Joe Campolo Jr is an author, poet and public speaker. A United States Air Force Vietnam War veteran, Joe belongs to the VFW, The American Legion, and the Kenosha Area Vietnam Vets (KAVV).
Joe started writing at an early age, penning fantasies inspired by Jack O Brien, Twain, and others. He wrote several articles for military newspapers while serving in the Air Force. Later, with a career in industrial engineering and procurement, Joe wrote many articles and reports for corporate newsletters.
At the encouragement of his late mother, Joe started writing books and short stories. His short stories, often humorous, cover many topics and many are on his websites blog. Joe’s first published book The Kansas NCO is a historical novel about a black market operation during the Vietnam War. The award winning book was hugely popular and, at the request of his readers, he wrote his second published book Back To The World, the sequel to The Kansas NCO. The third book of the trilogy, Three Wars was published in 2018. Joe is a feature writer for the Military Writer’s Society of America. (MWSA)
Joe lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin with his wife Ann. Joe and Ann have two children and two grandchildren. Joe enjoys traveling, fishing, spending time with his family and writing.
The Stump Gang
In 1971, after two and a half years of military service, including one year in Vietnam, I landed a pretty cushy gig at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. There, I would finish the remainder of my four-year Air Force commitment.
Now a Staff Sergeant, I was given a desk job in an air-conditioned office..filled with women no less! And as an E-5, I would soon be paid to live off base in the quarters of my choosing. (Within the compensated budget)
Southern California was great duty, with access to the mountains, the desert, the Pacific Ocean, Las Vegas and Mexico. There was never any shortage of nifty places to visit.
Before I moved off base, I lived in the barracks for several months, with all of the highlights (and lowlights) that barracks life entails. Inspections, loud neighbors, boisterous parties, and the occasional brawl.
Our barracks was conveniently located right across the street from the NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) club and pool. That worked out great for those of us who liked to take a swim and have a refreshment or two after our daily duties were complete.
However, things were not as smooth as they could have been. During the late sixties and early seventies, the U.S. military was reeling from the double-edged sword of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Both of those entities challenged the military as it never had been before. And it would take years to recover, but it eventually did.
Back at March Air Force Base, the civil rights movement was playing out in full, as black power flew in the face of the “old guard”. There were problems aplenty and the upper brass wanted solutions. I was one of about two dozen members of our squadron placed on a race relations board. Meeting once or twice a week, we were supposed to be working on a long-range plan to establish procedures on handling racially sensitive issues. In reality we spent most of our time settling petty squabbles between two hostile groups. It was frustrating and soon became tedious.
Outside one end of our barracks there were a bunch of tree stumps that hadn’t been ground down or removed. The stumps actually provided a set of natural outdoor furniture, so black members of our barracks adopted this area as their hangout. They would be out there every day, late afternoon and into the night, partying, playing dice, playing chess, executing the “dap” and of course doing “the dozens”. The dap was a movement ritual that blacks made when greeting each other. Sometimes these greetings would take several minutes to execute. The dozens were an insult routine, that blacks would do with each other, to pass time. Both of these activities often made white people uncomfortable.
Some of the white members of our race relations board were invited to the Stump Gang festivities. I was one of those invited, and visited the Stump Gang more than a few times, before I moved off base in the summer of 1971. And I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Stumpers, there was always plenty to drink, great music, stimulating discussion and some damn fine barbecue.
I didn’t always agree with the opinions of the more radicalized members of the group, especially the ones who advocated violence, but I empathized with many of their issues. The radical members were kept somewhat in check by the “leaders” of the Stump Gang, who earned their positions through experience, achievement and personality.
Three or four seasoned NCO’s were those unofficial leaders of the Stump Gang, and of that group, Staff Sergeant H. Slaughter topped the list. A quiet, thoughtful individual, Slaughter also had charisma. He had done his time in Vietnam, and the other senior men in the gang looked up to him. Like me, Slaughter was just marking time until his discharge, and like me, the Air Force seemed to spend an inordinate amount of effort getting him to re-enlist. Apparently, they enjoyed the challenge. (They were unsuccessful in both cases)
One of the rituals performed by the Stump Gang landed them outside the good graces of the upper brass. Everyone who drove or walked by the barracks was greeted with an extended middle finger. Though intended to be a harmless, inane gesture, it did not sit well with much of the “establishment”. I was uncomfortable using it, and only participated in the ritual when I was absolutely sure no uppity ups were on the receiving end. (I antagonized the upper ranks enough without adding that to the pile)
But a funny thing happened during those afternoons and evenings at the stumps. As the dozen or so whites interacted with the blacks in the Stump Gang, the two groups came to have a better understanding of each other. And through that better understanding, word got around, and after a time, procedures based upon mutual respect and understanding were written by the race relations board. There, while off duty and at leisure, solutions to racial disharmony availed themself, and those solutions were passed along to the rest of the squadron, and to the base.
