by Lou Mancinelli
To understand why Tom Garvey went to war, you first must know that his father lived with the guilt of not having gone, when all the other men around him did go to World War II. He lived disconnected from an identity that defined his generation.
The Ambler resident’s debut novel, “Many Beaucoup Magics,” is a fictional account of Garvey’s year in Vietnam as an Army Ranger. It’s a tender story of discovery and disillusion, homeland and courage, shared through the eyes of a character named John McManus. It is a story written for mothers, so its dedication is: “In any war, mothers are the ultimate victims.”
“This is a Vietnam story written for people who wouldn’t want to read a Vietnam story,” Garvey said. “It’s not a John Wayne shoot ’em up.”
“It was strange being home the last time,” he writes early in the book; it’s the first week of February, 1968, the day he leaves home for war. “Goodbyes carried a different weight. He wasn’t the same person he’d been almost two and a half years ago when he’d gone into the Army. His family and friends felt the difference … ”
Running throughout the story is the thread of a dream Garvey had before leaving. At home that February before leaving, he met a girl who was into astrology. They bought a book about it. He flipped through the book and landed right on a page describing some mystical burden that would occur on Aug. 17.
Garvey entered the Army in November, 1965. The afternoon he walked into the draft office some weeks earlier he was a student at Pennsylvania Military College (PMC) — now Widener University. During the first weeks of class, he overheard two privileged white kids talking. One wouldn’t have to go to war because his dad was a powerful Republican. They agreed: the “n-word and poor folks” should fight this one.
Hearing this, Garvey left his books at his desk, walked out of class across the street to the draft office and enlisted. “I was politically oblivious,” Garvey said of his politics at the time. “I had a strong sense of my father not going to something that defined his generation … I didn’t wanna miss it.”
Garvey, 72, was raised in Ridley Park. After high school, he worked at various jobs before enrolling in PMC in 1965. In January, 1968, Garvey arrived in Nha Trang, “a tropical bay filled with lush little jungle mountain tops that rose to form small islands rising out of unimaginably blue water. White sand and palm trees lined the shore.”
There he found a lush officer’s club, with drinking and prostitution 50 yards from the chapel. It was a group of officers doing their best to stay as far from war as possible, no matter how close they were. Not what Garvey — or McManus, his surrogate in the novel — was looking for. He wondered where the war was.
Eventually he’d head farther north, conducting special operations around the Ia Drang valley, where “no combat operations had ever gone this close to the border prior to 1965, and when they did it was a disaster. The battle was catastrophic, and literally thousands of mothers paid the ultimate price … “
Garvey recalls a night when Huey choppers were called in, their gunners spraying fire on the other side of the bridge into the dark jungle. The helicopters came as low as the tops of the trees. The date of this battle, one of the biggest in the Vietnam War, was Aug. 17 (the same date Tom flipped to in the astrology book).
Garvey signed a three-year contract in 1965, so when he was done, he was done. He served as an Army Ranger, doing special operations in Vietnam for one year. “I don’t remember fear at all, and I’m not a brave person,” Garvey said, when asked about his state of mind in those fire fights.
“Many Beaucoup Magics” is a story that took Garvey 47 years to complete. He decided to self-publish this year, fearing he might die before finishing. When he returned to the U.S. in January, 1969, Garvey went back to PMC and turned himself around academically, earning a 4.0 average while working full-time at a bank downtown.
In the 1980s he ran the parking operation for the entire sports complex in South Philadelphia and even lived in an apartment at Vet Stadium under the sloping 300 section. For one year he lived with Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Bill Bradley in Texas.
That’s before he met his wife Peg, owner of Mango, a boutique at 8442 Germantown Ave. When Garvey returned to college, the anti-war movement was in high gear. Every day at 9th & Chestnut he saw a young woman handing out anti-war pamphlets with an older man. Garvey was at once enamored, wondering about this girl.
Shortly after they married in 1994, Garvey was remembering the girl with the pamphlets. As fate would have it, that girl was Peg. The man in the coat, her father. When they met in 1983, Peg was a mother of five boys and a daughter, coming out of a bad marriage.
“Many Beaucoup Magics” is available online through Amazon.com