A book by Kevin Coyne chronicles the lives of six men from Freehold who fought in World War II and returned to find their hometown and their nation changed forever. In this excerpt, published in the February 2003 issue of New Jersey Monthly, Freehold confronts the demise of its downtown business district while sending a new generation of soldiers to fight in Vietnam.

Marching Home

  HIS SHOVEL SCRAPING AGAINST THE SIDEWALK OUTSIDE HIS FUNERAL HOME, JIMMY HIGGINS was bent over and swiping at the snow when he looked up to see a young man in uniform walking toward him along the uncleared portion of the path. A war was on, he knew, but soldiers were scarce in town, their comings and goings unrecorded by the front page of the local paper, as his own had been. As the figure approached, Jimmy recognized the uniform as belonging to the marines, and the face as one of his neighbors from the next block.

   "What are you doing home, Bart?" Jimmy asked, pausing to lean on his shovel.

    "I'm on leave before they send me overseas," Bart Haynes said.

   The last time Jimmy saw him, Bart was a scrawny high-school kid with an unruly mop of hair running up Center Street to the duplex where his family lived in the shadow of the rug mill, right next door to Goldstein's corner grocery and across the street from the pool room and Caiazzo's music store. The other half of the house was occupied by Tex Vinyard, a factory worker who moonlighted as manager and godfather to a rock-and-roll band called The Castiles. Bart was the band's drummer. The lead guitarist was an even skinnier and gawkier kid a year younger, Bruce Springsteen, Whose cousin Frankie Bruno, the only son of the last man from Freehold killed in the war had first taught him to play. The Castiles practiced in Vinyard's dining room, and, wearing black vests and pointy Beatle boots, swaggered through the local circuit of teen clubs and high-school dances for thirty-five dollars a night. Bruce was a quicksilver guitarist, but a rough singer; his regular spotlight moment was a cover of The Who's "My Generation." "Hope I die before I get old," he would wail. But by the time the band all piled into Vinyard's 1961 Mercury on a rainy Sunday afternoon and drove to a fifty-dollar-an-hour strip-mall studio to record their first single ("Baby I," backed with "That's What You Get," both co-written by Bruce and George Theiss, the rhythm guitarist and lead singer), they had a new drummer. Bart had quit school and enlisted in the marines just a month before.

   Bart was only eighteen, and even in uniform, he still looked to Jimmy like the quiet, diligent neighborhood boy who had once done odd jobs around the funeral home cutting grass, trimming bushes, painting. But an unfamiliar heaviness seemed to have settled upon him, and when he spoke, Jimmy heard in his voice the weight of the world.

   "I'm saying goodbye to everybody," Bart said in a way that made clear he didn't mean temporarily. "I won't come back alive."

   "Don't talk like that," Jimmy said.

   "No, the next time you see me you'll be burying me," Bart said as he walked off toward Main Street.

   The casual fatalism of the young marine haunted Jimmy long after the sidewalk was cleared of snow, so different was it from the wary confidence he had carried with him into his own war. But his journey as a soldier had started on a bus on Court Street packed with other local young men, seen off by a crowd of family and friends and Legionnaires, bound for a war that was under-stood and accepted and supported as much as any war could be. Two out of every three American men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four had worn a uniform then; only one-third of draft-age men (itself a smaller pool, with the draft cutoff at twenty-six) served now, and only 10 percent actually went to Vietnam. The young men who left for the war left alone, like Bart, and they came back alone to a town that often didn't even know they had gone. Like most veterans of his war, Jimmy assumed that if the government was sending men into battle now, then there was a good reason for it. Exactly what the reason was, though, wasn't as unmistakably clear as the reason behind Leyte and Bastogne.

  "The U.S. policies and actions in Vietnam are vitally necessary deterrents to Communist expansion and as part of America's security," the keynote speaker at the last Memorial Day parade, the national commander of the Jewish War Veterans, had declared, just before a fighter jet from McGuire Air Force Base swooped over the town. "We must back our boys. We must continue to press for peace but peace with honor and peace with justice. But if fight we must, then fight we will and we will not shirk from our patriotic responsibilities as proud Americans.... Communist aggression must be stopped here and now. It is a serious threat to our American way of life."

