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Mike's friends never explored his reasons for enlisting with him, much less tried to talk him out of it. "Mike was the type of person you didn't even try to persuade," says Tilokee. "Anyway, it was his thing, and I always thought he'd be O.K."
So did his brother. "I didn't think anything would touch him," says Robert. "It was Mikey. Good things happened to Mikey." His mother tried to block the danger out of her mind, but his sister obsessed about it. "I didn't think he'd be O.K.," Amanda says, wiping away tears. "I just had a bad feeling about it. He was special, and I don't know ... it seems like they take special people away." When Mikey left for boot camp in July 2003, it took 10 minutes for others to pry Amanda off him.
BOBBY WAS accepted at Rider College in Lawrenceville, N.J., where he had hoped to walk on to the baseball team. In November 1967, two months into his freshman year, he wrote to Al Hedelt, his baseball coach at Oakcrest High.
The situation here looks dim for me. They have 18 freshmen on baseball scholarships, but you know and I know that won't stop me. I can't believe how much I miss Oakcrest and all the friends.... I sort of wish my senior year was starting all over again. It seems that you always must move forward and things of the past are just gone forever.
As it happened, Bobby didn't even go out for baseball in the spring. The odds against him seemed too great, and by then he had pledged a fraternity and was having a good time going to parties. Too good a time, it turned out. His grades plummeted, and Rider informed him that he would have to attend summer school.
We played baseball together for the Mays Landing Lakers of the Atlantic County League in the summer of '68, and as we sat together in the dugout before one game Bobby told me, "I'm thinking about not going back to school, and working for my dad." I couldn't relate. That summer had been a life-changer for me. I had watched the tumult of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on TV, the antiwar demonstrations, the generational struggle that seemed to be tearing the country apart. Everything seemed so charged, so important. Then, too, leaving the warm bosom of college—parties, visions of coeds in the spring, intramural sports, music, a vague desire to major in English and spout a little Camus between puffs of pot—seemed unthinkable.
Plus, there was this shadow hanging over our lives, the successor to the Soviet nuclear threat that hovered over the 1950s.
"What about Vietnam?" I asked.
Bobby shrugged. "Whatever happens, happens," he said.