It is Called Effort
Thomas Calabrese –Santino ‘Sonny’ Contino was a young boy growing up in the Southside of Brockton, Massachusetts. His family lived next door to Pierino and Pasqualina Marchegiano and their children Louis, Peter, Alice, Concetta, Elizabeth and Rocco.
Rocco would later become known as Rocky Marciano, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. Sonny was born in 1945 and as a young boy, he worked running errands and doing odd jobs around Gaetano’s Boxing Gym. Sonny had a serious case of hero worship and was awestruck by the Italian fighter.
Rocky almost died from pneumonia when he was 18 months old, but somehow survived. Maybe it was this brush with death made him as tough as nails when he was a child. As he got older Rocky worked as a laborer, ditch-digger, railroad track layer and shoemaker, but was determined to help his family out of poverty. Rocky was drafted into the army where he developed an interest in boxing. He represented the Army in the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces boxing tournament and won his division. Rocky told his brother, Louis. “This is my way up and out, there’s no stopping me now.” Although he only had one professional fight while technically still an amateur, Marciano began fighting for good in the paid ranks as a professional boxer on July 12, 1948.
Marciano was a very complicated man and did some things that weren’t particularly admirable, and if a person applied today’s social justice politically correct standards, they might even be considered odd and offensive to some people. But that doesn’t take into account how Rocky grew up, and that the world was an entirely different place in the Depression. He was fanatically loyal to people he cared about, generous to a fault and never lost his humbleness.
Rocky was often quoted as saying that he absolutely, positively, and passionately refused to lose. There were fights when he was a bloody mess and beaten almost to a pulp, but still emerged victorious. It was two days after the Ezzard Charles fight and Rocky’s nose was split in half. The doctors told him that it be could six months before he could fight again, but that didn’t stop Rocky from continuing his grueling training regimen.
When he entered the gym at 0700 hours, Sonny was sound asleep inside the boxing ring. Rocky didn’t disturb him, but picked up the broom and began sweeping. This was one of the duties of young Sonny so when the young boy awakened to the sound of the broom moving over the wood floor, he called out. “What are you doing?”
Rocky responded. “Sweeping…what are you doing?”
“That’s my job,” Sonny protested.
Rocky continued sweeping and responded, “It needed to be done and you weren’t doing it.”
The situation was embarrassing to Sonny and he didn’t know how to respond so he hung his head and mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me…I’m not offended.”
Sonny was hesitant at first, but finally found the courage to ask. “How do you do it… don’t you ever get tired or say, I’ll think I’ll take a day off?”
Rocky leaned the broom against the wall and smiled. “It’s not that complicated, but simple isn’t the same as easy. I have no control over what life throws at me, but I do have control over how I react to it. I deliberately make things extremely difficult for myself so that I’m ready to face difficult challenges. The other thing to remember is that if you want to earn people’s respect, you have to make sacrifices. Nothing of value in this life comes without a price. Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody is looking or when no one knows what you’ve done. It is only important that you and God know.”
Sonny was choked up, he walked over and picked up the broom and began sweeping without saying a word. His actions from that day forward were undeniable proof that Rocky’s words had a profound effect on him. As Sonny got older, he began working for Rocky so he could learn from him. Marciano was so focused on his own training that he didn’t have time to be a mentor, but led by example. Sonny quickly learned to keep up or be left behind. Rocky would run twelve miles a day, usually over rough terrain and steep hills and used to be the first to arrive at the gym, but eventually that distinction went to Sonny who made it a point to be waiting when Marciano arrived.
Rocky saw boxing as his only option to escape poverty, but emphasized to Sonny that there was a different way for him. “Apply your work ethic to everything you do and you’ll have more choices than me. Choices are always a good thing.”
“I will, I promise,” Sonny said.