  The mayor and council had unanimously passed a similarly strong endorsement recently. "The United States Government follows the sound policy of putting out a fire down the street before it reaches our homes," the resolution said. "America is strong today and, in order to keep her strong, we must stand up for what we believe to be right against any Communist aggression whether it be on our soil or on foreign soil. We fully support the president and our armed forces, we do not condone demonstrations that tend to weaken our policies and demoralize our fighting men in the eyes of foreign countries, we do not condone young men tearing up their draft cards. We are Americans, we believe in America and we are ready and willing to defend America."

  Vietnam was the latest battle in a war that had begun even before Jimmy's had ended when the Soviet Union started annexing the broken nations of Eastern Europe as it rolled through on the way to Berlin. The enemy now wasn't a single nation, but an ideology, Communism, that many nations had embraced, and the fight was against anyone who was trying to spread it, whether in Moscow, China, Hanoi, or America itself. The new war surfaced periodically in Freehold, but never with the same sustained force as the old one. Two white crosses were added to the memorial at Elks Point, casualties from Korea. Jake Errickson had scanned the sky for enemies from the observation post atop the mill, where he worked as a foreman, and police officer Stu Bunton halted traffic when the town froze for one of its regular air-raid drills. If real bombs ever did fall on New Jersey, and disabled the state civil- defense control center in Trenton, Freehold High School was its designated stand-in; the old Brakeley cannery would be pressed into service as an emergency hospital Jimmy and the other board of education members approved the use of the schools' basements as public fallout shelters. To encourage citizens to build shelters of their own, a concrete-block model went up on the front lawn of the Hall of Records, large enough for six people, complete with stores of water and canned food and a chemical toilet.

   But an ideology no matter how repellent it might be, or how many innocents may have died in its service was never as galvanizing an enemy as the evil conquerors who had once bombed Pearl Harbor and blitzkrieged Europe, and Freehold, like most of America, enlisted in this new war more from duty than passion. There were no bond drives, no ration tickets, no honor rolls downtown, no housewives saving bacon grease for bullets, no high-school boys rushing to the recruiting stations. Jimmy had worked at Fort Monmouth when Joseph McCarthy was sniffing for Communists there, but like most of his colleagues, he never believed that anything threatening the nation's security would ever turn up. Bill Lopatin's construction company was prepared to build bomb shelters if anyone ever asked, but the rest of the town must have shared his skepticism about their value, because no one ever did. Walter Denise, a retired farmer now, was relieved that his oldest son was bound for college, shielded from the draft at least temporarily by a student deferment. Vietnam, too distant to worry about daily, had sent home no casualties yet.

   Jimmy did have a veteran to bury, though, soon after Bart's visit a marine with a Purple Heart, wounded on Guam, but killed here at home in the winter of 1967, when his car skidded on an icy patch on Highway 9 and slammed into a telephone pole. The veterans of Jimmy's war hadn't reached the age of dying yet, and the wake packed the funeral home, the mourners' breath fogging in the March cold as they waited outside to get in. On the morning of the funeral, he led the procession out the driveway in his black Chrysler, the line of cars behind him long enough that Stu Bunton stood at Elks Point stopping traffic so it could proceed uninterrupted onto Main Street.

   The flag-draped casket was carried into St. Rose of Lima, Jimmy's own church. His two sons were in the adjacent school the parish had built on the old military-school grounds, but neither was old enough yet to be excused for altar-boy duty this morning. The funeral Mass had taken on a different form lately not even the millennial traditions of the Catholic church, it seemed, were immune to the forces of change all around and though he preferred it, he was still getting used to it. The priest faced the congregation, not the altar, and spoke in English, not Latin liturgical reforms unleashed by the Second Vatican Council. At the cemetery, though, the same one where Major Peter Vredenburgh and the other heroes of the Civil War were buried, the ritual was touchingly intact the flag folded into a tight triangle for the widow, taps from a bugler, a Marine honor guard firing a rifle salute.

