Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kindle Book Release

Having weathered the ups and downs of job loss, having experienced the sense of loss, and finding the road to recovery by welcoming a new perspective on life, I have published on Kindle, a short story about the experience.

The story is called Heavenly Artillery: Job loss through the lens of faith. I set a mere 99 cent price tag so that it is affordable for anyone.

This powerful and thought provoking story details the negative experience of job loss and how it stirred serious self-reflection. It took courage to examine my personal and professional life experiences in search of meaning and purpose.

The outcome, however, was a new life. It is an honest reflection on how my faith matured and served to move me toward my own business start-up.

Essentially, this short story is a prayer that promotes prayer. I believe it has the potential to inspire others.

Today, I own a small writing business. I set a mere 99 cent price tag so that it is affordable for anyone.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Story/Vietnam Vet

This story was featured in New Lenox Patch.com on May 30, 2011

The Neighborhood Files, Volunteers in the News
VFW Commander Reflects on Vietnam, Life Serving Veterans
Lou Vargas, the New Lenox VFW commander, was recognized in January for his outreach efforts.

By Ann Piasecki
Lou Vargas, VFW Commander, received Outstanding Chairman Award by the Veterans Assistance Commission of Will County. Photos (2)
Credit Ann Piasecki Credit Ann Piasecki

The foul odor of rotting foliage and decaying bodies had seeped into the air. The soil itself seemed angry, because it was soaked with blood and bloated with the remnants of human fear, anger that later turned to hate and a sense of self-imposed isolation. This lonely existence dominated the lives of on-the-ground U.S. soldiers stuck in the surreal hell that was Vietnam under siege in the late '60 and early '70s.

On Jan. 11, the day after 64-year-old Lou Vargas received the Outstanding Chairman's Award from the Veterans Assistance Commission Will County, he recounted his year-long trip through the valley of death, which ultimately led to his commitment nowadays to serving veterans.

Vargas, who doubles as commander of both the VFW Post 9545 in New Lenox and the Disabled American Veterans of Will County, Chapter No. 103, sat behind a desk in a two-man office in the rear portion of the VFW building, which itself is tucked in an out-of-the-way parcel on Old Hickory Creek Road, just off Vine Street.

The gray-haired patriot carefully grabbed a package and proceeded to gently lift the plastic cover off the two-foot-tall plague that lauds his drive to navigate the bureaucracy that oversees the distribution of benefits for which the agency was established to facilitate.

Speaking about the practicality of the Washington-based Veterans Administration, Vargas said he believes the folks behind those desks have short memories.

"They don't seem to remember that the veterans went to war so that they could live healthy and safe here," he said. "They don't see individuals."

But there's nary a soul that passes through the local VFW that Vargas doesn't know personally and greet with a genuine smile. Bustling through the Tuesday night Bingo crowd that fills at least 30 long tables, Vargas yells over the "caller" and tells the front door sign-in crew that he's stepping away for awhile.

It's pretty much routine for Vargas to meet with veterans who want to talk over a beer on Bingo night. Vargas is the guy they turn to when times are tough. His 5-foot-4-inch frame belies the heights he'll climb to connect with a buddy in trouble. He stands at the ready to assist veterans with benefit claims and to support them through a barrage of social ills that frequently spark job and family problems. What lies at the heart of these troubles, said Vargas, are the haunting memories that a distance of 8,000 miles and 40-plus years can't erase.

Surrounded by military memorabilia — black and white photos of soldiers standing next to the American flag, official-looking certificates and a desktop covered with VFW paperwork — Vargas neatly laid out two military parade caps, the brims of which are lined with medals that stand as symbols of his tour of duty.

Wearing a well-worn replica of the army field jacket he was issued in 1968, Vargas himself seemed to fade into the khaki character of the room. A recipient of the Bronze Star for his many actions performed on behalf of American troops during his tour of duty (Jan. 14, 1966 to June 13, 1968) Vargas said, "I was in the Iron Triangle," a Viet Cong stronghold throughout the war; it was located about 30 miles northwest of Saigon. This area on the border of Cambodia had been completely defoliated by bombs, napalm drops and heavy artillery blasts that occurred during Operation Junction City.”