Rocky Marciano announced his retirement on April 27, 1956, at the age of 32 and had a professional boxing record of 49–0. Rocky was the only heavyweight champion in history to have made every single title defense against the highest ranked available contender at the time. Repeat, Marciano was the only heavyweight champion in history to have made every single defense against the highest ranked contender. That fact is worth repeating and undeniable proof that Rocky never took the easy way out.
Sonny attended Cardinal Spellman High School and was voted best athlete during his junior and senior years. He was also the class valedictorian of his graduating class of 1964. Rocky generously gave Sonny a $10,000 dollar graduation present. Written on the card were these words. ‘Whatever you decide to do, I have complete faith that you will do it well. You have earned my trust, respect and loyalty. I hope this helps you in the next chapter of your life, Rocky.’
After careful consideration, Sonny decided to attend Boston College where he majored in Finance and played baseball and football. During his time in college, Sonny joined the Marine Corps Reserves and was called to active duty after graduation and sent to South Vietnam in July of 1967. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion 5th Marines and fought in the battle of Hue from January 31, 1968 until February 19th when he was wounded while taking out an enemy machine gun and killing eleven enemy soldiers.
Sonny’s wounds resulted in his being evacuated to Japan for treatment. He received the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions and could have been gone back to the United States, but he volunteered to return to the war and joined the First Battalion, Ninth Marines.
During the Vietnam War, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines earned dubious nickname of “The Walking Dead” for its high casualty rate. The battalion endured the longest sustained combat and suffered the highest killed in action (KIA) rate in Marine Corps history. The battalion was engaged in combat for 47 months and 7 days, from 15 June 1965 to 19 October 1966 and 11 December 1966 to 14 July 1969. Based on a typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 2,892 Marines passed through the unit over those 47 months; 25.89% (747) a were killed in action.
Sonny knew of the legacy of his unit and remembered the words of Rocky. ‘Simple isn’t the same as easy. That motto is never truer than in the arena of combat where staying alive and defeating the enemy are tops on the priority list. Sonny was two months into his 3rd tour in the ‘Nam and had been promoted 3 times and was now a Major. He built a reputation as a combat tested leader who fulfilled his mission and took care of his men. When Sonny heard about a special unit he requested a transfer to Marine Task Unit 79.3.5 codenamed Viper and commanded by Colonel Ben F. Tasker.
Colonel Tasker was an old school Marine, rugged and tough and didn’t care much for protocol or doing things by the book. He was blunt, honest and wanted warriors, not drillfield dandies. An unlit cigar could usually be found in his mouth that he rolled back in forth as he talked. His words had an underlying gruffness to them. “I saw your record, very impressive. Are you some kind of hero? I don’t like heroes.”
Sonny was not intimidated by the legendary Colonel who served in World War II and Korea before coming to the ‘Nam. He had been around legendary greatness with Rocky Marciano and everyone else paled in comparison. He looked Colonel Tasker right in the eyes and answered curtly. “A Marine is only as good as his next mission. Personally, I don’t care what you like or dislike. I’m here to do my job, Colonel. If you want me, I’ll give you my best. If you don’t, then I’ll be on my way.”
Colonel Tasker liked the no-nonsense approach attitude of this Marine. “I heard that your nickname is Sonny….mind if I call you that?”
“Don’t mind at all.”
Sonny wasted little time getting acclimated to his unit because downtime was not in his vocabulary. After introducing himself to the men under his command, he began leading covert missions into Laos and Cambodia. Working with one of the CIA-organized group of Hmong tribesman in the so called ‘Secret War’, they inflicted heavy casualties on the North Vietnamese. Major Contino and his elite force of battle tested Marines and Hmong soldiers routinely attacked supply convoys along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He also fought against Communist Pathet Lao troops and helped rescue downed American pilots.
Even Colonel Tasker, who prided himself as a hard case was astounded by the work ethic of Captain Contino. “I’ve been around a lot of Marines in my career, but I’ve never met one like you. What drives a man like you? You start each day at full speed and never slow down. I can’t figure out if you’re obsessed, dedicated, or just plain crazy.”