   As Jimmy left the cemetery and drove back down Main Street toward the funeral home, the somberness of the day seemed mirrored by the forlorn face of the downtown-such a pale echo now of the boisterous, prosperous place that had once welcomed him, and the marine he just buried, home from the war. In the years since the mill left, the exodus from the business district had continued unchecked, hastened by the shift of the local economy's weight to the surrounding highways. Several more fires had followed after the Strand block burned, punching more holes in the streetscape. Window displays tried to mask some of the vacant stores paintings from the local art society, patriotic assemblages from the Americanism department of the Women's Club. "In its deep and abiding faith in the ultimate triumph of freedom, America still holds the key to the future of mankind," read a placard quoting from J. Edgar Hoover's book, A Study of Communism. In another hung a stark, bold-faced poster with a darker message.


   Downtown Freehold had slid low enough that the earlier musings about urban renewal and revitalization had hardened into a radical plan to bulldoze half of it and start over again. America's urban landscapes even such small ones as Freehold's had been battered by merciless new economic and social forces in the years since the war, and the solutions that had arisen were equally merciless. In many places it seemed simplest to just erase the last century to tear down vacant stores to make way for shopping centers, and tenements to make way for apartment blocks. The federal government which had opened a new agency, Housing and Urban Development, to tackle these problems was flush with cash to help cities and towns remake themselves, and Freehold had been allotted almost $2 million for a proposal that would alter its face more dramatically than all the past fires combined had. More than fifty old buildings would come down and an enclosed shopping mall would go up, fronting a pedestrian plaza with trees, benches, fountains and kiosks. Two blocks of South Street would vanish, with traffic rerouted around a widened Throckmorton Street. Retail space would quintuple, in an effort to resurrect the bustling shopping nights of earlier decades by luring downtown all the people who lived in the new houses on the old farms, and who would otherwise stick to the highway strip malls. Steinbach's, the grand department store from Asbury Park, was said to be interested. Opinions about the plan were sharp and deeply divided. Jimmy, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Community Improvement, was an emphatic supporter. His business was downtown, and although it was thriving- a funeral home wasn't subject to the same economic forces as a shoe store-he didn't want to watch the streets around him wither.

  It is the future of Freehold that is at stake-a future which may either erase the borough from the map of progress or increase its standards in tune with the time in which we live," the Transcript editorialized.

  Two days after the funeral, Jimmy boarded a small airplane with six other community leaders for one of his rare days away from Freehold. Because death kept no schedule, and bereaved families expected to find him when they needed him, he rarely strayed too far from town, and habitually informed local waiters and movie ushers of his whereabouts, but his devotion to the cause of urban renewal took him on a brief excursion to Norfolk, Virginia, which had already, on a much larger scale, done what Freehold was contemplating. In Norfolk, in the company of Freehold's mayor, a few councilmen, the borough's engineer and its attorney, he toured the shiny landscaped mall that had risen from the bulldozed remains of what the Virginia hosts called a "seamy honky-tonk district." He returned to Freehold that evening-despite a fuel gauge on the plane that worried him by dipping perilously close to empty-even more convinced of what he already believed.

   A referendum on urban renewal was scheduled for June, and as the weather warmed through the spring, so did the rhetoric from doomsayers on both sides of the issue. Lined up firmly behind it was the vast bulk of the civic establishment-the mayor and a majority of the council, the chamber of commerce, the Downtown Merchants Association, the board of education, the Jaycees, the clergy, the doctors, the lawyers, the bankers and, most loudly and stridently, the newspaper. Against the plan stood a looser coalition of merchants whose businesses would have to make way for it; fiscal conservatives wary of the ultimate local tax bill; traditionalists generally averse to such sweeping, irreversible measures; and homeowners in a white neighborhood who feared the relocation to an adjacent garden apartment complex of the seventy tenants, mostly Puerto Rican or black who would be displaced.

