The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Virginia (left) partying with exchange student friends at Bowling
Green University. Why would she want to leave to be an
By the time Virginia arrived in LA for spring break, it all seemed so clear to me that I took it for granted she would feel exactly the same as I did. I was so sure of this, that I almost figured I’d pick her up at the airport one day and marry her the next. When I drove to LA International in the Ford Bronco I’d borrowed for the occasion from my Army buddy Dave Zeiss—my car, a ’63 Chevrolet Nova 400 I’d bought the year I was at Ohio State, had remained back in Ohio with my little brother—we were, as always, overwhelmed to see each other, and so much in love that it was a feeling not unlike hunger. But as soon as I brought up the subject of marriage, she said we had to talk. She wasn’t all that sure that Door Number Two was that great of an idea right now. She had a full scholarship to the university! That wasn’t something you just threw away. And how would we live on what I was making in the Army? And what would happen to her if they sent me someplace overseas where she couldn’t go? Besides, if she left school, she’d lose her student visa. Then what?
Reception for 4 at Shakey's Pizza and a couple of
days of sightseeing around LA. That was our
honeymoon. But I was ecstatic.
Without having any idea what I was talking about, I told her that all of these things would work themselves out. Love would will out. Everything was going to be okay, nothing to worry about. Besides, who could know the future? If we were this much in love, shouldn’t our first priority be finding a way to be together and let everything else take care of itself?
Eventually, after much talking, she agreed. We were wed at the LA County Courthouse. An Army buddy of mine and his wife were our witnesses, and the only guests at our “reception”: lunch at Shakey’s Pizza, a place that had a great pepperoni pizza and a palatable dark draft, and that showed classic silent movies on the wall of the dining room all day long. It wasn’t much, but it was the best we could afford.
Marching in LA with the 72nd Army Band. I'm the one with
the bass drum.
Our all-consuming love for each other was about all we had that first year with the Army, living in LA—in the port district of San Pedro, actually—on my Spec 4's pay. I was paid a hundred and sixty dollars a month and our rent for a rundown apartment was a hundred and twenty, so that marriage and the pittance paid me for “dependent support” was almost a survival move. Still, we were together, getting to know each other more intimately, and everything we did together seemed special—the breakfast rolls we bought from the local Italian bakery, the ninety-nine-cent bottles we selected from the “wines of the world” basket at the grocery, walks together at Royal Palms on Western Avenue, on oil-stained Cabrillo Beach at the mouth of the Port of LA, or in Averill Park on Dodson Avenue, and the occasional carry-out pizza from Nuncio’s, where when you called in an order, it was Nuncio himself who answered the phone and always ended by saying, “Sheeza ready tenna minute.” I gave percussion lessons after work at a place called The Grey Institute of Music to help make ends meet. It was a difficult but romantic year, in which we played grown-ups and visited friends and had friends visit us as a married couple, and saved what we could, despite our poverty, for the occasional luxury. Like when we put a jar on the nightstand in our bedroom and tossed in whatever coins we had at the end of the day, until it was full. All totaled, about ten bucks in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, enough to dress up and go out to a little Italian place in San Pedro for spaghetti and a couple of glasses of house claret, a meal that still sticks in my mind today as an uncommon event.
On leave from the Army in Buenos Aires, here with Virginia's
mother Teresa and sister Alicia in December of 1971.
But for making it through that first hard year with our love intact, for our second year of marriage we got a treat: The Army sent us to Europe. Before I shipped out, however, I took thirty days leave and Virginia and I went to Buenos Aires for a visit, my second to her city. After that, I was more convinced than ever that, someday, I wanted to spend a lot more time there. General Alejandro Lanusse was president and the country was breathing a new and vibrant feeling of impending freedom following the rigid dictatorship that Onganía had imposed. Lanusse was a military moderate who was in charge of planning for future elections. He was walking the jagged edge between promoting a return to constitutional democracy and finding a way to leave Perón and Peronism out of the mix. And doing it all in the face of the rising violence bred by leftwing and neo-Peronist guerrillas who were rendering Buenos Aires a dangerous place for multinational business executives and local military officers. It would be, clearly, a democracy dependent on the permission of the Armed Forces and extorted from the military through armed terrorist violence, but a sort of fledgling democracy all the same—and, with the glaring exception of a Peronism led by Perón, a highly pluralistic one, with over a score of parties participating, some of them branches of Peronism by another name.
In a palace coup, moderate General Lanusse (right) replaced
hard-line General Onganía (left) as President.
Largely ignorant of these details at that time, however, what it all meant to me was a feeling of renewed vigor and vibrancy in the city, and I basked in those thirty days of military leave, pretending I was already living in that European-style metropolis and that I was a civilian again. It felt, for all the world, like a dream come true. And the welcome I got from Virginia’s friends and family was even more heart-warming than on my first visit three years earlier. Now I was part of the family, a brother, a son, a full-fledged friend to be embraced and integrated into the fold.
The only sour note was provided by the United States Consulate. Wanting to make sure that my new bride’s legal status in the United States was taken care of before returning to California to pack and receive my orders for the trip to Germany, I took Virginia with me one morning to the consulate’s offices that were then downtown, and was almost immediately dissuaded of the old myth that if an alien marries an American, he or she is immediately given a green card. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Virginia on the California coast. It didn't matter that she
was married to a soldier. If she wanted a green card, she had
to leave the USA and petition to get back in.
