Before New Jersey bought the property in Union as the site for Newark State Teachers College, the land was a farm owned by the Kean family. The Keans were from South Carolina but, in the 18th Century, one of them married a Livingston– Livingston, as in Robert Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey. All of that is unimportant except for this: I met Dickie Riley on what we called Kean’s Farm and he became my friend. He was my friend until he was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam 45 years ago.
He was 23. I can’t imagine a 68-year-old Dickie Riley. I don’t know if I want to.
This is how we met: I would spend a lot of time wandering alone around Kean’s Farm. My parents were divorcing and home was an unkind place. One day I came upon a clearing in a part of the farm that now sits under an endless parking lot. A group of boys about my age—11 or 12—were getting ready to play baseball. I knew none of them. Hostility is usually the first reaction toward strangers from kids of that age and, mostly, I got bad, go-away-kid looks from the boys. I just watched as the group divided itself into two teams and parceled out positions.
“Hey, you,” one of the boys called out. I wanted to run. I figured he would chase me away anyway.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Wanna play?” the boy called out. I heard some of the other kids groan, but one look from him and they shut up. He was the leader of the pack.
He was a short, square, dark boy with squinting eyes that seemed almost Asian to me. He used them to smile and they smiled at me that day. The other boys treated him with deference. Dickie knew what he wanted.
“Got no glove,” I said. I still didn’t believe he wanted me to join the group.
“Use mine,” he said.
I did. The kid was Dickie Riley–yes, he used Dickie then and it stuck–and, through him, I made friends with all the boys on the team. Because he accepted me, they did. Maybe that’s a small thing to you now but it’s not a small thing to a 11-year-old homeless kid with a home life going up in flames.
For years, our group would lurch from incident to incident. A floating poker game stoked with liquor stolen from parents’ bars. An insane plan to drive to Cuba to join in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, although it was never clear which side we would join once we got there. We did, however, manage to collect a few guns—one of which was pulled during one of those poker games. Dickie stared down the kid who drew it and laughed off the incident. Those eyes got him what he wanted.
Dickie worked for the Keans and drove a truck around the farm years before any of us had a driver’s license. He was known to wander off the farm with the pick-up to, well, yes, pick up, local girls. One summer, the parents of another friend invited me to spend a few weeks with them in Atlantic City. While I was gone, Dickie and his pick-up truck got a little too friendly with a girl I was dating. I hadn’t invited him to that game.
“She said she was lonely with you gone and all,” Dickie said when I confronted him, those eyes smiling the way they did. I decided I wanted him as a friend more than I wanted her as a steady date. We agreed neither of us would see her again.
We attended different high schools and, after we graduated, he went to war and I went to college. I am sure he would not have been pleased with my protest activities and I didn’t want to know what he was doing in Vietnam. We rarely saw each other.
Dickie was a warrant officer, a helicopter pilot. He saw a lot of action. I don’t remember how I learned he was dead but I do remember I was told he volunteered to go out on missions to supply soldiers on long-distance reconnaissance missions. He was brave and he was a leader and he did what he wanted to do, but I already knew that.
I knew other young men killed in Vietnam but he was my only good friend to die there. I have visited his name at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and I see a plaque in his honor at St. Genevieve’s Church on Sundays. I don’t now how many people who attend Mass there remember him.
I hated that war and the people who sent so many young men to die there, including Dickie Riley. I still do and I hate those in power now who still send children off to fight their wars. I don’t apologize for that.
I don’t know what Dickie Riley would have done if those who had the power didn’t need him in Vietnam. His father was a fireman and maybe he would have become one, too. Or a cop. He would have been a good cop. I’d like to think he and I would have played poker again.
He lives now only in the memories of his family and the dwindling number of people who knew him. It’s Veterans’ Day. There will be sales and parades and speeches and pictures of old men in campaign hats. I don’t want to see a parade. I will thank a kid who knew a lonely boy when he saw one.