Baptism By Fire

The phrase "baptism by fire" is an understatement, said Vargas, who was a 20-year-old private assigned to work on heavy artillery, the guns and cannons division.

"My third month in Vietnam was the first day of Operation Junction City; that was in March 1967. We got a call for a fire mission."

But Vargas survived relatively unscathed from that encounter until, he said, "I had an 8-inch (cannon) round accidentally dropped on my knee. I remember I was kneeling at the back of a truck, cutting (gun) powder into one bag and one guy dropped a round. It tore up all the ligaments in my knee." To this day, Vargas walks with a limp.

Leaning back in his chair, he said an injury like that normally would have bought him a ticket home, but Vietnam had its share of exceptions.

"We were short of men, and I had to stay," he said.

Vargas later joined the motor pool and ended up working as a wheel vehicle and gun track mechanic, assigned to the 25th Infantry. That's when the real nightmares started.

His deep, dark brown eyes grew intense and he shifted in his chair while he provided an edited version of the details about the Vietnam campaigns in which he was involved. The VC had the advantage, he said. They'd built an intricate network of interconnecting underground tunnels and bunkers tucked into the actual ridges of the terrain.

"There was no 'front' like in World War II," he said. "We'd set up compounds and establish ambush trenches. They came at you from everywhere." And the climate was like the tropics. "It was extremely hot (about 100 degrees) and humid. You could take a shower at night and put baby powder on, and by the time you walked 50 feet, your shirt would be soaked through again."

For a kid whose focus back home in Crest Hill was working on cars in the family garage, Vargas said, the experience was overwhelming. "When people ask me what I've learned in life, I tell them that I learned more in one year than you could or should in a life time."

Pausing for a moment as if to catch his breath, Vargas started and stopped a few times before he could get through the events of a single day.

"We were deep on a fire fight patrol," he said choking back tears that post traumatic stress disorder prevented him from shedding for 30 years. "You can't imagine the feeling. I was with the artillery, and we were overrun by the VC. We called for air cover, which meant that we were ready to die — our own airplanes would be dropping bombs on the site to prevent the enemy from capturing it.

"We tucked in where we could. We had a dugout where the artillery was. You went anywhere you could to avoid the napalm. I could smell it; it smelled like gasoline and chemicals. It burned my eyes. ... I lost a lot of friends there. I was overrun again in August 1967."

The atrocities to the human body and soul were beyond words, Vargas said. Most of the guys over there had no choice in the matter. "I was drafted," he said, as he rattled off his draft number, US 54801787. "You remember that like you remember your name."

Misfit at Home

When their tour of duty was over, the veterans came home to encounter more violence. There were anti-war demonstrations, and people took it out on the vets, he said.

"I came home on Jan. 22, 1968. My whole family was there to meet me at O'Hare. It was a heart-warming experience. Then while my brother and I were waiting to pick up my duffel bag as I was walking out of the airport, I saw a protestor. He walked up to me and called me a baby killer and spit in my face. I did the only thing I could do. I had no choice. I beat the hell out of him right there at the airport. That was my introduction back home.

"When we came back, we were misfits," he said.

In those days, the Veteran's Administration didn't offer any debriefing.

"There wasn't anybody to talk to, so you become a loner," he said. "After I got married, I still had issues. My temper never turned into physical violence, but my wife put up with more nonsensical outbursts than anyone should ever get."

His wife, Bernice, has stuck by him for 35 years and got involved with the DAV Auxiliary and worked to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Lou's given his life to helping vets," Bernice Vargas said. "I'm very, very proud of him. He does a lot for them." She recalled the early years of the marriage as being particularly tough. Upon her insistence, he'd worked with several psychiatrists and psychologists, but they didn't know how to deal with it.

Lou said it wasn't until he was on the verge of divorce that he finally found authentic help at Hines Veteran's Hospital in Maywood in the late '90s, where he was diagnosed with PTSD and began to talk more openly about combat with his doctor.