Sonny responded. “I can’t control what happens around me, all I can do is control how I react to it. I don’t want to look back and ever say, ‘I could have done more or could have done better.”
Colonel Tasker smiled. “You’ve been awarded the Navy Cross for your mission at the DMZ.”
Five months into his third tour, Major Contino received the devastating news that on August 31, 1969, Marciano died in a plane crash the day before his 46th birthday. Two others also died in the crash: Marciano’s family friend, Frankie Farrell, and the pilot Glenn Belz. The plane took off around 6 pm from Midway Airport in Chicago, bound for Des Moines, Iowa. Farrell had planned to open a Des Moines-based insurance agency, and Marciano had agreed to come support his friend.
This was the kind of man that Rocky was, always willing to help out those that he cared about. The plane went down about 30 miles from Des Moines, in Newton, Iowa. In retrospect, the accident was all the more tragic because it could easily have been avoided. To begin with, the plane had taken off despite warnings in Chicago of poor weather along their flight path. Even worse, the pilot was not qualified to fly a plane at night.
A report conducted after the crash determined that Belz had found himself in circumstances that exceeded his experience and abilities. A more professional approach would have been for Belz to weigh the known weather factors against his piloting experience and make an objective decision about whether it was a good idea to even take off. His mistake cost the world a legend. Sonny knew in his heart that if the pilot had the same dedication to doing his job that Rocky had shown in his boxing career, there would not have been a crash. Once again, the words; simple is not the same as easy echoed through his mind.
Sonny didn’t elaborate but told Colonel Tasker. “A good friend of mine was killed. I was wondering if I could get a few days off to get my head back in the game. If you can’t do it, I understand.”
“Whatever you need.” Colonel Tasker responded without hesitation. “I can get you orders for Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei, Sydney…name it.”
Sonny responded, “Appreciate the offer, but China Beach will be fine.”
At China Beach, which was located outside of Danang, a Marine, sailor or soldier could shuck the war like an oyster and find a pearl of sanctuary…at least for a little while. He could surf, swim, or catch some zzzzzz’s. The only problems any military man encountered at China Beach were the life-altering decisions on how much sun to soak up, how much food to eat and how much beer to drink.
Major Contino wasn’t at China Beach for the usual reasons. He needed the rest more than the recreation. He had been ‘in country’ for over two years and faced every challenge presented to him and overcame some seemingly insurmountable obstacles. He had lost comrades and experienced the brutality of war that only comes from being face down in the mud and knee deep in the blood, but the news of Rocky’s death hit him like a freight train and was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as they say. Sonny always thought of Rocky as being invincible and the one constant in an ever-changing world. The harsh reminder that nobody gets out of life alive hit Sonny like a sapper attack on a dark night. Maybe it was the unexpectedness of Rocky’s death that threw his world into disarray. Whatever it was, Sonny needed to resolve the problem in a hurry and get back to his unit.
He was sitting alone on the beach, mesmerized by the waves rolling in to shore and rolling back out again. The din of combat veterans carousing drifted on the tropical breeze from a few hundred yards away. A group of inebriated soldiers staggered down the beach. At this time, Sonny was reading the letter about Rocky’s death for the hundredth time and a soldier reached down and snatched the correspondence from his hands. “What do we have here? A Dear John letter? Maybe we should book you a room at Heartbreak Hotel!”
The other soldier burst into laughter and Sonny commented, “I need that back…it has sentimental value.” Sonny strongly suggested, “Go back to your party and leave me alone.”
The soldier raised the letter above his head and taunted, “Come and get it.”
