MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Growing up in the Bronx in 1950s and ’60s, John Fratangelo never dreamed of being a writer.
“When I was a kid, I wrote some plays, but it wasn’t anything I thought about doing seriously,” the Mahopac resident said.
Ultimately, Fratangelo, now 72, made his living as a plumber, but it was his life-altering stint in the Army during the Vietnam War that led him to chronicle his experiences, and eventually turn them into a book. It was 50 years in the making, but “The Last Goodbye” (Page Publishing) was released on Jan. 31 and is now available online from Barnes & Nobles and Amazon, where it is garnering five-star reviews.
“I really wanted people to know what it was like going to war and how horrible it was,” he said. “People who have read the book said they couldn’t put it down.”
The uncompleted manuscript was tucked away in a closet all these years until Fratangelo’s wife and children and some friends pushed him to finish it. Even comedian Robert Klein, a friend of Fratangelo’s (they were from the same Bronx neighborhood and Fratangelo had done plumbing work for him) read some of its chapters and encouraged him to see it through.
“So, I decided to do it,” he said.
Fratangelo was wounded in Vietnam, shot in the hip during an ambush while out on patrol, and nearly died.
“I was lucky,” he said.
He is now the junior vice commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 21 of Putnam/Westchester. He is also a recipient of the Silver Star, the third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat.
Fratangelo came back from the war to the states via medevac because of his wounds, but many of his fellow soldiers landed at pubic airports where they were greeted by angry crowds.
“Some told me they were spat on and had to go in the restroom and change their clothes,” he said.
Vietnam was a decidedly unpopular war.
But while the book relates many stories—his own, and that of other soldiers whom he served with—at the heart of the narrative is the relationship between Fratangelo and his cousin, Anthony Rutigliano. They grew up in the Bronx together.
“He came from Italy when he was 6,” Fratangelo said. “My grandmother had 21 children.”
Some of them died young, he said, so there were never 21 alive all at the same time. But the ones who immigrated to the U.S. came to the Fratangelo household in the Bronx and his father helped many of them find jobs.
“Having Anthony here was like having a brother,” he said. “We did everything together.”
When they both turned 19, they were drafted into the Army.
“There was no lottery then,” Fratangelo said. “As soon you turned 19 you got a letter and off you went. [Anthony] went to Fort Gordon in Georgia [for basic training] and I went to Fort Jackson in South Carolina.”
In Vietnam, Anthony was part of the 25th Armored Division, while Fratangelo was part of the First Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One.
When a soldier is killed during combat, another solider is chosen to escort the body back to the U.S. One day, Fratangelo was approached to do that.
“They came to get me and said they’d picked me to be an escort,” he said. “I was happy at first that I was coming home. But then they told me it was a possibility it could be one of my relatives. I had other cousins there besides Tony. I went back to see my captain, and he handed me a piece of paper and it was him. It was Tony.”
Later that night, Fratangelo had an experience that still haunts him to this very day and is a key plot point of the book.
“I went back to my barracks that night and couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was the only one there and it was like one in the morning. I was just lying in bed and I heard footsteps outside the door. I couldn’t make it out; it was very dark. The door opened and it was someone dressed in khakis. It was Tony, and he just smiled and shook my hand and went out and disappeared. I guess he couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”
When Fratangelo got out of the service in 1968, he began writing stories like that down as a series of notes and later coalesced his scribblings into a full-length narrative that became his book.
“I am glad I wrote those notes down because I never would have remembered a lot of that,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, he joined the Long Bridge Writers Group and sent them excerpts of the story.
“They liked it and said it was one of the most compelling pieces they’d read,” he said. “I tell the stories of some of the other guys [I served with]. And I use everyone’s real names. I want them to be remembered and I have all their pictures.”
He also joined the writers’ group that meets at Mahopac Library, and they had a similar reaction. So, finally, last summer he sought a publisher and wound up with Page Publishing.
Fratangelo, whose father was a World War II veteran and fought at Iwo Jima, moved to Mahopac in 1992, which is where his third wife was from.
“There’s a lot in the book about my first marriage,” he said with a laugh.
“The Last Goodbye,” Fratangelo said, is a read that he thinks will bring both a smile and a tear to the reader.
“I think it will have a lasting impact on the way people come to feel about the combat veteran and [give them] a new-found respect for every man and woman who proudly serve their country,” he said.