But he still wouldn't share his feelings with Bernice, who said that hurt her feelings. So she did the next best thing: joined in his outreach efforts. She's now the Illinois State Commander for Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary.

"It's quite an honor," she said. That union in terms of outreach for the veterans helped bring their marriage even closer. "He's so happy that I get involved like that."

The couple's two adult children, Billie Ann and Rick, are supportive of their father as well, she said. When the kids were younger, sometimes Lou couldn't get as involved in their activities as he would have liked. Lou remembered how he'd be despondent when he got home from work. Frustration marked his existence for 18-plus years at the Commonwealth Edison plant in Braidwood. It got to the point that his psychiatrist ordered him to quit his job.

"He told me that I was going to hurt somebody if I stayed," he said.

And while he got pension benefits from ComEd, he couldn't muster anymore than 30 percent of his rightful claim from the VA. It took years before his claims were processed.

"They kept denying me. It got to the point once that they actually asked me to prove that I was in Vietnam at all."

An investigative story in the Sun Times that featured Vargas and nine other veterans drew enough attention to the issue, and he quickly went from 30 percent eligible for claims to 70 percent and then 100 percent covered for physical and psychological claims.

"Up till then, I was paying out-of-pocket for treatments.”

Reaching Out to Help Others

After that, Lou decided to dedicate himself to helping other veterans. He's been at it ever since. For the past five years, he has been the commander for the Will County DAV; for three years he's served as a board member on the Veterans Assistance Commission of Will County; and in 2009, he served as the national deputy chief of staff for the DAV. Today, he also serves as the VFW junior vice commander of the 18th District, which represents 15 posts from New Lenox to as far as Sandwich, and as senior vice commander for the Northern 12th District of the DAV.

His efforts are not merely tied to a list of titles, Bernice said. "He really works hard to help people."

Cindy Ketcham, superintendent of the VAC of Will County, said Lou is a great choice for the VAC's 2010 Outstanding Chairman Award.

He took over the VAC children's fund drive last year and now shoulders the fundraising efforts to assist the families of struggling veterans. This year, he raised about $3,000," which was distributed with gift cards so families could decide how best to use the money.

"Lou's a very, very dedicated veteran," Ketcham said. "He's a good patriot. He'll bend over backwards for you."

Lou said his claims assistance and one-on-one meetings take between 10 and 40 hours a week. "I'll do whatever it takes," he said. However, he makes sure that Bernice and the rest of the family, including three grandchildren, are taken into consideration too.

"He's great with the grandkids," Bernice said, because he's got things more in control these days. Lou readily admits that he still suffers the effects of PTSD, but he knows how to cope with it.

For years, he wouldn't talk about anything, but that's changed.

"I tell these guys that we can't let them forget what happened there," he said. "We have to tell our stories. And it helps to talk about it."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Real Life Father's Day Story

The Man in the FamilyBy: Ann C. Piasecki
Owner: Cameo Memories and Photography
Email: director@cameomemoriesandphotography.com

My name is Jim Conley. I grew up an Irish Catholic in a large corner apartment building at West End Avenue and Le Claire Street in the heart of Chicago's Austin District. I'm the oldest of three boys, each born a year apart, to Lee and Mary (O'Brien) Conley. In 1915 my parents owned the six-flat apartment building where we made our home. The community of largely Irish, Italian, German and Scandinavian immigrants was solidly middle-class, clean and safe. Elm trees and neat lawns lined the streets and boulevards. Small businesses like Sal's Groceries, Ed's Barber Shop, Kresgee's Five-and-Dime, O'Hallaran's Pub and Gelato's Pharmacy dotted the 25.7 square miles of this West Loop neighborhood.

The makings of World War I in Europe were yet beyond our purview— we had enough bluster coming from our own City Hall. St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and School on Washington Boulevard was an integral part of our family community. You could rent a canoe or paddle boat at Columbus Park, and in the summer we'd walk over to the pavilion for an outside orchestral performance. I was partial to Red Allen, and boy could Louis Armstrong make that horn cry.

