SpeakEasy

 Farewell, My Friend, Mentor and Vietnam Veteran  

By TOM MEREDITH | Oct 18, 2017

I found out recently Jimmy had died. We have been out of touch for unknown reasons, as old friends can be, for more years than I like to think of.

Jimmy was born in New York. His parents were hard-working middle class people of the ’50s and ’60s. They moved to New Jersey and stayed. His father, James Sr., made a living working for Sears Roebuck, selling appliances for 30 years. His mother worked local jobs to help afford the extra things they wanted and a vacation every so often. Jimmy was an only child and as such a bit shy to meet new friends, preferring to wait them out and see if he wanted to associate. He had a love of music at a young age, an exploratory realm that led him to meet different people. He sat with friends, trying to replicate John Mayall and Eric Clapton while consuming Robitussin and Coca-Cola. His love of pure music never left him and may have been his salvation through many difficult years.

The Vietnam War was heating up and a draft was sure to come as we were sending more and more troops to this little, forgotten country to fight communism. Jimmy decided to join the Marine Corps rather than wait for the draft to tell him where to go. He went through all the training and became a tank driver and was sent to Vietnam.

I met Jimmy in 1974 or 1975 just after I graduated from high school and was working at a North Jersey restaurant, Gasoline Alley. At that time he had joined the Steam Fitters Local 475, working on several different projects. He began to come to “The Alley” as a customer. When business got thin for his union jobs, the restaurant’s owners found work for him to do around the place to keep him going. This is how I met him. I was cooking at the restaurant with little to no prior experience, but willing to try it, fake it and learn it. Jimmy taught me how to de-bone a chicken breast one day when I was stumped. He was one of those guys who seemed to know how to do everything.

From here I began to follow Jimmy like a little brother he could not get rid of. I learned things about plumbing, general construction methods and the union mentality, which I rejected, much to his chagrin. We spent a lot of time together, mostly drinking. I learned a lot about his war experiences. This was a world I could never fully relate to but was curious about. I watched and listened to these men tell stories, cry, brag, and start, finish and break up fights. Little did I know at the time these were symptoms.

Jimmy installed dishwashers and garbage disposals and did other helpful jobs around my home for my parents while teaching me as much as my father had about tools and how to use them. I continued to learn cooking techniques and share those with him in return. We became close, and even traveled to Florida and Texas together to visit friends from the restaurant who had moved on in pursuit of careers or college.

My curiosity about the Vietnam conflict continued and led me to some books and other veterans’ conversations. Some people made the accusation that Jimmy had manufactured his service in the Marine Corps. One of my darkest moments is when I confronted him about that possibility.

His immediate response was: “Little buddy, you understand so little of that stuff that you can believe or think what you want. It makes no difference to me. But, do not ever ask me that again.” His eyes welled up and I knew I had crossed a line from which there was no retreat.

We continued to be close friends and watched some other friends with Vietnam experience break down, one or two even ending their own lives. Jimmy seemed to always have a positive attitude. He met a girl and fell in love, got married and had children. I married the girl of my dreams and pursued a career that took us to other parts of the county. I kept in touch with Jimmy and visited when possible. Later, my wife and I moved back to New Jersey and re-established connections with our friends from Gasoline Alley days.

We formed a dinner group to get together every six weeks to drink, eat and laugh. I can still hear the laughter today, but it was not enough to keep Jimmy and his wife, Debbie, together. Jimmy had become withdrawn. Debbie, being younger, was hoping to go out to the bars and the club scene for entertainment. Jimmy stayed home with the kids. The marriage eventually ended, but the relationship did not. Debbie re-married, and Jimmy was always included as part of that new family. He and Debbie continued to raise their two boys together to adulthood, where they faced and overcame their own struggles.

Jimmy died at age 68 after leading a nondescript life. I submit Jimmy as an American hero. He served his country and came home wounded in ways we could not diagnose at the time. He struggled to live a good life, raising children and working hard for a living to do it. He was a friend who taught me about music, plumbing, boning a chicken, driving fast, drinking with character, how to treat others with respect and when not to, and how not to take life too seriously.

His last social media entry was one of disappointment, saying he would no longer watch NFL games due to the disrespect to our flag being tolerated. Watching football used to be a fun and relaxing pastime to share with friends. Now it had become another platform for political statements by wealthy members of our society, removing the relaxation from the pastime for many. He had fought and been wounded physically and mentally for their right to express their feelings, but he must have struggled to not take it as a personal statement to his service and sacrifice.

He leaves behind so much more than he would ever take credit for.

I hope he is drinking champagne in heaven in a beer mug with ice.

Tom Meredith lives in Little Egg Harbor.

 

 

 

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