It quickly became clear that this was a complex process that would take, not days, but months. In the meantime, if she was no longer going to the university, her student visa would automatically expire. She would, in any case, have to leave the United States and petition from abroad to be let back in, if she was to be granted a green card—subject, of course, to presentation of all pertinent documentation and to the outcome of our interviews with consular officials.
The more they talked to us—in that superior, we-have-the-pan-by-the-handle tone that consular officials are wont to take—the angrier I got and at one point a vice consul and I were arguing so loudly that a couple of Marine embassy guards came over and stood behind the vice consul staring fixedly at me as if to say that they would like nothing better than to bounce my Army ass onto the sidewalk outside, so better I lower my voice a notch.
“Look,” I said, “I’m serving in the Armed Forces, I only have thirty days leave and we have to resolve this before I go back because they’re shipping me overseas.”
The vice consul, who looked to be only a couple of years older than I was and fresh out of college, set his jaw and shrugged. “Sorry, rules are rules. She’ll have to petition for re-entry. She can do it from here, or, if it’s more convenient for you, from Mexico, some place closer to your base. But she’ll have to go through the entire process, like any other alien. There are no exceptions for the dependents of Armed Forces personnel.”
“She’s not my dependent,” I said. “She’s my wife. And she goes where I go.” Again he shrugged, as if to say, “So what are you going to do, desert? Because she’s not going anywhere without my say-so.”
Virginia on the German-Austrian border: She wasn't about to
wait around on the US Consulate. She went to the Germans and
a visa in a week.
And so we began The Process—a little like death by a thousand cuts—by which foreigners must thoroughly humiliate themselves in order to (perhaps, if the shave-tail vice consul on duty so decides) eventually, almost arbitrarily, merit a green card. There was no word from the consulate by the time my leave was up, and, once again, we were separated, as I was forced to return to LA alone and leave her waiting for her visa in Buenos Aires.
A wise and resourceful big-city girl, however, Virginia wasn’t about to sit around waiting for Uncle Sam to decide her future. She simply went to the German Embassy in Buenos Aires and asked for a temporary residence visa there. And almost immediately, they gave her one. Amazed at her success, she asked a helpful German consular official why it was so easy to get a visa from them when her husband’s own consulate was making things so complicated.
“Vee don’t know,” the man said. “Vee are not Amerikan, vee are Cherman.”
In the end, I arrived in Germany in late January and Virginia was there by mid-February, minus her green card but with a shiny new German visa stamp in her passport. When did her green card finally come through? It arrived about a month or so before we were shipped back to the States, after my fourteen-month tour of duty in Germany was up.
Luckily, there’s more than one way to skin a consular geek.
THE BOHEMIAN LIFE...ALMOST
|On tour with the 30th Army Band in Europe.|
Army bands don't do much. And I made Spec 5 (sergeant’s pay) fast, so my salary wasn't bad by the European standards of those times. We did concert tours and then got a lot of compensatory time off. As newlyweds, Virginia and I made the best of it, traveling, seeing the sites, hanging out weekends in Paris and Heidelberg, using comp time to visit Switzerland, France, Italy and Monaco, reading everything we could get our hands on and enjoying life thoroughly. Except for having to wear my hair short and dress up in my soldier suit a few times a week, I might have been just another bohemian writer and musician, on the lam in Europe. I was writing short stories and playing with a little jazz group on the side. The sort of life you get use to fast.
|On the lam in Paris.|
Then my tour of duty was up and it was back to Ohio. After living what could only be described as a free-wheeling lifestyle in Europe (and living it as a musician and writer), Ohio seemed less than attractive. This was especially true for Virginia, who quickly found herself being treated—in a part of the country then unaccustomed to seeing so-called Hispanics (in fact, she is of Italian descent on both sides of her family)—as an “alien”, something that had never been the case in Europe or in her days as an exchange student, when she was treated as “a guest”. And as I say, it also wasn't made better by the fact that, while I had been away “at war”, the steel and automotive belt of northern Ohio and Michigan had fast been turning into “the rust belt”. The Vietnam War was winding down after a decade of providing support to the American economy.
Feeding the gulls in Monaco. Except for the Army,
a generally bohemian life. Ohio was a return to
Formerly accustomed to playing four to six nights a week in house bands at posh night clubs, I came home to a cruel recession in which there were no longer any steady gigs for musicians. So, it was back to one-night stands, weddings and VFW dances on weekends, and whatever work I could get during the week—loading dock and maintenance hand, then department-store carpet salesman for Montgomery Ward, and finally, shoe clerk at K-Mart. To make matters worse, Virginia was terribly homesick and depressed, and loathed the only job she could get as an administrative clerk in the cardiac care ward of a Catholic hospital. Neither of us had the money to go back to school, not even with the help of the GI Bill.
So that was how, on a certain morning in the summer of 1973, I found myself in the midst of a panic attack, struggling for breath at the wheel of my VW, and quickly decided on my next move.
When I arrived home that evening I turned to Virginia and said: “Hey, what do you say we go to your country for a year?”
She looked at me as if I had gone completely insane and said: “What are you going to do in Buenos Aires? You can't even speak Spanish!”
“I'll learn,” I said, and within a month, we had sold our Spartan houseware items, furniture and car, and were heading south.