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BOBBY AND MIKE
THE DIFFERENCES between Michael Anthony Arciola and Robert John Gasko Jr. are numerous. One enlisted, the other was drafted. One left behind an on-again, off-again girlfriend, the other left behind a widow. One was killed by an enemy sniper, the other by a fellow soldier. One is interred in Arlington, the other in Union Cemetery in Mays Landing, where some of his relatives—and several of mine—are buried.
But what I see are the similarities, the intergenerational link. What binds these two young men, finally, is not the uniqueness of their stories but their commonality. Two kids from small towns. Good athletes. Knew a strike from a ball. Comfortable with themselves. Smart though not particularly motivated as students. Popular and respected. Cheerleaders, young men of positive vibes. A little mischief in their eyes, but loyal and competent in a grown-up kind of way. Tough but somehow ... gentle. At Oakcrest High, the outstanding senior baseball player still receives the Robert J. Gasko Memorial Baseball Scholarship, which has been given for almost four decades, and at Alexander Hamilton High the senior athlete who shows both skill and sportsmanship receives the Michael A. Arciola Memorial Scholarship.
After his son died, Robert Arciola Sr. spent most of his days watching TV in his bedroom. From time to time he would tap out a tune on his Casio. He played by ear, couldn't read a lick of music. My Girl by the Temptations, Mikey's favorite, was the song he played the most. When he thought about his son's Little League days, he said the same thing over and over. We had lots of good nights down there.
There haven't been many since Mike left. "I feel God let me down," said Robert. "I was praying for Mikey every day. And nobody listened. I might as well go now myself. You gotta believe in something, I guess, and I believed in Mikey. Now he's gone."
So, now, is Robert Arciola Sr. He died shortly before 3 a.m. on Aug. 6, four weeks after I visited him. It was the combined effect, say his family members, of diabetes and heartache.
Amanda Arciola is sitting on the steps of Hamilton High, remembering her brother, when I ask her what's changed since he died. "Everything," she says. "The world is ... I don't know ... upside down. It's a great feeling when we go to see him in Arlington—we feel close to him then—but it's a false high. When we come home, reality hits: Michael's gone."
The last time Mikey was home, he playfully jabbed his older brother in the gut. "Hey, getting a little soft there, Rob," he said. Robert glared at him but let it slide.
"Mikey was right, though," Robert says, grinding out a cigarette on the sidewalk in front of Hamilton. Not 10 feet away stands a plaque that was dedicated on June 14, 2005: MICHAEL ARCIOLA MEMORIAL ATHLETIC FIELD. It leads to the soccer field and baseball diamond where Mike spent many hours. "Since he passed, I've gotten back to what I knew," Robert says. "Cut down on the booze, started working out. Mike got me back." Around his neck he wears his brother's dog tags. The tattoo on Robert's left biceps reads all gave SOME, SOME GAVE ALL, a slogan that was first popular back in the Vietnam era.
When not at one of her two jobs, Teresa Arciola spends much of her time preparing packages for the survivors in Mike's unit. It started when she deluged her son with his favorites—PB&J, Snyder's of Hanover pretzels, Gummy Bears, Gatorade and Kool-Aid—and he complained that he got too much and others got too little. So Teresa, Amanda and Casey began sending goodies to his buddies. They have continued after his death, a ritual that helps ease the pain.