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72-hour furlough to LI changed my life forever

With the Army, George M. Motz was in

With the Army, George M. Motz was in the Deep South in the mid-1960s to personally notify moms and dads of the death of their child on the battlefields of Vietnam, and then guiding them through the memorial services. Credit: George M. Motz

I spent my entire childhood on Long Island, interrupted only when my mom would drag me into Manhattan on one of her seasonal shopping trips which, thankfully, always ended with a late lunch and ice cream sundae at Schrafft’s restaurant. Winters in Nassau County (Garden City) and summers in Suffolk County (Mattituck, Quogue, and Westhampton Beach).

An idyllic childhood by any measure, followed immediately by four years at Georgetown University during the exciting John F. Kennedy years in the White House. It couldn’t get any better, and of course, it didn’t.

In the autumn of 1964, with an Army ROTC commission in hand and basic officer training behind me, I suddenly found myself far from the Long Island roots I had come to love. I was transported to the Deep South during the racially charged mid-1960s, with a full-time responsibility nobody in their right mind would seek — personally notifying moms and dads of the death of their child on the battlefields of Vietnam, and then guiding them through the memorial services. Not only was Southern culture foreign to me, but also the vast majority of my cases involved poor Black families suffering from racial inequality and then faced with a tragedy from which no family could ever fully recover. This was a serious dose of reality for a 23-year-old Long Islander and one which certainly made me long for the tranquility of home.

After a year or so of living with a daily diet of death, my commanding officer tossed a couple of new change-of-pace assignments at me in an effort, I later learned, to keep at bay Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For example, I was assigned to go undercover to a Ku Klux Klan meeting on the outskirts of Summerville, South Carolina, to determine the level of hostility toward Blacks. Imagine a Long Island kid attempting to work a plausible Southern drawl in front of an angry KKK crowd assured beforehand that I was indeed one of them. Or, how about an assignment to inspect dozens of local brothels, including the legendary Sunset Lodge, in Georgetown, South Carolina, for off-limits evaluations. Definitely change-of-pace challenges but not the clean break I needed. That life-saving break came late in the summer of 1966 — a three-day pass home to Long Island!

Needless to say, I was overjoyed by the furlough, even more so when I was told that to maximize my time on Long Island, I would be flown home aboard an F-4 Phantom fighter jet, the state-of-the-art plane used by both the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds in their aerobatic shows.

The 45-minute flight from Charleston to the Suffolk County Air Force Base in Westhampton included a deep spiral dive and barrel rolls and it was both terrifying and exhilarating. What followed was an amazing weekend of awakened appreciation for all the wonderful things Long Island offers — swimming in the ocean and in Peconic Bay, where I first learned to swim, sailing on Shinnecock Bay, early morning surf casting, biking, playing a round of golf and some tennis, and, of course, grilling steaks on the beach at sunset.

Those three days and nights revived me. More important, they led to an on-the-spot decision — that, in spite of marrying a Southern belle, Long Island would always be home to my family, by far one of the best decisions of my life!

Reader George M. Motz lives in Quogue. He is the author of "Taps: The Silent Victims of the Vietnam War — The Families Left Behind," and works with veteran organizations on Long Island.