The sixth time Vietnam veteran Wally Bazemore
tried to get out of Red Hook and found himself back in town, he
must have been meant to stay.
"I figured it out, that maybe somebody up there wanted me to be … in the community for a reason.
By the sixth time I finally got it, and that's when I started doing a lot of community work," he
"I was shot three times over there" - in Vietnam, he
means - "and I know I wasn't saved because of my beautiful smile."
came to Red Hook with his
family in 1955 at the age of 4, in time for the birth of his
The family had been living in tenement housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Red Hook gave Wally
the opportunity to grow up in diversity: while Bed-Stuy was largely African-American, Red Hook was home to Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican communities as well, all of whom became Wally's friends.
"It just opened my eyes to a different world," he
"Our little bunch was like the U.N."
"Red Hook offered us the opportunity to live in something stable.
It was a great community," he
Red Hook had parks, the waterfront, jobs and good schools to offer Wally
parents, and his
"We flourished out here."
In 1968, Wally
and a group of 40 of his
friends and neighbors volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Wally was 19.
Of that group, only two didn't come back to Red Hook - an unusually low number, Wally remarks.
fought in the 101st Airborne in long-range reconnaissance.
once encountered one of his
Red Hook pals in the bush.
"It was like running into a piece of home," he
, who grew up in Red Hook and served in Vietnam, isn't sure if he's
welcome at Post 5195.
three years in the military, Wally
spent two years in Vietnam and six months in Okinawa.
In Vietnam, he
was based just off Highway 1, one of the country's two thoroughfares.
"First day you get off that plane in Da Nang Airport, the heat and the smell of death - that's the first thing that greets you.
That heat and that smell never go away."
There's another smell he
remembers vividly: that of steak grilling as American contract employees from the Goodrich tire plant barbecued outside, drinking beer and enjoying the Vietnamese countryside while he
fellow soldiers were "maybe 100 yards away, engaged in firefights."
also remembers Vietnam as a "beautiful country" with "beautiful people" - the ones that weren't shooting at him, anyway.
"I was still a kid, so I was always drawn to the children.
A few of them saved my life on quite a few missions.
Just giving me eye contact, letting me know, 'Don't go that way, go this way.' I would give them canned goods and candy," he
Many of its white residents had left en masse, unnerved by the growing number of African-American and Latino residents, Wally
Get a little college credit, buy a car, get out and have a little money saved," Wally
says of his
group of peers.
studied for a year at Brooklyn College
, where he
played on the football team, then had a daughter and had to leave school to go to work.
"I knew I was committed, not only to my family but to this community.
I was trying to do well."
friends started to split up and go their separate ways.
Some, like Wally
Ignited by images of protesters on TV, Wally
friends met up at the basketball court at Visitation Hall and decided to join the fight.
"The United States was burning.
LA, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville.
Everyone was tearing up shit," he
recalls of that day.
began talking about the war 22 years ago, when he
was living in the Bronx, working in maintenance at 26 Federal Plaza, a job he'd gotten through a veterans' program.
He joined a small group of veterans who met at an outreach center to talk about their life and feelings and, eventually, about their experiences in the war.
early activism, Wally
became the first African-American man to be elected to the school board.
He's also a member of the advisory board of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
As a prominent and watchful community member, and he
sees younger veterans when they return from places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think that's a worthy cause," says Wally
, who has been introducing John to some of the local political players and helping him lay the groundwork for his project.
, however, hasn't spent a lot of time in the VFW on Van Brunt.
It's all a fraternity as far as I'm concerned," Wally
points out that there are no female veterans hanging out at the VFW, either.
The attitude, Wally
believes, bears a resemblance to that of the "old enclave" he
grew up with.
"They're surrounding the wagons," he
been too busy with his
own community projects to square off with the VFW, he
hopes that one day all neighborhood veterans will be able to unite in the name of Red Hook.
"We're all neighbors.
I label everyone all Red Hookers.
We're a tribe out here.
What we don't do for ourselves, nobody else is gonna do for us," Wally