High Horsepower Happiness
Thomas Calabrese –The 1967 Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato) had a 389 cubic inch engine with triple two barrel carburetors and produced 360 horsepower. It had a four-speed manual transmission with a Hurst performance dual gate shifting linkage and was metallic fathom blue in color, had a midnight blue vinyl top, black interior and chrome plated magnesium wheels. It only had 11,329 miles and was in pristine condition and was basically a ‘cherry ride’.
Teenager Joe Pamisano fell in love with the car the moment that he saw it. He told his uncle Carl Armato, owner of C.A. Garage in Kansas City, Missouri, “I want to buy that car from you.”
“How much money do you have?” Carl asked.
“I’ve got four hundred dollars right now”
“I’ve got 3200 in it.” Carl said, “I was going to make a few modifications and see what I could get for it.”
Joe was momentarily dejected, knowing how much more money he would need to come up with, but he was not deterred for long “Don’t sell it, I’ll figure a way to come up with the money. I’ll match any price anybody else will give you.”
“If you want it that bad, I don’t see how I can say no,” Carl smiled.
Over the six months, Joe worked two jobs, one as a construction laborer and the other as a delivery driver for a local hardware store and managed to give his Uncle Carl a thousand dollars over that period of time. Joe thought that he would have enough money to pay off the car in about a year.
Carl told his nephew, “There’s no reason for me keep the car. You’re basically making payments and the car is just taking up room at my garage.”
“Are you serious?” Joe exclaimed.
“I know how you feel about that car, I would never kid you about it.”
Joe was driving down Gladstone Boulevard on Saturday afternoon in his newly acquired car when the driver in the 66 fire engine red Chevrolet Chevelle with the oversized tires and chrome wheels in front of him abruptly stopped. Joe slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop, only inches from the car before him. All of a sudden the driver got out of his car and walked around to the passenger door and opened it. He pulled the girl out by her hair and began slapping her as she laid on the pavement. Joe quickly recognized the driver as Nick DiRivella and the girl as Elena Leone.
Nick DiRivella was the son of Alphonso DiRivella, organized crime boss and Elena was in his home room class at Northeast High School. The wise thing for Joe to do would be to just drive off, but he wasn’t the kind of young man to walk away when somebody was in trouble. He got out of his car and approached as Nick raised his right hand. Joe grabbed his wrist before he could strike Elena again. Nick spun around with fury in his eyes, “You want some of this, Pamisano?”
“Take it easy, Nick,” Joe responded.
Elena tried to stand up and Nick pushed her back down again. This angered Joe, “Don’t do that.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” Nick raged, “Big mistake!”
Joe stepped in front of Elena and warned Nick, “I’m not going to let you hit her again.”
Nick took a wild swing with his right hand that Joe easily blocked then threw several more punches and Joe blocked all of them. In frustration, Nick kicked with his left leg, but Joe grabbed his ankle and flipped him. Nick landed face down on the pavement and knocked out two front teeth. Elena couldn’t help but laugh and this really pushed Nick over the edge. He rushed over to his car, reached under the seat and pulled out a 38 caliber revolver and began firing wildly. Joe grabbed Elena and pulled her behind his vehicle then ran around behind Nick and punched him in the kidney. Joe grabbed the gun and punched twice Nick in the ribs who went down like a sack of rocks and began moaning in pain. He helped Elena into his car and they drove off.
Elena tried to compose herself and commented, “Thanks for your help, but you’re in a world of hurt.”
Joe sighed, “I know…he didn’t leave me a lot of choices.”
Nick laid in the street until another driver came by and took him to the hospital emergency room. It was a close knit Italian neighborhood and word traveled fast. Joe was escorted by his Uncle Carl to meet Alphonso DiRivella at his produce company at the city market. Carl reminded his nephew, “Remember who you’re talking to, Al DiRivella ‘made his bones’ (To kill someone in order to obtain membership in a criminal organization) as an enforcer for the Luciano crime family.”
Carl and Joe were escorted into the office. Several men were standing on both sides of the large mahogany desk. Al lit his cigar and rubbed his chin, “Hey Carl.”
“Hey Al,” Carl responded.
“Looks like we got a problem,” Al said calmly.
“That’s why we’re here.”
“I talked to Elena Leone and she told me what happened. I know that it wasn’t your fault, Joe.”
“Thank you, Mister Di Rivella,” Joe answered, “I wish it could have turned out differently.”
“My wife has spoiled my son. She made things too easy for him. He has now come to expect things like respect because he is my son instead of earning it on his own,” Al explained.
“He’s young, he’ll grow out of it,” Carl commented.
