Growing up in Brooklyn, the extent of my travel away from home was a day at the beach in Rockaway or a subway ride into the city to see a movie. Then, in the spring of 1957, at the age of 21, everything changed. I was drafted into the U.S. Army.
It began with a letter from Selective Service instructing me to appear before my local draft board with my birth certificate. I asked my mom where my birth certificate was, and after an extensive search, she handed it to me. I looked it over and realized something was wrong. "Mom, who is this person?" I asked. I had lived for 21 years as Jack Pepitone, but the name on the paper read "Giacomino Pipitono."
My mom then explained that the parish priest insisted that "Jack" was too "American," so he persuaded my parents to use the Italian equivalent of "little Jack" or Giacomino. "OK, Mom, I'll give you that one," I said, "but how the heck did my last name become Pipitono?" My mom replied, "Ask your father."
My father explained that the family name had been incorrectly spelled as Pipitone for a number of years. Then, in a firm and unapologetic voice, he said, "And I don't have any idea how the letter 'e' at the end of your last name became an 'o.' "
I wondered how this would play out at the draft board. When I arrived, the clerk immediately asked for my birth certificate and began typing my name on a form. "Excuse me, sir," I said politely, "but there is a mistake on my birth certificate. My name is not Giacomino Pipitono, it's Jack Pepitone." Without looking up, the clerk said, "Listen, son, I have my orders, your birth certificate is an official document, so you'll be Giacomino Pipitono for the next two years."
When the clerk was finished, I was asked to sign the form and stumbled trying to write my new name. A month after passing my physical, I was on active duty at Fort Dix in New Jersey. We were issued uniforms and equipment and told we would be flown to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. Bused to nearby McGuire Air Force Base, we were put on a two-propeller military aircraft. I was nervous about my first plane ride and my heart started to race. The engine noise was deafening and it started to rain. Flashes of lightning lit up the cabin and the turbulence got so bad I was certain we would crash-land. I imagined the lead story on the evening news: "Military plane crashes, all aboard killed." Would I be buried as Giacomino Pipitono or Jack Pepitone? But we all survived and were treated to a different kind of Southern hospitality.
"Stand up straight, you miserable bunch of New Yauk zip-gun-carrying misfits," screamed Sgt. Weems, our platoon leader. "OK, listen up," he growled, "when I call your name, sound off in a loud and clear voice: 'Here, Sergeant.' "
He had difficulty pronouncing some of the names but then stumbled badly: "Gia-Giach -- Giacomenio Peeptono," he yelled. I hesitated a second before Weems screamed out: "Giakamino Pippotono." I shouted, "Here."
Weems responded: "Soldier, front and center." He told me to face the platoon and in a mocking tone said, "Gentlemen, before you stands a dumb [expletive] who does not know his [expletive] name. Perhaps we should make him say it a few times so he can remember it." He ordered me to run double time, circle the field yelling, "My name is Giacomino Pipitono and I am a dumb [expletive]."
During the next eight weeks, Weems mastered the pronunciation of my name. "Pipitono, you are a disgrace to the uniform of the U.S. of A." "Pipitono, your mama can't help you now." "Miss Pipitono, this is not a tea social." Weems subjected us to many challenges and indignities, but I survived.
After basic, I was shipped to Germany to work as a medical records clerk and was able to travel through Europe. Returning home in the spring of 1959, I realized that I was no longer the naive kid that left two years before. I was proud to have served my country.
But now and then, I awake in a cold sweat from the same dream that I have once again been drafted. I try desperately to explain that I have already served, but the reply is, "Sorry, we have no record of Jack Pepitone serving, but we do have someone named Giacomino Pipitono."
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