We used to swim at the YMCA or play side-street baseball—that was our gang's favorite activity. Our bicycles, our own two feet, the Lake Street "L" and the Green Hornet street rail were our modes of transportation.

I guess you could say my dad, a Chicago policeman, my mom and us boys were snug in a comfortable existence; but for me, it lasted only 14 years. I had just completed my freshmen year at St. Mel's High School when my dad got shot and killed in the line of duty. School was already out for the summer, so on this Friday my brothers and I travelled with my Uncle Obe, he was policeman too, to see a friend of his on Maxwell Street. Afterwards we shopped around for deals on baseball cards—I wanted one of Lou Gehrig. I saw Babe Ruth play once while on a vacation in Philadelphia. You had to respect the Yankees.

But what happened later that day is forever burned in my memory. I recall every sensation. If I think about it, I can still detect the evil odor of dread, upset stomach, nervous shaking that occurred on that shadowy and unusually hot spring night, May 31, 1929.

Supper was late. Mom kept the pot roast warming on the stove for a long time before she got fed-up and told us to come in and eat. My dad was supposed to accompany my little brothers, 13-year-old Jack and 12-year-old Bill, to a mandatory meeting about vocations and the missions at the St. Tom school gym. We thought my dad was just running late—probably stuck booking some bum he'd pinched for public drunkenness, and that he'd be home soon. I'd finished my paper route and was listening to the baseball game, the Socks vs. Philadelphia, on the radio. I sat perched on the window seat in front of the long, tri-bow window frame in our third-floor apartment, waiting for the familiar wave Dad gave me every night when he stepped out of the squad car he frequently drove home.

It got to be about 7:30 p.m., two-and-a-half hours late from his normal arrival when I spotted a line of squad cars driving down the street. It wasn't just three or four; there must have been 20 or so it seemed, in a parade-like fashion looming in on us. Then it hit me. I didn't know the details, but I knew the god-awful truth.

I sat there, paralyzed, couldn't make a sound. The yet unspoken, dizzying reality of never again seeing the 39-year-old, 5-foot-8-inch redhead that everybody said I resembled to a tee literally took my breath away. Watching those blue and white squads snake around the corner and park, I thought I was transported somehow into a slow-motion film. The images were real, but my ability to absorb them were more like blurry impressions. I heard the car doors open and slam in unison. About six or seven uniformed policemen crowded around the lead squad—I knew the captain, John Maloney, and my dad's patrolmen friends; Ziggy, O'Connell, Pete Donovan and Joe Duffy—Dad's partner, Pat Murphy, wasn't there—he died that afternoon too along with an innocent bystander named Myron Bagnola. Of course I didn't yet know about Officer Murphy or Mr. Bagnola.

I saw the officers walking toward the front door. Then there came that blaring sound of the buzzer; it shook me out of my catatonic-like state. Mom came out of the kitchen wearing an apron and wiping her hands on a towel. I was breathing heavy and my heart was pounding so hard I thought it would leap out of my chest. I stared at her with a panicky look on my face. She pushed the intercom button and asked who it was. Captain Maloney identified himself. He said something had happened and that he had to talk to her.

A tidal wave of emotion came over her. Her hands moved suddenly over her mouth. In a muffled cry, she screamed, Oh My God! Oh My God, it's Lee!" Then we heard the trail of heavy-footed steps echoing in the stairwell, mounting their way to the third floor. Mom opened the door to find a bevy of police officers on the landing.

I never heard the conversation. My nerves had taken over; I couldn't hear anything. I saw Captain Maloney's mouth moving; I saw my mom—a normally take-charge woman, the kind that had no qualms about cracking one of us boys if we gave her lip or failed to take out the garbage—collapse into the arms of Ziggy and O'Connell. The uniforms surrounded her. I was stunned, but then Ziggy noticed me; he grabbed me with a big bear hug. I pushed him away and started yelling, "No. No." Tears streaming down her face, my mom gathered Jack and Bill into her arms.

