March 6, 2008 – There was a time, back in the 1950s, when they were in the Navy together, that Tony Flaherty and Wacko Hurley were the best of friends.
When they got back to South Boston, the place where they were born and where they remain, they drank together at the old Chiefs club, a sailors’ hangout on Summer Street.
When Flaherty got married at St. Augustine’s, Hurley stood at the altar with him, his best man. When Flaherty’s first child was born, Hurley was godfather.
But something happened. Wacko Hurley went back to civilian life. Tony Flaherty, a career Navy man, went off to war, this time in Vietnam, and he came back a changed man. One day, he was walking down a dirt road, as a gaggle of Vietnamese kids straggled by, fleeing a village destroyed by American fire.
“One of the kids, a boy, had lost a leg,” Tony Flaherty was saying, sitting in his apartment on East Broadway. “I had an epiphany that day.”
Flaherty, a military man his entire adult life, had become suddenly, implacably opposed to war. Not long after, they airlifted him out of Nam. He left the Navy with the rank of lieutenant and something called post traumatic stress disorder. “I went cuckoo,” he said.
He came back to Southie and tried to pick up the pieces. But he kept picking up a bottle. Eventually he got sober and with a clear head became even more opposed to war, more convinced of its folly, furious over the fact that the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful mostly stayed home while others fight the wars started by the rich and powerful. He worked for a program that got veterans housing and help for substance-abuse problems.
He joined a national organization called Veterans for Peace and, closer to home, a group called South Boston Residents for Peace. Five years ago, as US forces prepared to invade Iraq, Flaherty and his friends asked to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Southie. He found himself seeking the permission of his old pal Wacko Hurley, the longtime parade organizer.
Wacko told them to get lost.
“He called us commies,” Flaherty said.
Flaherty’s group again asked for permission to march in next week’s parade. Not long ago, Wacko Hurley walked into a community meeting and handed them a one-sentence letter saying their application had been denied. There was no reason given.
Hurley told me the reason was obvious.
“This year’s parade is dedicated to supporting the troops in Iraq,” Hurley said. Having Flaherty’s crew in the parade, Wacko maintains, would be provocative and disrespectful.
“That’s baloney,” Tony Flaherty said. “These guys can’t tolerate dissent. This isn’t about supporting the troops. This is about glorifying war. A lot of the guys who do the most talking, they didn’t see much action. They say they support the troops. We support the troops, too. We want to bring them home and help them when they come home.”
There is a blue bumper sticker on Tony Flaherty’s door. There can’t be many of them in Southie. It says, “Out of Iraq now.” His neighbor’s door is festooned with St. Patrick’s Day decorations.
Flaherty’s living room wall is lined with Navy memorabilia. There is a commendation for valor he received in Vietnam. “It meant something once,” he said, almost to himself, touching the frame.
Flaherty’s second-floor window offers a commanding view of the parade route. But he won’t be watching.
“Peace is a dirty word,” Tony Flaherty said, looking out the window. “This has split the country right down the middle. It’s brother against brother.”
Wacko Hurley said he still says hi to Flaherty when he sees him. “He was my friend,” Hurley said. “He still is.”
But it’s different now. Hurley calls him Anthony. And Flaherty calls him John.
Wacko and Tony are no more, their friendship a casualty of war, a war that stretches from Baghdad all the way down Broadway in South Boston.