   "The town has cancer and urban renewal is the only cure for it," said a salesman from a downtown men's shop at one of the crowded public meetings.

   "Urban renewal takes from the needy and gives to the greedy," protested a window sign, one in a series from a printer whose building was slated for demolition, and who, wounded on the beach at Normandy, was unlikely to back down from the fight.

   "What future is my child to have here if nothing is done?" a lawyer wondered at another meeting.

   "To build new stores for the merchants with money that should go to our boys in Vietnam is immoral," another poster argued.

   On the morning of Monday, June 19, 1967, Jimmy walked out the back door of the funeral parlor, crossed the public parking lot that would be expanded to accommodate the new mall's shoppers, slipped along the same alley he had once hurried through to watch the Strand block burn, climbed down the steps to the basement of the redbrick public library on Main Street one of the seventeen hundred that Andrew Carnegie had sprinkled philanthropically across the nation more than half a century earlier and checked the "yes" box beside the single question on the ballot: "Should the Borough of Freehold go forward with the Urban Renewal Project in its Downtown Business Area?" By the end of the day, 1,969 of his fellow citizens had joined him at the polls, at the firehouse and the synagogue and the Intermediate School and the First Aid Squad and the Hall of Records and the YMCA, not quite half of the town's registered voters in all, much fewer than had turned out when Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Lopatin shared the ballot. A total of 878 of them voted "yes." 1,091 voted "no." Though the referendum was not legally binding, the mayor and council pledged to "abide by the mandate of the people," and voted the plan dead.

   "Small men in a small town," sniped the headline of a Transcript editorial mourning the defeat.

   "What now?" the newspaper asked. "What is to happen to Freehold's rapidly spreading blight, turning our once proud business district into a slum area? Where will the county seat of Monmouth, and one of the nation's historic cradles, go from here? To oblivion, where many have placed it already, or will there be, despite its temporary moral and economic defeat, enough will left to salvage whatever can be salvaged?"

   A minister from the Presbyterian Church was more succinct. "Nobody won and everybody lost," he observed. "That's the story of Freehold's attempt at progress, isn't it?"

   In the weeks after the urban renewal defeat, news from another front seeped through town a soldier from Freehold, Army Chief Warrant Officer Walter Wrobleski, had been reported missing in action in Vietnam and Jimmy wondered about Bart, whose farewell still echoed eerily in his memory. At the end of October, two Marines drove past the funeral home and stopped in front of the Haynes house on the next block. Bart's sister, Connie, came to the door in the same pink nightgown she had been wearing in a dream two nights earlier, a dream in which her brother had died, and when she saw them she knew what they had come to tell her. On Sunday, October 22, the day after the first big March on the Pentagon had ended in tear gas and cracked heads and the arrest of hundreds of antiwar protesters, Barton E. Haynes, lance corporal and former drummer of the Castiles, was killed by mortar fire in Quang Tri Province, near South Vietnam's border with the North. He was nineteen years old. The Castiles' lead singer, George Theiss, had also dreamed of him before his death: Bart was calling on the phone, saying, "I'm all right, I'm all right." Connie heard her father scream in the night at the loss of his only son.

   Bart's body was accompanied home from Vietnam by a soldier from Freehold who had known him, and was received at Higgins Memorial Home on Mischief Night, the evening before Halloween when kids just a few years younger ventured out with soap and toilet paper and mild maliciousness. The news was reported not on the front page of the Transcript, as all the battle deaths of Jimmy's war had been, but inside, with the rest of the obituaries. At the wake, two Marines in full-dress uniform flanked the casket, rifles at parade rest, eyes staring stonily beyond the crowd that had come to pay respects to the latest of the eighteen thousand Americans who had died so far in Vietnam, and the first from their own town. Jimmy watched the slow, somber line of mourners and wondered if he had ever really been that young himself when he served.

Kevin Coyne, a contributing editor for New Jersey Monthly, teaches journalism at Columbia University. Marching Home is his third book.