Surviving the War Zone by Richard Quarantello

Richard Quarantello’s Surviving the Warzone: Growing Up East New York Brooklyn (Xlibris, 192 pp., $22.99, hardcover; $15.99, paper) is the most action-packed book I have ever read. In fact, it may be one of the most action-packed books ever written as I could not find one episode that didn’t describe some kind of fighting—from the streets of Brooklyn to the jungles of Vietnam.

A very violent fight introduces the book and sets the theme of survival. The author also includes a rundown on much of the historical violence that created New York City.

That book’s first sentence is the most shocking and the most difficult to believe of anything in the book. To wit: “The story I’m about to tell you is nonfiction.”  Growing up on a farm in Indiana certainly didn’t prepare me for what I was to learn about the 1960s life in Brooklyn.

Quarantello uses an effective writing style that kept me at the edge of my chair. The book is made up of a series of short vignettes with no wasted words. There are more than thirty short episodes describing the life of a young man coming of age in a domestic war zone.

Ricky Q., as he was known, got his first job as a butcher shop delivery boy at age twelve. Keeping himself in good physical shape, he was noticed by members of the New Lots Boys gang. By thirteen, he had become a bona fide member.

Brooklyn gang, 1959, photo by Bruce Davidson

He learned boxing from Mr. Nero, an African-American man well respected by the gang who imparted wisdom that served Ricky Q. well. “Lesson number one, it’s not called fighting, it’s called boxing, and it is a science. Fighting is a reaction to your emotion; boxing is thinking, using your mind. It’s an art that will help make and shape your character.”

The reader is introduced to several characters who grew up the same way Quarantello did. They shared an esprit de corps and “had each other’s backs,” which often came in handy in the violent world they inhabited.

Today we are shocked to hear about children being attacked by other children for a pair of tennis shoes or a coat. No such story would have shocked Ricky Q. and his friends.

Most of the book is taken up with Quarantello’s life from 1959-65. After that, the Vietnam War took center stage. Ricky Q. was inducted into the Army in 1965. Although his life drastically changed in basic training, he still managed to get in fights with fellow trainees. One incident involved slices of toast.

Ricky Q. spends only a small portion of his book telling of his war-time activities. He describes his bewilderment at having to kill people who had never been a threat to him or his family. While serving with the 101st Airborne, he was wounded three times.

Like millions of others caught up in war his main goal was to go home in one piece and find his place in the world again. A fitting song to close this book might be Billy Joel’s “Good Night, Saigon.” I await the sequel, Ricky Q.

—Joseph Reitz

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