We later learned the devastating details of Dad's death. A domestic dispute in the Ukrainian Village erupted around 4 o'clock. A former WW I sniper, an immigrant from Kiev, went nuts and started firing rounds from an old Mauser. My dad had just finished an eight-hour watch in the Shakespeare District and was on his way home when he got the call about a family argument gone awry. He was the first on the scene and moments later Murphy, who got flagged down before he left the station house, arrived in another squad; he pulled up behind Dad. They could hear the gun shots even before they got out. My dad told Murphy to radio for back-up, but they knew they had to act immediately. The nutcase had some old woman pinned down behind a milk wagon; I guess she was hysterical, and people were scattering like rabbits. The thing is the two had no idea that this guy, Kuzma Zelenko, was a sharp-shooter, nor that he was having a flash-back to some armed encounter in Eastern Europe. He'd already shot his wife in the shoulder and then bolted out of the apartment. He climbed onto the Polk Brothers' rooftop and was firing at anything that moved.

The fact that my dad was the first to charge the sniper was no consolation. He got his head blown off. Murphy was down seconds later with a shot in the chest. When back-up arrived, they found what was left of the two lying in a bloody pool on the sidewalk at Division and Ashland. Dad was on the force for 16 years; Murphy, who had four kids under 6 at home, had 10 years in. Zelenko managed to take out one more policeman, Stanley Pierson, before the tear-gas they launched on the rooftop overtook him.

There was little solace to the fact that this bastard Zelenko never made it alive to the station house for questioning. This was Chicago, and he'd massacred three police officers. Believe me, they took it personally. They cuffed him and loaded him into the paddy wagon. Apparently he'd escaped and then committed suicide. A few days later his body was found bloated and floating in the Chicago River.

Economic Violence as Potent as Gangster Warfare
The antics of society elites in the Roaring '20s and the evolution of bootleggers and gangsters, especially Al Capone and Bugs Moran, who regularly gave the Chicago Police Department a run for its money, were pretty much just newspaper accounts to us kids. The St. Valentine's Day massacre a few months before Dad died cemented Chicago's infamous reputation as a home for mobsters. Little did we know that the coming era of economic violence would be far more potent. Like the bullets that riddled those warring gangsters in a vacant garage on Clark Street, the Great Depression would strike at the core of our existence; first it whittled away at our pocketbooks, but more intensely, it chipped away at the heart and soul.

Sometime over the summer of '29—I don't know exactly when—my family stopped calling me Jimmy. I was Jim now, because I was the man in the family. A part-time job at Sal's Groceries pretty much replaced neighborhood baseball games, and the thought of going out for the high school football team seemed pointless. My usual cavalier attitude was replaced with worry and responsibility. Dad's life insurance policy and pension amounted to a pittance. After the funeral, we never really heard much from the Conley side of the family. They were "shanty Irish" and lived up near Galena, IL.

I picked up the smoking habit in the fall, but nobody seemed to care. I saw it as a man's privilege. And just as I thought I'd managed to accept my new life, things got a lot worse. The stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929. Black Tuesday marked the beginning of the Great Depression.

Sure my mom's side, the O'Brien's—Uncle Obe, and the spinster sisters, Aunt Jo and Aunt Sue—helped as much as they could. They paid for our tuition; Jack and I were both at St. Mel's High School and Bill was still at St. Tom's. But it didn't cover the bills. Mom started taking in laundry and ironing, and I gave her my money from the grocery store and the paper route I kept. Jack and Bill both took on paper routes. I learned how to do simple repairs around the building like fixing leaky pipes, faulty iceboxes or broken window ballasts. I found I had quite an aptitude for that kind of thing.

I set a curfew for my brothers and made sure they stayed out of trouble. I had to meet once with Bill's school principal, Sister Mary Agnes, after he got in a fight on the playground—at least he won or so he said. Truth be told, I was actually proud of Bill because I never did like that kid, Dino Giovanni. He was a cocky little son-of-a-pup, and beside that, his air was greasy and he looked like he needed a shave—he was only in 8th grade.