The most important thing about a problem is not it’s solution, but the strength we gain in finding the solution. ~Seneca
Learn and see more about Joe Campolo Jr. at his website Click Here
(this article first appeared in the 2/25/21 issue of the Smart Reader)
When it’s 90 below (or so) in Wisconsin, it’s always nice to remember the warmer times we’ve had. I like to think back to my youth and our many trips to Lake Michigan, fishing for perch, smelt or just swimming. (See my earlier blog articles on those topics)
Living on the south side of Kenosha, the kids in our neighborhood usually went to Southport beach for our lake outings. Living near the old Sunnyside (now Grewenow) school, the lake was less than two miles from our house. In the summer, after our morning paper routes were done, we’d often ride our bikes down there to fish for perch. Later in the day, we’d go back for a swim.
From where we lived, we’d ride down 79th street and carry our bikes over the Chicago Northwestern railroad tracks, right where the current Sheridan Lanes bowling alley is. From there, we’d go through the path that went right by the city dog pound, which was down in that area at the time. I always got a kick out of seeing all the dogs as we went by, and of course they’d bark and yap at us, coming and going.
Once down by the lake, we’d lock our bikes up in the bike rack. (Because everyone in town wanted to steal our twenty-year old balloon tire bikes) Then, we’d get a basket from the attendant in the beach house, and change into our suits. There was a tall wall separating the boys and girl’s locker room, and there was always yelling and whistling going on back and forth. Every once in awhile a boy would scale the wall to get a peak, to the accompaniment of screams and shouts from the girls on the other side. If he got caught, he would be banished from using the locker room for the whole summer.
Once out by the water, we walked gingerly through the rocks into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan. It usually took about ten minutes to get “used to it”, so we’d slowly walk in deeper and deeper until we could stand it. From there, we’d usually find other friends in the water and swim over by them. We’d keep an eye out for “non-friends”, and we’d either avoid them or start a dust up to keep our feud healthy.
We’d often walk out onto the rock piers, jumping back into the water in the deeper spots. The little channel between the two rock sections let out to the big lake, and the older kids would usually be out there jumping in and out, swimming around, and showing off.
After a time, we’d leave the water and maybe sit around on our towels on the beach. If we had any money, we might get a soda, or ice cream bar from the vending area in the beach house. We didn’t like to stay out of the water too long, otherwise we’d have to spend another ten minutes getting “used to it” again.
Usually, we’d spend two hours or so down by Southport. Once in a while, from Southport, we’d swim all the way to the North Pier in Kenosha. If we did, it would take most of the day, swimming there and back. We’d leave the water for a rest now and then, each way.
Back at Southport, we wouldn’t leave until everyone in our bunch agreed to go. When we did leave, we’d head back the same way, again being greeted at the dog pound by the yapping mutts. Sometimes coming and going, we’d have to wait for a train to go by before crossing the tracks. If we managed it in time, we’d lay a penny on the tracks for the train to flatten out. (This was considered a high technology sport) We couldn’t always find the penny after, but we took the financial risk anyway.
Once back home, we’d head in for a snack, then back out to shake all of the sand out of our shoes after Mom yelled. Before she could load us up with too many chores, we took off for another adventure.
NOTE: in order to maintain my PG rating, no information on the sand dunes was included in this article.
Learn and see more about Joe Campolo Jr. at his website Click Here
(this article first appeared in the 2/11/21 issue of the Smart Reader)
THE AGE OF AQUARIUS
I served in the United States Air Force from 1968 to 1972. I served in Vietnam from January 1970 to January 1971. I entered Vietnam as an Airman First Class (E-3) and left as a Staff Sergeant (E-5). I was stationed at Phu Cat Airbase in Binh Dinh Province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in what was designated as the 2 Corps military region. I was assigned to supply; my duties included warehouse work, running materials to and from other military facilities in the area, and for a little over one month flying as a crew member on C-130, C-119 or C-47 aircraft, humping cargo.
The village of Phu Cat sat on the southern end of the air base, the rest of the base being surrounded by dense field or vegetation. The volatile province of Binh Dinh, Vietnam was never pacified and accounted for the fifth highest casualty rate for U.S. troops during the war, with upwards of seventy percent of the population estimated to be Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. The hootches we were quartered in consisted of half screen and half one inch plank structures. Each hootch at Phu Cat was surrounded by a 4 foot high, three foot thick sand bunker offering a degree of protection from shrapnel, incoming mortars, rockets and small arms fire.
At night our perimeter would come alive with small arms fire, mortar detonations and air to ground fire raging from sundown till sunup. Our hootch was very close to the perimeter and as a result we were in close proximity to much of the night time action. When not on duty, one of our favorite activities was to sit on the sand bunkers, drinking, smoking and watching the evening fireworks. We would rate the action by intensity and shout and cheer at particularly heavy action. Occasionally when the fighting was too intense or got too close we would be forced to retreat behind the bunkers.
On one particular evening the fighting was as crazy as we ever saw it. A firefight raged up and down the perimeter like a snake, and lasted for hours. Spooky and Puff gunships joined in, raining fire down from the sky as the battle intensified.
