I was born in Boston in October of 1971. My father had just been killed in August of ’71 in a drunk driving car accident with his brother at the wheel after having a few cocktails. My father had joined the Marines after high school, did a tour in Vietnam in 1971 where he saw combat, and later became a Boston cop before he was killed at the age of 23.
We moved to Charlestown. The town, being one square mile, was famous for the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War and later for being the Bank Robbery Capital of the World in the 1980s, portrayed in the movie “The Town.” We grew up in public housing and later moved to a subsidized apartment complex. We were broke, living on my father’s social security checks, my mom, me, and my older brother. But it seemed like everybody was broke in my neighborhood. There was an army of kids back then, and most kids learned how to fight. An elegant term to describe growing up in Boston would be “Irish Ghetto.”
One of my best memories was being asked if I wanted to learn how to box at a boxing gym in the North End of Boston, across from the Boston Garden. There was an elevated subway train on Causeway St that ran right by the gym on the 3rd floor. As I learned the sweet science, I was just an 11-year-old kid and soaked up everything I could learn in the old gym. I met a lot of guys on pre-release from a local prison. I had a good childhood and became street smart fast. After a couple of years of boxing and sparring with a local firefighter who was turning pro, my trainer Bob abandoned me. He told my mother, who had become a hair stylist, that his other fighter was turning pro and had no time for me.
I never trusted anyone after my boxing experience. I joined the Marines in October of 1990 and was in boot camp shortly after my 18th birthday. Boot camp was tough; I excelled in the fighting parts of training. During boot camp, the drill instructors would tell us we were going to the Gulf War and that some of us would not come home. The United States hadn’t had an armed conflict since Vietnam, except for Panama, which was over in a couple of days if I recall correctly from the Clint Eastwood movie.
I was sent to the School of Infantry (S.O.I) and then off to my M.O.S (Military Occupation Specialty), Motor Transport or truck driving school. I became an LVS operator, basically a flatbed 18-wheeler truck with a large crane on the rear that could pick up a conex shipping container and load and unload itself. Shortly after my school, I was sent off to Operation Desert Storm. The ground war had ended the month before. We worked 7 days a week. I drove tractor-trailers, fuel, and water trucks from the port in Al Jubail, where a Scud missile had hit. I traveled all over the region to Ammo Supply Points and different bases. I heard stories of people who hated Americans shooting at some of the drivers in the desert. You would see lots of corpses bloated from the heat on the side of the highway, some still in wrecked cars. I loved my time over there, driving through the desert at dusk, watching camels shuffle in the desert at sunset. The camel owners, mostly nomads, would tie their legs together four ways so they could not take off. The camels would shuffle like they were marching. I could see shacks made of aluminum in the desert where these guys lived. There was no alcohol allowed in the Gulf at that time where I was stationed, except for Bahrain. When I was not driving, I was doing guard duty at my truck company in the desert. Our headquarters were a giant bunker built out of the sand. The Kuwaiti oil fires blanketed the skies and us Marines, depending on which way the wind was blowing. Wild dog packs would roam the desert at night and attack Marines and soldiers. One night, I took a cot on top of a sand bunker, and I sensed a presence. I opened my eyes to a Shepherd’s teeth about an inch from my face. There was a pack of wild dogs around my cot that looked hungry. I was spared when another Marine came walking out of the bunker, and the pack strolled off.
My deployment ended, and my unit was sent back to Camp Lejeune. Early the following year, I was deployed to Cuba (Guantanamo Bay) on a Navy ship, the U.S.S. Pensacola LSD-38, with my truck for a humanitarian operation involving a Haitian refugee crisis. They chose eight of us out of my unit, 8th MTBN (Motor Transport Battalion). We lived in an old beach house, and I would drive daily into these camps made of barbed wire in the mornings to deliver water or fuel for the generators. After lunch, I would drive a school bus full of refugees over to another camp on the other side of the base for processing to the United States. The refugees would point and say, “Miami, please.” I had an AM/FM tape cassette radio equipped on the bus. I got hold of Tom Petty’s “Don’t Like Living Like a Refugee” cassette tape. I had the whole bus singing it. There were some beautiful pristine beaches on Guantanamo. I used to stop on my route after dropping off people and go swimming or snorkeling. Some guys would free dive for lobster. I had never seen such beautiful aquatic life anywhere since—reef sharks. I thought I was back in the New England Aquarium fish tank.
We took the U.S.S. Gunston Hall back to Norfolk, Virginia when my deployment ended. I finished my time at Camp Lejeune and went home. I had taken the Boston Firefighters Exam on Camp Lejeune and got hired in 1997. When I got on the job, it was all veterans and guys who had grown up their whole lives in one part or another of the city. I was stationed at Orient Heights in East Boston after firefighter drill school, not far from Boston’s Logan Airport. I was 25 years old and loved my job. I always tell the younger generation to serve in the military and take the firefighter or police test. I was headed to work on 9/11/2001. I took the long way to work in my truck and cut through Constitution Beach, adjacent to Logan Airport, around 7:45 am and saw American Airlines Flight 11 sitting on the runway at Logan, waiting for takeoff. An hour later, AA Flight 11 would fly into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
I went down to Ground Zero in my uniform and attended funerals for the next few weeks for my fallen firefighter brothers. I transferred to Engine 50 in 2002, the oldest firehouse in the country established in 1853. I loved this firehouse and left part of my soul there. This firehouse is located on Boston’s Freedom Trail, a stone’s throw from the Bunker Hill Monument where General Warren died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. This firehouse was like going back in time when the streets were cobblestone and horses pulled pumps to fires. The one call we responded to a lot around the holidays was people jumping off the Tobin Bridge. The Tobin bridge is the tallest not only in Massachusetts but all of New England at 254-feet tall. One thing I learned from the body’s that landed on Terminal Street below the bridge is that the people jumping must not look down because the water is only about 50 feet from where most landed on the pavement. I have seen a lot of death. It is part of our lives and will come for all of us. I try to live with humility. I try to let go of resentment. A resentment is a bond between you and the person you hate and that person becomes your jailer as well as your prisoner, We suffer as long as we hold on to resentments. Forgive and pray for those who do not like you. Thank God, Ignore insults and live stoically.