“I had hoped so, but I’ve come to the conclusion that he is who he is. He’s vengeful, mean and he reacts out of emotion rather than with common sense. I could tell him to leave you alone, but I don’t think he can control his temper. He might take a baseball bat and come up and bust your head open. He might also lie in wait for you and pump a few slugs in you. If Nick doesn’t whack you, you might have to whack him. (whacked is “to get killed, murdered, knocked off.) Either way there will be a grieving family so I need to ask you a favor, Joe.”
“If I can, Mister DiRivella,” Joe responded respectfully.
“I need you to leave Kansas City.”
“Leave and go where?” Joe was stunned.
“I have some friends in Vegas,” Al suggested.
Carl shook his head in resignation, “There’s no other way?”
“Not from where I’m sitting,” Al said, “This isn’t permanent, when things cool off, you can come back. I will owe you and that is a debt that will be very valuable to you and your family.”
Carl interjected, “When would he have to leave?”
“I’ve talked to the doctor and I told him to keep Nick in the hospital a few extra days. Joe should be gone before Nick is released,” Al strongly suggested.
As they were driving back to Carl’s garage, “I don’t want to go to Vegas,” Joe said.
“Have you ever thought of serving in the military, your dad served in the Navy and I did a hitch in the Marines,” Carl commented.
“I thought I’d go to college and get a deferment,” Joe answered dejectedly , “Looks like that’s off the table now.”
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll get one of my mechanics to watch the garage and we’ll fly to San Diego. I’ll show you around, maybe take a ride up to Pendleton. That way you can see for yourself. If it’s not for you then I’ll drop you off in Vegas on the way back.”
Joe knew that this was the best deal that he was going to get, “Thanks Uncle Carl.”
Joe said goodbye to his parents and boarded his flight for San Diego that evening. Carl placed a reassuring hand on his nephew’s shoulder, “You’re strong, you’ll get through this.”
Joe and Carl spent a week in Southern California where they visited the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and Camp Pendleton. Carl asked his nephew, “Well, I’ve shown you what I know, the decision is now yours.”
Joe smiled, “A lot of guys are going to Vietnam, I might as well join them.”
Carl and Joe found a Marine Corps Recruiting Station on Hill Street and Joe filled out the required paperwork. Gunnery Sergeant Martin Rogers asked, “There’s a delayed entry program, you can take up to 120 days before going to basic training.”
“Can I go in right now?” Joe asked.
“We can expedite the physical if you’re in that much of a hurry, “Gunnery Sergeant Rogers said.
“Will you take care of my car for me?” Joe asked.
“Absolutely,” Carl replied.
Joe entered the Marines on October 8, 1968 and by 25 March, 1969, he was in South Vietnam with the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0331. Also known as 31’s by their infantry platoon mates, these heavy machine gunners specifically handle the 7.62mm medium machine gun, the 50 caliber and 40mm heavy machine gun.
Joe was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. After sunset on 30 March the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines landed at Hill 10 establishing Firebase Stallion and they began moving west into the operational area, at the same time 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines landed on Hill 41 and also began moving west and by the following morning both battalions were in positions along the slopes of Charlie Ridge.
At 11:00 on 31 March HMM-165 helicopters landed the ARVN 2nd Battalion, 51st Regiment northeast of Thường Ðức Camp and the 3rd Battalion, 51st Regiment northwest of the camp. On 1 April, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines and the 4.2in mortar battery from 1st Battalion, 13th Marines headed for Landing Zone Robin overlooking Happy Valley. This was Joe’s first time ‘in the bush’ (slang for going into combat) The Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight medium-lift tandem rotor transport helicopter hovered in preparation for landing. It began taking heavy small arms fire. One bullet came up between Joe’s boots and exited through the top of the chopper. The Marines on both sides of him were hit and smoke filled the passenger compartment. Joe could hardly see, but in the haze he was able to discern the vague image of the crew chief and heard the warning, “We’re going down!”
The helicopter crashed and the next thing Joe realized was that two Marines were carrying him out of the downed aircraft. He was taken to an area on the west side of the landing zone where other wounded and dead Marines were lined up in a row. A corpsman gave him a quick examination and said, “I think you’re alright…get your senses on straight and see if you can stand up. I’ll be back in a while.”
Joe heard gunfire all around him and Marines were rushing past him like he didn’t even exist. He struggled to his feet and every muscle in his body ached. Just as he was getting used to being vertical again, a Marine knocked Joe over again as enemy mortars rocked the area.
“Boot in country?” Sergeant Kinsley asked.
“Just got in,” Joe mumbled as the ground shook beneath him.
“There’s an old saying in ‘Nam’, better to get it on your first day than your last.”
