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Cinco de Mayo - A Trans-formative Day at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Naples, Italy, Monday, April 27, 1958: I checked out of my Naval Security Group office on the heights of Posillipo and walked to the Personnel office in the adjacent building to pick up my departure orders and personnel and pay records. Gil McDonald, one of my suite mates at the Hotel Tricarico, where we were billeted, was in charge of the transportation office. He gave me my choice of returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for my discharge by either ship, a one-week monotonous voyage on a troop transport, or by plane, via Paris. Naturally, I chose Paris.

I left Naples early the next morning on a Navy diplomatic courier flight and landed at Le Bourget Airport later that morning. I checked into the Hotel Le Littre, a facility managed by the Air Force for U.S. servicemen and their families in transit. I had spent two fun days there earlier that month on my way to the opening of the World’s Fair in Brussels, and things were normal with the usual hustle and bustle in this glorious City of Light. Things had changed in that short span of time. There was tension in the air. Paris was in political turmoil. U.S. military personnel were advised to be careful and return to the hotel no later than 2300.

I quickly found out why. The French Army had taken control of the politically unstable Algerian government and was demanding the return of Charles de Gaulle to lead France. In a few weeks, the French Parliament returned him to power as Prime Minister; and at the end of the year he was elected President of France, and would serve for another ten years. Leaving the hotel that afternoon I found Gendarmes standing at every corner in Paris with automatic weapons at the ready. It would be the only time in my countless trips to Paris over the years that I was anxious to leave.

Late the next day, I boarded a Military Air Transport Command (MATS) DC5 and via the Azores and Newfoundland arrived at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey at noon the next day. An Air Force bus dropped me and about ten other sailors off at the Brooklyn Navy Yard at four that afternoon. After checking in at the Navy Receiving Station on Flushing Avenue, I was home at our apartment in Woodside at six o’clock with my sea bag and all my gear. After greeting the family, Dad and I had a drink with some of his friends at a neighborhood watering hole before returning home for dinner. Following dinner, I reunited with a girl in Sunnyside who I had dated while on leave in 1957.

Early the next morning, I took the subway to the Navy Yard with an overnight bag packed with working shoes, dungarees, and a foul weather jacket. After turning down an assignment to pick up a prisoner in Buffalo and return him by train to the Navy Brig, I was put in charge of a line handling party to assist the debarkation on an aircraft carrier and its three destroyer escorts. That proved to be a considerable challenge since my working party was replete with lazy misfits.

The following day, Friday, May 2nd, I was called to the Personnel Office and informed that I would be discharged the following Monday, May 5th, nine days ahead of my scheduled May 13th discharge. I also learned that I had passed the test for First Class Petty Officer (E6 rank). It was quite an accomplishment for someone a week shy of 21, but the promotion would not be effective until June 1st. The “Catch 22” was that the promotion would only be awarded if I extended my enlistment for another year. I was willing to extend my service for another three months, but another year, even in Naples, was out of the question. I never doubted my decision. Looking back, in John Greenleaf Whittier’s words, it was never an “it might have been” moment for me. It was an easy decision. I was foregoing the security of a Navy career and taking the opportunity the G.I. Bill offered. I was going to college that fall.

The morning of May 5th proved to be both a serious and amusing moment in my life. The night before, Joe Aigner, a colorful character that my sister Rose was dating, offered to drive me back to the Navy Yard in his 1956 black Pontiac convertible and pick me up the next morning outside the Receiving Station. Joe, 6'2" and weighting about 225 pounds, was a fun-loving, carefree, larger-than-life guy you were immediately drawn to.

After morning chow, I stripped my bunk, turned in my Navy issued and well-worn blanket that had traveled the world with me, to the Quartermaster’s office, and checked out of the Personnel office, where I turned in my ID card was handed my personnel records, final pay, had my photo taken, and was issued an Inactive Navy Reserve ID card.

There were about 25 of us being discharged that morning, most from the New York Metropolitan area. We assembled outside the Personnel office on the main deck and marched to the front entrance and down the steps into a small courtyard surrounded by a chain link fence. The Brooklyn Navy Yard band was playing a medley of marching music as we assembled in two columns. Outside the fence on Flushing Avenue, Joe Aigner was waiting in his convertible with the hood down and the radio blaring.

When the Navy band finished playing, a flustered young lieutenant had to compete with James Brown singing “Good Golly Miss Molly” as he vainly tried to wish us farewell. He paused and turned towards Joe who was leaning back behind the wheel, a cigarette in his mouth and a wide smile on his face as he tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm of the music. “Does anyone know this person?” he asked. We all looked at each other and hunched our shoulders everyone smirking, including me. I wasn’t about to test the lieutenant and admit that Joe was there for me. I wouldn’t be officially discharged until he said dismissed. I waited with baited breath until he did.

Thankfully, there was a brief lull in the music from Joe’s car radio as the lieutenant continued to speak, but he was soon interrupted by the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up Little Suzie.” At that point, the lieutenant gave up, wished us good luck and stormed up the steps and into the building just as the Navy band struck up “Anchors Aweigh.” We all turned and saluted the flag before we walked out onto Flushing Avenue, where I shook hands with a few of the guys and said good bye. As I nodded at Joe to drive to the corner, someone asked me, “Who is that guy?” I smiled and said, “One of the many characters from my neighborhood.” I jogged up the street and threw my gear in the back seat and joined Joe up front. He was laughing. “I hope I didn’t screw things up for you,” he said. I shook my head. Joe was being Joe, and I was setting out in a whole new direction. It was Cinco de Mayo, but at that time I didn’t know the significance of the date, it being the anniversary of the historic Mexican victory over Napoleon’s forces in the 1862 battle of Pueblo. For me, it was a transformative day. My life was beginning anew and that was a significant enough reason for the celebratory drinks that Joe and I would soon be enjoying. Now, when I celebrate Cinco de Mayo I do so with the fond memories of that day in 1958.

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