We were friends, though not close, we hung out with different crews. Still, Jimmy Clans, that’s what everyone called him, was a good guy. His real name was Jimmy Clancy, an Irishman in a Brooklyn neighborhood full of Italians and Jews. Jimmy had the kind of personality that made everyone feel not only that they knew him, but they were important in his life. For many people, that made Jimmy an alright guy. The girls liked him, too. Although Jimmy was average looking, he was never without a date. Girls the other guys would drool over, Jeannie Esposito, Mary Ann Palmieri, and Becky Weinstein were just a few he dated, the likes of which all us other dudes could only wish for. When asked by one of the guys how his date went, Jimmy always had this affable smile on his face that said a lot but revealed nothing.
Jimmy and I met in our junior year of high school. We both were part of the school’s newspaper, The Eagle. I wrote about the school’s sports teams and Jimmy was the newspaper’s photographer. Even when not taking photos for the newspaper, he always had a camera with him shooting whatever caught his eye.
After high school, Jimmy and I lost contact. It was more than a year later I heard from Patti Romano, Jimmy’s longtime girlfriend. She told me that after graduation, he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts but dropped out after a year. By that time, I was going to NYU, majoring in journalism.
The last time I heard about Jimmy was devastating. After dropping out of school, Jimmy was reclassified by the draft board as 1A and within a few months found himself doing eight weeks of basic training followed by another eight weeks of Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. After a few weeks on leave, Jimmy was in Vietnam. Patti Romano wrote to him steadily, and he wrote back. She told me they planned to marry when he returned from Vietnam. Patti and I became closer during this time. Nothing romantic, just friends tightly bound by Jimmy. Over time, she began showing me some of his letters: The last letter she received from Jimmy was prophetic. It read:
“It’s been bad. We were fighting a battalion of N.V.A. and there was so much shit flying out there you couldn’t tell if you killed anyone or not. You heard screams, but unless it’s a guy near you; you didn’t know if it was one of our guys or theirs who got blown away. About a week ago, we’re on patrol and came across these four gooks walking down the road straight toward us. We were surprised to see them, and they were shocked to see us. Suddenly, our instincts kicked in and we blew them away. Afterward, a few of us walked over toward the dead bodies and stared down at them. Their blood still flowing from the deadly bullet wounds. For the first time, we saw their weapons and knew that if we hadn’t killed them first, they would have killed us. I’ve been in battles before this, but this was the first time I stood so close to someone I killed. For the first time, their faces were visible. I felt the deadly stare of their eyes piercing through me. My buddy, Joe Buckhead, saw me staring, and he punched my arm, forcing me to turn away from the dead and look at him. “Forget it,” he mumbled, “it’s them or us.” Our shake and bake, Lt. Hobbs, yelled out for us to move out. We left the dead on the muddy road. Patti, after seeing those dead gooks, I got this strange sensation within me. For the first time, I knew if not for our innate quick reaction, it could have been me and my buddies lying there dead. Patti, for the first time, I felt like I knew I’m never going to make it back home.”
Three weeks before Jimmy was scheduled to return to the States and be discharged back to civilian life, Patti received a phone call from his distraught mother. Through her tears, she told her Jimmy was killed in action.