Everything was just a blur for Joe for the next 72 hours. He followed the Marine in front of him and did what he was told almost like a robot. There was no way for the corpsman to diagnose the severity of his concussion and since nothing was visible, Joe was just another grunt with a blank stare. It took three days before the headaches went away and Joe was assigned to a machine gun team as an ammo humper. He was given six hundred rounds to carry in three metal boxes.
On 1 April Col. Robert L. Nichols was ordered to attack the base camp of the 141st Regiment near the summit of Hill 1166. The Marines of 3/26 were ordered to advance south up the ridgeline towards their objective while 3/7 Marines would make their assault from the east. Joe’s team provided cover fire as a rifle squad of Marines approached an underground bunker. A sniper’s bullet hit Corporal Henry Dillman in the shoulder as he manned the machine gun. Joe instinctively took control of the M-60 and fired a burst into the trees and a North Vietnamese soldier fell out of his perch.
By the afternoon of 7 April 3/26 Marines had secured Hill 1166 and 3/7 Marines had secured Hill 1062 nearby. On the morning of 8 April 3/26 Marines descended into the ravine containing the base camp engaging 200 NVA soldiers as they attempted to escape to the southwest. The next day 3/26 Marines searched the camp area skirmishing with small groups of the enemy. Just before the sun went down the Marines set up a defensive perimeter and prepared their evening meals from their c-rations, wrote letters or cleaned their weapons with the remaining daylight. A chopper could be heard approaching in the distance and the Marines were filled with hope as the thump thump sound grew louder. Then the word was passed out down the line, Mail call!”
Some of the Marines received packages of pokey bait (slang for candy, cookies and sweets) and shared them with their comrades. Joe received a letter from his parents and one from his Uncle Carl and inside the envelope was a photograph of the GTO. Joe put the photo inside the plastic bag with his writing gear to protect it from the jungle humidity. It was one of those starless nights where the darkness was so deep, it seemed to engulf the Marines. Joe could not even see his hand in front of his face. The sound of an exploding claymore awakened everyone and several trip flares illuminated the landscape. North Vietnamese soldiers were moving through the jungle foliage toward the Marines’ positions. Joe got behind the M-60 as Jerry Olander expertly fed the ammo belt into the firing chamber. The machine gun team had familiarized themselves with their designated field of fire before the sun went down so Joe kept his focus on his assigned area. When the sun finally came up after a long tension filled night, enemy soldiers were lying dead or wounded within ten yards of the Marines’ positions.
By the time Operation Oklahoma Hills was ended on May 29, 1969, Private First Class Joe Pamisano had been promoted to Lance Corporal, was wounded once and recommended for the Bronze Star. Three months later, Joe was promoted to corporal and placed in charge of his machine gun team and four months after that, he was promoted again to sergeant and put in charge of three M-60 teams. Joe had been sending a money order to his Uncle Carl each month and by now he owned the GTO. He only had two months left in country before his tour of duty would end, so he wrote his Uncle Carl and told him of his plan to return to Kansas City.
Carl wanted to make sure that Al DiRivella knew that his nephew would be coming home. As he entered the warehouse of DiRivella Produce Company, Carl heard two men arguing, but couldn’t understand what they were saying. As he got closer, he saw Nick arguing with his father, “I’m going to inherit the family business sooner or later so don’t you think it’s about time you give me more authority. Right now I feel like a glorified errand boy!”
“I love you Nick and you’ll always be my flesh and blood” Al said, “but you don’t have the temperament to be in charge. When the time comes Louie Crocetti will assume leadership of the family business with me as consiglieri.” (Consiglieri is an adviser to a crime boss.)
Nick was outraged and began pacing back and forth like a wild animal in a cage behind his father’s desk. When all of a sudden, Nick pulled out a golf club from a bag in the corner of the room and began beating his father. Carl was stunned by the merciless brutality of the younger DiRivella. Even after his father was dead, Nick did not stop the assault for several more minutes.
Carl left the building without being detected and the following day’s news report stated that Alphonso DiRivella was killed by a rival crime family. Nick assumed command of the family’s business enterprises. He wasted little time in attacking rival factions. Al DiRivella had refused to get involved in human trafficking or narcotics, choosing to focus his attention on illegal gambling, but once took Nick took over, nothing was off the table. He even sent his thugs to Italian owned businesses in the neighborhood to demand protection money. When some of the men refused, they were beaten and for those that still did not comply, they disappeared. Nick had begun intoxicated with power and paid off corrupt police officers, judges and politicians to look the other way.
Carl wrote Joe during his 11th month in Vietnam and told him how dangerous the situation had become in Kansas City and his return would only make things worse for all concerned. Carl was hoping that something would happen to change the situation in the neighborhood, but Nick was as paranoid as he was cruel so he continued to expand his power and control by bringing in enforcers from St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and even as far away as New York.
