.

Puberty had not come gunning for Walter the way it had for me. He was athletic and blonde, with perfect symmetry to his face. As the kingpin of our neighborhood, whatever he said garnered plenty of nods and laughs. My humiliation — always close to the surface — didn’t faze him. Just the opposite. The few times I cried only fueled him. Twice he spit at me but missed.

I found no “safe spaces” during those summers. Unless it rained, kids played outside all day, and the hand you were dealt was a three-block radius of your house, maybe a total of 50 kids.

At dinner, my parents might say, “So, what did you do today?” but they never wanted to hear the details. There was an unwritten manifesto of all the Massapequa parents I knew: They’d had the foresight to buy a home on bucolic Long Island, a far cry from the mean streets of Manhattan or Queens where they’d come of age. They got points for providing you with trees, good schools, and fresh air. The rest was up to you. You were supposed to have fun in the summer. It was your only job.

As a child, my mother had watched her family struggle through the Great Depression. She was replete with stories about oatmeal. When my grandmother could afford to make some extra in the big pot on top of the stove, she would have my mother take it to the family who lived above them, a trip my mother dreaded. When the woman opened the door, her face would fall and she would sigh. She took it because her kids were hungry, but she couldn’t bring herself to say “Thank you.” Oatmeal was charity and people who worked so hard didn’t take charity.

My mother fought dark feelings most of her life that all our security would be whisked away. Walter meant nothing to her when  — at any moment now — oatmeal might return as a staple.

My father spent most of his childhood in Maine. When his mother died after his third birthday, his father moved away to find work. My father was shuffled among kindly relatives who fed him as long as they could. Theirs was a small enclave of French mill workers who did not speak English. And then when my father was 11, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew and a man who refused to speak to my father in French. New father, new city, new language all in one moment. Walter? Don’t be ridiculous.

My parents listened to me, but their usual response — changing the subject — told me that they couldn’t relate. Their message was loving and practical and always the same, but it infuriated me in its simplicity: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”

A few years ago I was at a funeral back in Massapequa when I saw Walter walk in. He was easy to spot in the crowded room — still handsome, his blonde hair now gray. I’d been privy to what he’d been doing all these years. He has struggled — in a bunch of arenas — maybe the reason he was such a mean kid. He is still not known for kindness in any form. (Sometimes life is hard.)

Watching him, I felt a little vindicated as if someone had been keeping score all this time, and it had just been announced in this room at the funeral home that my totals soared over Walter’s. I realized, though, that I didn’t need to be the winner. And what I was feeling at that moment was a bit of compassion I didn’t see coming. (Be a good person.)

I caught his eye and smiled. He recognized me, and we made small talk about the old neighborhood. If I thought for a moment he remembered his treatment of me when we were kids, I might have brought it up, just to see what his memories were. But it was clear he just wanted to tell me about his business, his kids who play lacrosse, his new car, and his new wife. And maybe it was during that conversation — as my mind wandered — that I finally completed my parents’ advice from so long ago (Figure it out.) Because I remembered that at 12 I didn’t want to treat people the way Walter did. I didn’t want to end up like him.

And I didn’t.

“I Didn’t Know You Were a Writer.”

At 61, I was unemployed. Sooner or later, my severance package would stop arriving in my checking account, and although I’ve never worried much about money, I began thinking of ways to cut back, something I’ve never been known for. I tried not to surrender to my bent for the dramatic, but once in a while — usually awake in the middle of the night —  I’d see a vision of me in the future, popping open a little can of gourmet cat food, spreading it on some crackers, and calling it a day.

Then I had an idea. Traditionally (for me) this can be a terrifying way of opening a paragraph. I tried out my idea on my neighbor, who kindly wondered why he’d seen me home so much. I told him I’d lost my job and had been applying for new ones, but nothing was happening. Of course I didn’t say it exactly that way. I think I used words like “transitioning” and “turning point.” The phrase “letting you go,” my actual launching pad, was still coming to me regularly in my dreams, the ones where I’d show up at my office and everyone there would have to remind me that they’d already “let me go,” and — ashamed (and, yes, naked of course) — I’d slump back to my car and drive home.

I’d just met this neighbor, so he was a natural tabula rasa candidate. “I’ve decided I’m going to write,” I said, listening to how self-important that sentence sounded wafting through the air.

“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know you were a writer.”

If he meant had I ever made a comfortable living as a writer — or even an uncomfortable one — the answer was “no.” If he meant had anyone ever heard of me, nope. I didn’t mention that I’d won third place in my 6th grade short story contest back on Long Island, but it was one of the consequential events I was building my next career on. It’s amazing how reality hardly ever has anything to do with being a writer.

I bought some office supplies I thought writers needed. A stapler. A pencil sharpener, even though I barely ever wrote with a pencil. I was good on Post-It Notes. I kept writing. Nothing much. Nothing good. But I kept writing. And waited for a sign.

My next official act of reinvention was to move the desk in my study to the window. Before, I’d always thought I’d find it distracting, but I’d become such an early riser, I figured I might enjoy seeing the sun come up. Or that watching people in the little park below would give me some material once I’d stopped thinking about my big win in the short story contest in 6th grade.

The park is taken over with dog owners once the sun arrives. By about 6:45, the grounds resemble a golden retriever convention. People in their Under Armor gear talk and nod and smile as the dogs sniff at each other. (This is an unscientific sample, but I’ve learned 90% of the golden retrievers in America are named Bailey.) Mothers, nannies, and toddlers take up the next shift. At dusk, from the same window, I see parents and their children getting in a few minutes on the playground equipment before dinner.

Sometimes when nothing is coming to me, I walk out my back door and sit at the playground. I jot down what I hear or see in the notebook I carry everywhere. One day a boy, about ten, sat down next to me on the bench. His dad was off to the side, watching expectantly. I’d seen him nod in my direction and say quietly to his son, “Go ahead.” The boy cleared his throat a little and held out a stack of copy paper, mercilessly stapled down one side. The cover read ROBOTS in bold lettering, with an ambitious illustration.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m a writer. I have this book for sale. It costs $1 if you want to buy it. But just to warn you, it might be scary in some parts for your kids.” I loved that he didn’t have a clue that my kids are now in their thirties. I loved his confidence, even when his voice faltered a little.

I took the book in my hands and thumbed through. I complimented him on his wording and his drawing. I said, “Stay right here,” and I went back to my house and got a dollar. He showed me where the scary parts were so I’d be prepared.

“Is it hard to be a writer?” I asked.

“Not one bit,” he said. And he took off for the swings.