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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The first thing that happened was that Bobby received the following letter:
Dear Mr. Gasko,
I returned to Muhlenberg College in eastern Pennsylvania for my sophomore year, having given up basketball after an undistinguished freshman season. Bobby started working for his father, and the two men engaged from time to time in a debate about his military status. Behind the scenes Bob Gasko Sr., who was active in county Republican politics, tried to exercise his clout to keep Bobby from being drafted. He suggested to Bobby that he join the National Guard, enlist in the Navy, reapply to college or even, when the inevitable draft notice came, consider fleeing to Canada.
Bobby, however, did nothing about changing his 1-A classification. He had fallen hard for a girl named Janice Gillingham; he had a revved-up GTO; he was doing well at the dealership and if the Army called, well, he would answer. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he longed for adventure. Maybe he just wanted to serve his country. I don't know. But in June 1969 he got his draft notice. He told me at one of our baseball games. He also unloaded this bombshell: Janice is pregnant. We're getting married at Fort Dix in July, and I want you to be my best man.
The wedding had an air of unreality, and not just because it was held on an Army base. Janice seemed like a great girl, but I really didn't know her. Bobby had a buzz cut, his beloved Brylcreemed pompadour now a distant memory. The friends with whom he was going through basic training seemed alien to me, as I surely was to them. My hair and sideburns were long, and I wore a tired blue blazer and wrinkled gray slacks, literally and figuratively ill-suited to the task of being best man.
The next time I saw Bobby was in early September, right before I left for my junior year. He had completed basic and was about to leave for Fort Lewis, Wash. His orders for Vietnam had already come down.
I have tried to remember that meeting, recover its tone and texture, but I have only a vague outline. We talked outside Gasko Pontiac, at the corner of Fifth Street in Mays Landing. His house, where I had spent many a night, was across the street. I was driving a crappy 1965 Ford Comet, which, as always, he gently derided. ("j.m.'s green hornet" was one of the memories he listed in the yearbook.) He was wearing a collared shirt, as befitted a salesman. The day was hot and sticky; it had rained, and there were puddles on the street. I showed him photos of a secret trip I had taken to Cape Cod with my girlfriend (and future wife). She had never met Bobby, and it seemed important that I tell him about her, an attempt to connect the dots of my life. I can't remember what else we talked about. It was all so strange. The man-hug and the hand-grip-chest-bump had not yet been invented, so I'm sure we just shook hands, the friend of my youth and I, and I climbed into my Hornet and drove away. I never saw him again.
BY THE time his unit got its orders for Iraq, Mike Arciola had become one of the most popular soldiers in D Company. He would talk on and on about his beloved New York Yankees and organize stickball games. Just as he had at Hamilton, he drank Kool-Aid by the gallon (Tropical Punch was his flavor) and wore a Kool-Aid baseball cap. Everyone called him the Kool-Aid Kid.
In October 2004 Mike's unit was ordered to Ramadi, attached to the 1st Marine Division. By then many of the insurgents had been driven out of Fallujah, 28 miles to the east, and where they ended up was Ramadi. Almost daily, Mike got shot at—"The joke was, 'I wonder who's going to get hit today,'" says Sgt. James Crowell, who served with Mike—and while on patrol along Highway 10, known to U.S. soldiers as Route Michigan, Mike not only took shots but also likely killed insurgents.