Larger Than Life
Louis ‘Sweet Lou’ Saladino grew up in a predominately Italian neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri called the ‘North End’ in the 1950’s. The eldest of five children whose parents immigrated from Sicily Italy, he was blessed with dark wavy hair, finely chiseled facial features, an engaging smile and golden olive skin. In an area where there was an ample supply of hoodlums, thugs, gangsters and a lot of wannabes. Lou was an anomaly; he was an excellent student and a three sport athlete and held a part time job on weekends. He was amiable, charming and well liked, but every now and then a bully or one of the tough guys in the neighborhood would decide to test the ‘pretty boy’ as his detractors sometimes called Lou. The young man always made a reasonable effort to avoid physical confrontations, but when he was given no alternative, Lou quickly exhibited how he became an undefeated three time Golden Gloves champion.
In high school, Lou was empathetic enough to sense the isolation and various struggles that some of the less popular students were going through and made it a point to be friendly with them. Although many of his classmates had steady girlfriends, he chose to focus on his studies and athletics and only dated occasionally. In fact, his social status meant so little to him that he invited one of the less popular girls in his school to the senior prom, although any of the other female students would have accepted an invitation from Lou in a heartbeat. He also made sure that the shy and insecure girl had a memorable evening.
Lou followed his own path and never bowed to peer pressure, no matter how intense it became. In fact he found it strange and at times even humorous that people wasted their time trying to either emulate or tear him down instead of using that energy to be the best that they could be.
After graduating from high school in 1967, Lou enlisted in the Marine Corps and his decision baffled family and friends. Why would he risk his bright future by joining the military was the question that reverberated through the close knit neighborhood? At this particular time in the country, military service wasn’t a popular career choice and many young men were more concerned about getting a deferment than joining up.
Lou thought that if his motive wasn’t clear, most people wouldn’t understand even if he explained it to them. It was simple; his father was proud of his Italian heritage, but never missed the opportunity to tell his children about his love for America and those words were not lost on his eldest son who grew up with a fierce sense of patriotism. Another motivating factor to join the Marines was Lou’s awareness of the sacrifices that past generations made in defense of democracy and he wanted to be part of that tradition.
After six months in country with 1st Battalion, Ninth Marines in Vietnam, Lou transferred to a scout platoon that was being organized to go deep behind enemy lines on special missions. The senior enlisted Marine in charge of the unit was a larger than life individual, Sergeant Major Gordon Chatfield. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, he was almost fifty years old and nearing the end of a long and distinguished career. His favorite saying was ‘We’re Marines, By Damnit.’
In almost all combat units, the seasoned veteran looks over the new guys to see which ones he can trust and are up to the dangerous tasks at hand. On the flip side, the new guy looks to the veteran on how to behave and survive in combat. One the first things that Lou determined was that there was much more to Sergeant Major Chatfield than the shoot from the hip and attack at all cost Marine that he projected to the men under his command.
Over the next few weeks, Lance Corporal Saladino kept his eyes and ears open and focused on his assigned duties. Sergeant Major Chatfield watched the young Marine with great interest and promoted him to Corporal and assigned him third squad. Two months later, after distinguishing himself on a mission by bringing back a North Vietnamese officer for interrogation, Lou was promoted to Sergeant. When a Marine platoon was trapped by a large contingent of North Vietnamese soldiers, Lou led a platoon from his unit to initiate a rescue. They were brought in by helicopter and dropped behind the enemy force and fought their way to the besieged Marine platoon. After sustaining sufficient losses the North Vietnamese broke off the attack and retreated into the jungle. Sergeant Saladino received a Silver Star for his actions and a meritorious promotion to Staff Sergeant.
Lou and Sergeant Major Chatfield’s relationship slowly transcended from superior and subordinate, mentor and student to comrades and good friends. By the time Lou was on his second six month extension, he had attained the rank of Gunnery Sergeant.
