My years are many, and because my memories are many times more, sometimes a present-day event will trigger pleasant reminders of long-ago special people, places, and things. In a recent conversation with my friend, he mentioned foods his Italian American mother cooked in their home, and I remembered —
A Guy Named Joe
In August 1951 I finished Air Force basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and took residence in another barrack there with 64 other persons assigned to duties at the Air Force’s largest hospital. On my first Sunday, at about six o’clock, or as I was now conditioned to also think and say, 1800 hours, most of the others sat around waiting. Some played cards to pass the time, but they all seemed content to just – wait.
A few minutes later we heard the announcement: “Here he comes.” Certain guys took their places as though repeating a special exercise. The three extra card tables I observed in the utility closet were arranged in the middle aisle, as the driver of a new Pontiac backed up near the door. When he opened the truck and doors, I was in awe of how much food was stuffed in the trunk, the back seat, and the empty front seat. I was certain he had robbed a grocery store until I saw food they don’t sell in grocery stores. Pretty soon I tasted most delicious foods with names like pignoli, biscotti, struffoli, and sfingi.
The cook, an Italian American mother, like all mamas with children in uniform, believed that when children, regardless of age or rank, are away from home they are not eating properly. So, when her son visited home twice a month, she cooked food for us poor hungry waifs. We threatened her son to not tell her the mess hall was across the street from our barrack.
After the food was laid out, he noticed me as the newest resident of the barrack, and he started the conversation.
J What’s ya name, and where ya from?
A: My names is James Edward Alexander, and I’m from Valdosta, Georgia.
J: Where’s that? If ya ain’t from Texas, ya just here on short invitation.
(He then let out a booming laugh.)
A: Who are you, and whereabout are you from?
He stood erect, braced his chest, and commanded everybody’s attention: “I’m Joe Termini, the proud citizen of the most beautiful spot-on earth, Galveston, Texas.” And, on behalf of the citizens of Galveston, he issued an invitation to visit. According to Joe Termini, Houston, about 60 miles north, was actually, in fact, no doubt about it, just a suburb of Galveston. Another GI overheard his boast and responded, “Just make sure you go there every other weekend.”
Then Joe reached in into his shirt pocket and tossed me a Hershey bar, “Here ya go Valdosta.” The gesture seemed to be the first, because every other week he looked around for me and repeated the toss. One week I was on duty when he returned, but when I came home, I found a bag of goodies on my bunk, and a Hershey bar.
More than half of the 65 enlisted men in our barrack had some college education, at least 20 with undergraduate and graduate degrees. Our country was in the Korean War, and they were lending their efforts. After four years they would return to their civilian professions, rather than becoming officers and serving longer. One among us, Airman Braxton, changed his mind and decided to attend the three-month Officer Candidate School (OCS). The candidates ate in the same mess hall near our barrack, and as they marched to chow, we looked for Braxton. The graduates were commissioned second lieutenants. We called them “Ninety-day wonders.”
One Sunday, as we watched the OCS candidates marching to chow, airmen Malone and Brenner had a louder than usual conversation, including asking, “What time is Joe due to arrive?” The answer, 8:30, was also a signal to Braxton to take a walk out of his barrack at 8:30 to receive his delivery of goodies from Joe’s mama. And, since I was the newest, and lowest ranking member of the entire barrack, I was the assigned “bag-man” at least twice.
Fifty-one years later, in 2022, my wife Toian and I visited Houston – the suburb of Galveston. My research informed me that Joe Termini was deceased, but I also located his cemetery in Galveston. I gassed up the car, drove to the cemetery office and located his grave. Toian, sensing that I wanted to share a few memories alone with an old friend, remained in the office.
It was a good visit. And then I stood at attention, saluted, reached into my shirt pocket, removed something I purchased at the gas station, and laid a Hershey bar on the tomb of a guy named Joe Termini.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.