Over the next several years, I'd relish in the rare opportunities I had to see a film. Sitting in velvety seats in the darkness of the Tivoli Theatre or the State & Lake, I'd stare up at the gigantic screen and laugh at Jimmy Durante's shenanigans in "The New Yorkers" and lose myself in the confident aspirations of Ethel Merman singing "I've Got Rhythm" in the film "Girl Crazy." For a couple of hours I could escape the daunting liability I had inherited.

The jobs at the Stock Yard were slashed, but industries like small steel mills, glass companies and furniture makers pretty much dried up all together. My hours at the grocery store were maintained because I took over inventory procedures, but the O'Brien's lost all discretionary funds. They couldn't help us with much, so Jack and I left St. Mel's and enrolled at Austin High School; Bill did graduate from St. Tom's though. I don't think the school ever got the full tuition due.

No, we didn't go hungry, but milk and meat were scarce. No matter how bleak life had become, Mom was determined to maintain the essence of our life. In contrast to the makeshift tents set up in Columbus Park by people who'd lost their homes, our apartment was clean and comfortable. She'd clip the frayed strings off the now worn-out lace doilies that graced the coffee table, and she made sure that dust never settled on the statue of the Blessed Mother in the curio cabinet. I could hear her, once in awhile, talking to herself and sort of yelling at Dad for abandoning her to face all this on her own.

In October 1932, my senior year, I got kicked out of Austin High School for smoking in the bathroom; I wasn't that upset. As it turned out, Mom lost the building for $235 in back taxes. We became renters there. I was 17 years old and could work day jobs for anyone who could afford to pay 25 cents or less an hour. The song, "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?" sure resonated with me. I burned garbage out behind the Diplomat Restaurant, shoveled out coal bins, washed windows and dishes—anything to make a buck. Then I got a fairly regular job running errands for the Precinct Captain; the tips were good. Sometimes I'd get a buck for delivering an envelope! Uncle Obe said he could get me a job working for the City when I turned 18. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my dad and uncle and become a policeman too. You had to be 21. I later discovered that my 5-foot-6-inch frame was two inches too short to meet the physical requirements for the men in navy blue.

By 1934 things were beginning to look up. I was still working for the Precinct Captain, and he's the one who eventually lined up a job for me in the Water Meter Division. Now and then, I could afford to take a girl out to dinner.

Any money that came in was appreciated. Uncle Obe was "on the take" at work. He'd accidentally lose bits of evidence in racketeering cases against the mob and ignore bribes paid to City inspectors. The family all knew about it, but it was never discussed openly. After all he was married and had a family of his own to support. He bought back the building for my mom in 1935. We were a tight-knit clan.

Jack and Bill worked hard to earn tuition for college, but I provided significant assistance. I did it out of love. I wanted them to be happy. I helped out quite a few friends along the way too. Eddy Dolton got at least $200 and Jim Sullivan got an extra $25 whenever he was short. Jack graduated with a degree in business from Loyola University and eventually went to work for Sears & Roebuck, and Bill got a liberal arts degree from Benedictine College in Atkinson, Kan.; he became a teacher and football coach. I went on to work for the City and did a lot of campaigning. It was my bread and butter so I worked to get the Democrats elected. I was part of the political machine and glad to do it. I was well-liked and respected for taking responsibility seriously.

I got married Jan. 25, 1939, to Louise Marr, an Italian/Irish girl from the neighborhood. She was beautiful, sort of the ilk of an Elizabeth Taylor. We had three girls and a boy: Mary Lee is the oldest—she was named after my parents; then came Jane Louise; next was James (Jimmy) Patrick, and finally Ann Clare.

Every year on May 31, usually over the Decoration Day holiday, I take a ride out to All Saints Catholic Cemetery in Des Plaines. When the kids were little, I'd take them with me. I'd stand quietly over my dad's grave; my mom is buried next to him now. Then I say a few prayers. I believe their souls are in Heaven. And I still miss them.

The End