Sonny shook his head in amazement. “Really, is this how you want to play this? It’s not too late to give me the letter and go back to your drinking.” He didn’t want to hurt a few guys who were blowing off some steam, but on the other hand, a lesson was in order. Sonny was extremely skilled in hand to hand combat and still possessed the boxing skills that Rocky had taught him. He hit the soldier holding the letter with a body shot that would have made Rocky proud. The young man fell to his knees gasping for air. Sonny used martial arts to flip two of the other soldiers to the ground. The other two quickly lost interest. As the soldiers staggered back to the barbecue, Sonny laughed and said to himself. “They probably won’t even remember what happened…to be young, drunk and stupid. Let’s hope they live long enough to grow out of it.”
After his return to his unit, Major Santino Contino volunteered for Operation Ivory Coast. It was a covert mission conducted by United States Special Operations Forces and other American military elements to rescue U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. It was also the first joint military operation in United States history conducted under the direct control of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On 21 November 1970, a joint United States Air Force and United States Army force commanded by Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor and Army Colonel Arthur D. ‘Bull’ Simons landed 56 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers by helicopter at the Sơn Tây prisoner-of-war camp, which was located 23 miles (37 km) west of Hanoi, North Vietnam. The objective of the operation was the rescue of 61 American prisoners of war thought to be held at the camp. Unfortunately, the camp contained no prisoners as they had previously been moved to another camp.
It was after this mission that Sonny returned to the United States. He had orders for Camp Pendleton and 30 days leave. After seeing relatives in Brockton, Massachusetts, Sonny began his drive to California with a stop at Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Lake City, Florida to visit Rocky Marciano’s gravesite to pay his respects. He also went to Newton, Iowa, the site of the plane crash and looked up to the heavens. “I’m still above ground…thanks to you and the man above.”
After arriving at Camp Pendleton, Major Santino Contino was assigned to the Infantry Training Regiment (ITR). A movie studio got permission from the Department of Defense to film on base. They were doing a full length feature on the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue City. Sonny served as one of the technical advisors and had a small part. Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Robert Duvall were the main stars of the film.
The ‘wrap’ party was held at the Staff Non-Commissioned Officers Club after filming concluded. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin drove down from Beverly Hills for the festivities. They were part owners of the production company and had great interest in the film. Sonny had met both men in New York City when he was a young boy because they were close friends of Rocky Marciano and were ringside at all of his title defenses.
Sonny approached the two men as they sat at the main table with Bronson, McQueen and Duval. Excuse me, sorry for the interruption, Mister Martin, Mister Sinatra, we met several times. I was a friend of Rocky Marciano.”
“What’s your name?” Dean Martin asked.
Sonny responded. “Santino Contino.”
They was a long delay as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin tried to remember. Finally Frank burst out. “Sonny Contino! Dean, this is Sonny!”
Frank jumped from the table and gave Sonny a hug. “Rocky told me that you joined the Marines.”
For the rest of the night, Sonny, Frank and Dean reminisced about their mutual friend. When the evening was over, Frank Sinatra made Sonny an offer. “There will be a job waiting for you when you leave the Marines.”
Sonny eventually transferred to a reserve unit and accepted Sinatra’s offer to work for his production company. He started off as a technical advisor and eventually became a producer and screenwriter. Soon afterward Sonny bought a 15-acre parcel in Morro Hills in North Oceanside and built a home on a hill with a panoramic view of the San Luis Rey Valley. His distinctive Italian looks also got him several supporting character roles in film and television so Sonny decided to take some acting lessons to get better at his new profession. His acting coach reminded him early in his training. “You’re never going to be able to play a part that is contrary to your nature, the audience won’t buy it. In this business, we call you a screen presence, not an actor. My advice is to just read you lines, hit your mark and act naturally.” From that point on, Sonny had a very successful career portraying good guys and tough guys because in real life he was both.
When the time came, Sonny gave the same advice to his children that was imparted to him when he was a boy; “Simple is not the same as easy. You know what they call the line between success and failure…it is called effort.”
Congratulations Thomas Calabrese 6th Anniversary writing for thevistapress.com. We appreciate you and the wonderful stories you write for us!
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
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