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He didn't talk much about those things when he arrived back in Elmsford for a two-week leave on Jan. 14, 2005. He drank beers with his buddies and hung out with Maria. In some respects the kid who came home that January was the same one who had left, but there was a different side to him, "an innocence lost," as Tilokee puts it. Cerone noticed it in Mike's last letters and e-mails. "He never dwelled on the negative," says Cerone, "but he had started to talk about how bad it had gotten over there."
A close friend of Mike's had had his leg blown off in Iraq, and Mike obsessed about it. "He seemed angry and anxious, eager to get back at [the insurgents]," his father said. "Michael was so competitive. I knew he was going to look at war like it was a game he had to win. I swear when I saw him, I thought it was for the last time."
On Jan. 29 Mike's mother, Teresa, and his sisters drove him to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and as he started toward the Jetway, Teresa pulled out her camera, waiting for him to turn around and wave goodbye, as he always had. This time he didn't. He just kept on going, and she snapped a photo of his back.
IN NOVEMBER 1969, a few days before Bobby was to leave for Vietnam, Janice went into premature labor. Their son, whom they named John Michael, was stillborn. Janice told the doctor she wanted to get pregnant again before her husband left. "Absolutely not," the doctor said. "Your body has to rest."
Barbara, Bobby's sister, drove him to the airport. Janice sat in the middle, Bobby in the passenger seat of the big car, a Pontiac, of course. Since Bobby had gotten his draft notice, Janice said he had never complained, never expressed any fear. His father's unsuccessful efforts to keep him out of the war and the talk about Canada amounted to just that—efforts and talk.
As they drove to the airport, Janice stole glances at Bobby, staring until he looked over and smiled. "I was trying to keep his face in my mind," she says. "I remember thinking, This could be the last time I see him."
I wish I could tell you that I kept Bobby in my mind during that winter of '69. I wish I could tell you that I gave a thought to him as I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, or that I said a little prayer for him on Christmas. Maybe I did, but I don't remember. I can't even recall what else he said in the one letter he sent me, with the exception of this chilling admonition: Don't come over here. But I no longer have the letter.
I can imagine Bobby sitting back with his pen, helmet by his side, nerves ringing like wind chimes, staring into that dark jungle night, a kid, really, trying to scratch out his feelings and make some kind of connection with those so far away. "Soldiers are dreamers," wrote British war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon. "When the guns begin/They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives." It had been only eight years since we had sat in our bunks at church camp scrawling on the mandatory postcards we sent to our families.
I spent Dec. 31, 1969, at a New Year's Eve party at my college fraternity house. Bobby spent that last New Year's of his life in a province called Binh Thuan, in Vietnam's southeastern coastal region. I hope he thought for a moment about six kids climbing into his car, racing to Times Square, losing their money, then racing home just to see the New Year's ball drop on TV, as we did as high school seniors. I hope he remembered pulling out the portable tape player we carried around with us and playing What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted, by Jimmy Ruffin, his favorite song. I hope he remembered eyeing that fastball coming toward him, sensing that he had timed it perfectly, then lining it back through the box, feeling that pleasant wooden-bat sting in his hands.