John Luzis was lost to Pittsfield, Mass.

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It’s Wednesday and I’m in the Freight Yard Pub in North Adams, Mass. It’s warm, 80 degrees, and the fireplace in the pub is not functioning. 

But it’s this working fireplace, and a remarkably good chili, that bring me back to this bar on a regular basis.

Yesterday, my wife and I went to Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Mass. Arrowhead is the name of the farmstead where Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick while his early popularity (Typee) was beginning to evaporate. Eventually he would give up on writing, become a customs officer in New York City, and die in anonymity.

But as I moved from room to room — the guide telling us about Melville’s unhappy domestic life — my thoughts went to the only person I had ever known from Pittsfield, Mass. — John Luzis.

I knew John was from Pittsfield because he had to pop-off at meals — mess was what we called it at The Citadel — and part of the pop-off process was to sit at attention and to deliver this and other bits of information. In those days the primary function of knobs was to to entertain the upperclassmen while they ate.

African-American women, called waitees, brought the food to the table. And at breakfast they always brought grits along with bacon, eggs and coffee. 

One morning, when the grits arrived, John declined and passed the bowl on to another classmate. Our Guidon Corporal, Felix Barcelo, took note and said, “What’s the matter, smackhead, you don’t like grits?”

“No Sir, the smackhead does not care for grits, Sir,” John replied.

I don’t remember what Felix said next, but he did say something to the waitee like, “And lets have another bowl of grits for the young man from Pittsfield, Massachusetts.”

You can probably imagine the scene as bowl after bowl of grits was dumped on John’s plate. However, at The Citadel, there was the belief that misery requires company, and so every freshmen, at that particular mess, also got a huge mound of grits that he was required to eat. The eating of these grits was followed by push-ups at the barracks and, I’m told by those who participated in this process, vomiting.

The eating of grits, in quantity, was actually one of the more benign activities at mess. What was feared, by every freshman, was being selected to run a “mission” on a nearby mess. A “mission” involved sliding on one’s belly under a series of tables, undetected, with a squeeze bottle of mayonnaise. Then applying that mayonnaise to the spit-shined shoes of those unknowing cadets sitting on that mess.

Running a successful mission gave the knob instant status, and for a freshman, some kind of status was important for long-term survival. But if you failed, if the above-seated cadets discovered the intruder below, it was appropriate they they dump every bowl, every jug of water, every condiment upon the head of the unhappy, unsuccessful sapper.

John Luzis was not my best friend, but I do remember his Massachusetts accent, and that meant trouble for a cadet at the Southern, Confederate-connected military school. But he met, and bested that bias head-on. He survived the grits, the missions, the push-ups and the ridicule from the upperclassmen. After that first year he settled-into the rule-rigid culture at The Citadel and became a scholar — routinely appearing on the Honor Roll.

After graduation, John was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant — he got Armor, which was an indication that he was outstanding cadet — and was sent to Korea. 

In those days Vietnam had little use for tanks and young Armor officers always went to Germany or Korea. In 1971, just weeks before he was scheduled to rotate home, John caught a ride on a helicopter. That helicopter crashed killing John and everyone else on board.

Several years later, I was watching a television show called M*A*S*H* (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) starring Alan Alda. One particular program centered on the going home of the well-liked commanding officer, Henry Blake. After Blake says goodbye, his plane is shot down over the Sea of Japan. 

I can’t honestly say I connected Blake’s fictional death with John’s actual death. But I will always connect John Luzis with Pittsfield, Mass.

After our visit to Arrowhead, I decided to see how John Luzis was remembered in Pittsfield. I went to the memorials listing the local war dead but was surprised that he doesn’t appear on the (war dead) memorials for Vietnam or Korea. (He died in Korea, not Vietnam, but was not killed during the Korean War). He also missed Citadel’s memorial to it’s fallen graduates because he was, apparently, on a training mission and not a combat mission.

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