As the war in Iraq approaches its fifth anniversary, SI senior writer Jack McCallum—still haunted by the death in Vietnam of his best friend and teammate—searched for a small-town high school standout killed in action. He found that though they died nearly four decades apart, Bobby Gasko (left) and Mike Arciola were connected by more than their legacies
THE LITTLE League fields in Elmsford, N.Y., sit along Route 9A, hard by a swamp created by the Saw Mill River. When the river floods, swamp water spills onto the fields, and with it come the mosquitoes. Amanda Arciola saw every Little League game her younger brother, Mike, played there with the exception of two or three that preceded a high school dance; she was afraid she would get bites all over her arms. Amanda, now 26, dabs at her damp eyes and shakes her head at the memory. The dances "seemed so important at the time," she says. ¶ One of the two fields is now named after her brother. It was dedicated on April 1, 2005, six weeks after Army Pfc. Michael Anthony Arciola, 20, was killed by a sniper's bullet in Ramadi, a city in central Iraq. His death was front-page news in Elmsford (pop. 4,761), a town in Westchester County that its residents invariably describe as "one mile square." Arciola had been a lifelong resident of Elmsford and a standout athlete at Alexander Hamilton High, a catcher in the spring and summer, and a soccer midfielder in the fall.
His flag-draped coffin was unloaded at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base on Feb. 17, 2005. There were no cameras there to record the moment, owing to a 1991 Department of Defense edict against press coverage of returning bodies. The funeral was held in Elmsford, but Arciola's body was laid to rest in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery.
So it goes. Fifty-eight thousand U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam, and the number inches toward 4,200 in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are relatives and friends who live with those deaths every day. News of another fatal roadside bombing, arguments about "phony soldiers" on talk radio, any sign that America has forgotten its casualties of war—they all bring memories rushing back to those they left behind. For some, the spark doesn't have to be anything dramatic, maybe just the crack of a bat....
In July, on my first trip to Elmsford, Robert Arciola Sr., Michael's father, showed me a photograph of his son at age 9, standing at the plate. Mike holds his bat high; his head is steady and his feet wide apart. He stands precisely like a young athlete I once knew named Bobby Gasko, who was killed in a patch of jungle in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1970. Bobby batted right, threw left, played leftfield and was also a damn good linebacker.
He was my best friend.
THE FRIEND of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore ... and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire.
—ROBERT PENN WARREN
All the King's Men
I don't remember exactly when Bobby and I became best friends, but it had happened by the third grade. In May 1958, in my first Little League at bat of the season, Bobby was on the mound. He threw a pitch that I lashed foul just outside the third base line. "So you think you're smart, Gasko?" I shouted. Then he struck me out. My father, who was my team's manager, reamed me out for mouthing off (and failing to deliver). "I didn't mean anything by it," I said. "Bobby's my best friend."
We grew up in Mays Landing, N.J., which in the 1950s was a sleepy town of about 2,000. The town is much more prosperous these days, functioning as kind of a bedroom community for that glitter-and-gloom gambling mecca, Atlantic City.