Joe had grown up a lot in the past year and had come to learn the hard way, that doing what was best would always take precedence over his personal preferences. He wrote his uncle back and agreed to stay away. He could have finished his tour and gone back to the states, and just not go back to Kansas City. He decided instead to sign up for another combat tour and take 15 days leave and go to Sydney, Australia.
Upon his return from R&R, Joe volunteered for the covert mission Operation Tailwind that operated in Laos with Air Force planes, Army Special Forces and Montagnard tribesman. At the end of his second tour, Staff Sergeant Joe Pamisano decided to go back to the states, no matter what awaited him. His Uncle Carl was waiting for him at Camp Pendleton and was surprised to see how much his nephew had changed. The last time that he saw Joe he was a young confused boy and now he was a lean muscular man with clear steady eyes and an aura of purpose and strength. “I hardly recognized you.”
Joe responded calmly, “Everybody changes in war. If you’re here to tell me not to go home then save your breath. I’ve gotten used to fighting my enemies, not running from them.”
“I’m here to ask you for your help in taking back our neighborhood.”
After listening to his uncle explain how bad thing had gotten, Joe smiled, “I’ve developed a specialized set of skills that should be of use in this situation. I’ve got 30 days leave coming to me and I’d rather not use it all on this mission.”
“Roger that, Staff Sergeant,” Carl answered, “Let’s get this done!”
Joe and Carl took a flight back to Kansas City without telling anybody else of their plans. Elena Leone just happened to be driving down the street and saw a person in a hooded sweatshirt walking behind Carl as they entered his house. Even though she couldn’t see his face, something about him seemed very familiar.
Later than evening, Carl took a wooden box from the kitchen cabinet. When he opened the lid, it had four 45 caliber semi-automatic pistols in it and a dozen loaded magazines. Carl then opened a drawer and pulled out a notebook. “A list of DiRivella’s holdings around the city.”
“You’ve been busy since I’ve been gone.” Joe said
Just because I’m not in the Marines anymore doesn’t mean that I forgot how to do a scouting patrol.”
Several warehouses were burned down and the drugs were destroyed. Young girls who were being held against their will in various locations around the city were freed and their captives were killed. For the first time in a very long time, Nick was feeling very vulnerable so he ordered his men to find out who was behind the attacks and to not come back until they were killed. He went to sleep, but was awakened by the sound of gunfire. The bedroom door opened and Nick saw two shadowy figures standing before him.He tried to scream, but the stone cold fear deep in his gut immobilized his vocal cords and left him speechless.
The two men in the boat were unidentifiable and it was hard to tell what they were throwing in the Missouri River. Whatever it was, it was large and heavy. Later that evening Joe and Carl were eating at the local Italian eatery Villa Capri located on Independence Avenue. Elena walked in and noticed the two men, “Joe, when did you get back?”
“Just arrived, my uncle just picked me up,” Joe lied.
“Would you like to join us?” Carl asked.
“Yes I would,” Elena immediately sat down across from Joe.
Carl stood up, “I need to take care of some business, Elena, do you think you could give Joe a ride home?”
Elena flashed a big smile, “Glad to.”
Over the next ten days, Joe and Elena spent every day together. When it came time to return to Camp Pendleton, Joe and Carl were standing next to the GTO outside of Carl’s garage. “I double checked everything, she’s ready to go. What are your plans?”
Joe looked up and down the street, “Go back to Pendleton,” I’m trying not to look any further ahead than this trip. I’ll make my decision to re-enlist or return when I get back to Oceanside..”
“Expecting someone?” Carl asked.
“Yeah, kind of, she probably changed her mind.” Joe was obviously disappointed and opened the door to get in the GTO when a car drove up. Elena got out of the passenger seat and removed two suitcases from the backseat, “Sorry I’m a little late. You didn’t think I wasn’t coming, did you?”
“It never entered my mind,” Joe responded unconvincingly.
“You’re going to California too?” Carl asked.
“I’ve never been there and Joe promised to show me around,” Elena answered.
“When I’m not on duty with the Marines,” Joe quickly interjected.
Joe and Elena got in the car and the engine roared and rumbled when Joe turned the key and revved the engine.
Elena began singing the 1964 hit song by
Ronnie and the Daytonas “You’re really lookin’ fine
Three deuces and a four-speed and a three-eighty-nine.Listen to her tachin’ up now
Listen to her whine. C’mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out, GTO.”
Joe served his country in war then came home and answered another call to duty to protect those in his hometown. It had taken a while, but he had finally earned the right for a little High Horsepower Happiness in his GTO.