One crazy guy who hung with us, a zany character from New England named McCormick often joined us during these shows. “Mac” was a tall, lanky good natured dude. He was always joking around, had a keen wit and a great fondness for Gin and tonics. In Vietnam, we would often get shipments of alcohol of one kind or another by lot. For about four months while I was there, we got mostly gin, so naturally that’s what we drank. We made our own tonic using quinine from the dispensary and white soda which we traded for. Mac was by far the leading consumer of our gin and tonics, notable for having drank thirty two on one particular evening alone.
On this particular night, Mac sat with us, drinking our gin and tonics, and watching the fighting rage on. Finally, the battle became too intense, forcing us to retreat behind the bunkers into the hootch. Undaunted by the intensity of the violence, Mac dragged out a speaker from a stereo in the hootch. He placed the speaker on top of the sand bunker, put a tape on the reel to reel inside the hootch, and turned the volume up full. Soon, amidst the explosions, shooting and screaming “The Age of Aquarius” by The 5thDimension blasted from the lone speaker sitting on the bunker.
It was a wild, surreal scene. We laughed, yelled and sang along with the peace anthem favorite, as the violence raged on.
And although I was to witness many unfortunate events in Vietnam, that event, though not tragic, remains one of the most memorable for me. To this day, I can still see Mac, hunkered down behind the bunker, gin and tonic in hand, flashing his patented evil grin.
Learn and see more about Joe Campolo Jr. At his website Click Here
This article also appears in the 1/28/21 issue of the Smart Reader
The Paper Route
Growing up in Kenosha back in the fifties and sixties, many of us boys (and a few girls) had a paper route by the time we were twelve years old. Our allowances pretty much expired by that age, and our fathers let us know it was time to start earning our own spending money. (And they weren’t too subtle about it either)
The premier paper route job in Kenosha was that of a Kenosha News carrier. The Kenosha News routes were thought to be gravy jobs, because most of the people in Kenosha got that paper and as a result, the route sizes were small, but concentrated. You could walk those routes easily in an hour or so. If you had a Kenosha News route, you were high on the pecking order as a kid.
The other type of paper route to be had in Kenosha was a Henoch News agency route. These routes delivered the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Chicago American, Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel. Customers for those papers were much fewer and farther between, so the routes were large and spread out. Each of these papers was larger than the Kenosha News and required folding the various sections together before delivery. Because of the large spread and size of the routes, it typically took at least two hours to complete the route, sometimes three. The highly valued Kenosha News routes were handed down from family member to family member, so we ended up with a Henoch route.
My brother John and I started out with a Sunday route, and kept that going for a couple of years. Later, we got a daily route which paid more. When we first started out, we had to collect the money from the customers, and that would take another two to three hours each week. Henoch News eventually came up with a collection system that eliminated the need for the carrier to collect from the customer. That saved time, but also cut us out on many of the weekly tips we may have gotten. (At Christmas time, using cheap calendars as bait, we lobbied for tips)
Spring, summer and fall weren’t too bad as far as delivering papers in Kenosha. But winter…winter added a whole new set of problems to the task. My brother and I both had bicycles with side baskets which would hold many papers. Two or three trips to refill and we’d be done. In the winter, when the weather was bad, we had three choices; talk “Dad” into driving us, walk the route with newspaper bags, or use the sled with a special box for carrying loads. You can guess how much luck we had convincing Dad to take us. Walking our routes with the bag or the sled added at least two hours to our delivery time, but you do what you have to do. In the spring, summer and fall, rainy days presented problems as well. The newspapers were dropped off in bulk in front of our house in the early morning. If it was raining, we’d end up with a bundle of soggy newspapers.
Bad weather wasn’t the only problem we encountered during our paper route days. In the days when we still had to collect from the customers, there were always customers who we had to call on several times before we could collect the money owed. Occasionally the news agency would tire of their stalling and cancel their subscription.
Newspaper carriers and mail carriers both had to deal with a common enemy on occasion…dogs. Loose dogs would sometimes threaten us and even chase us off our routes. We got pretty adept at whacking them with a rolled-up newspaper while pedaling away as fast as we could.
One dog of note, harassed me on my route for a couple of months one year. I complained to the owners and the news agency but nothing helped. My mother didn’t like dogs, so we never had one. But now and then I’d bring home a stray and she’d let me keep it for a short while.
One of the strays I adopted solved the problem of the constant harassment I had been getting from the dog on my route. This particular stray was a large Boxer. I started taking it on my route, with the leash attached to the handle bars on my bicycle. Sure enough, one day the dog that had been harassing me came tearing out after us. I let the boxer off the leash and he taught that dog a well-deserved lesson. I had to give up the boxer after a couple of weeks, but was never harassed by the other dog again!
Despite a few inconveniences’ and problems on our various paper routes, I mostly enjoyed them and picked up enough money to carry me along for three or four years.
Learn and see more about Joe Campolo Jr. At his website Click Here
This article also appears in the 1/14/21 issue of the Smart Reader