These two unique Marines had such high trust in one another that on some particularly sensitive missions, they elected to go out by themselves. On this particular occasion Intel had informed the unit that a group of enemy soldiers was terrorizing villagers in the Northern Quang Tri province who were pro American. The retaliation by the enemy had been brutal and intense, so Lou and ‘Gordo’, as only a few very close friends were allowed to call Sergeant Major Chatfield, saddled up with their gear that included two Winchester Model 70 rifles with Unertl scopes. This was the same rifle that deadly Marine Corps sniper Carlos Hathcock used and recommended to Lou and Gordo.
For two days, Lou and Gordo stayed hidden in the thick foliage on a hill above the village and waited for the enemy to make their appearance and even though both these men were not the talkative types, there wasn’t much else to do except stand guard and make small talk.
“You’ve never mentioned if you’re going to make the Corps a career,” Gordo said as he scanned the area with binoculars.
“Probably because I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Lou responded.
“You’re a combat Marine, I’m pretty sure you’d adapt to peacetime military life once this war is over, but you’d be out of your element.” Gordo said.
“You know something that I don’t know,” Lou smiled.
“That this war will ever be over.”
“Wars always end eventually. I felt the same way when I was on Iwo Jima and again at Chosin Reservoir. Time passes, things change and if fate is feeling generous and they don’t put a flag over our caskets, we find a way to move on. That’s just the way it is.”
“I’ll remember that,” Lou said as he looked through his rifle scope.
“Speaking about life and death, they are so closely intertwined in our business that we end up crossing back and forth between the two without even realizing it.”
“Yeah, it seems that way at times, doesn’t it?” Lou seconded.
“There’s not much that I can tell you that you don’t already know, but my dad told me this when I enlisted in the Marines and it has served me well over the years to remember it, maybe it will do you some good; Always try to take the high road, do your best to hold the high ground, and last but not least, buy low and sell high.”
“Sounds like good advice, almost as good as; ‘We’re Marines, by damnit!” Lou laughed.
“That’s not advice, that’s just what I say when I don’t have an explanation,” Gordo confessed.
Two hours later, ten North Vietnamese soldiers came strolling down the trail on their way to the village. From their vantage point the two Marines would have unobstructed shots once the enemy reached an open clearing located twenty yards ahead.
“I’ll work from the back,” Gordo suggested.
When the enemy patrol got into the kill zone, both Marines quickly opened fire and took out six men before the NVA even heard the first shot. Lou and Gordo charged down the hill while firing at the last four and took out three more as the last man disappeared into the jungle.
“I didn’t realize how hungry I was,” Gordo commented.
“ Now that you mention it, I guess I could eat too,” Lou seconded.
When they got to the village, Gordo spoke in Vietnamese to one of the elders who was extremely relieved to see the two Marines. Lou and Gordo sat down outside one of the huts and were served Pho, (a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs with chicken or beef)
After having three bowls, Lou commented, “This is really good; I’m going to have to send the recipe to my mother.”
“Maybe she can make it with meatballs,” Gordo joked.
The CH-46 helicopter landed and both Marines got on board for the return trip back to their camp. They were only in the air for a few minutes when a rocket propelled grenade hit the main rotor and sent the aircraft crashing through the trees to the ground. The pilot and co-pilot were killed instantly and the two door gunners were badly injured. Lou broke his right ankle and dislocated his left shoulder and Gordo cracked three ribs, sustained internal injuries and had a severe laceration to his scalp. Enemy rounds riddled the fuselage of the downed aircraft as both men tried to find cover. Gordo wiped the blood out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve then tore his shirt to make a bandana and tied it around his head. When he looked outside he saw the North Vietnamese soldiers approaching, “We’re done for if we don’t do something.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Lou grimaced.
Gordo disengaged the M-60 machine gun from its bracket and put three belts of ammo over his shoulder, “Get to the high ground and cover the chopper and the wounded,” then crawled out of the gun port and looked back at Lou with a devious smile, “If I don’t see you again in this world, then remember, We’re Marines by damnit!” which meant he didn’t have an explanation.
Lou took the two sniper rifles and crawled out the other gun port and when he tried to stand, his injured leg collapsed under him and he fell to the ground. He started crawling to a large boulder and could hear the distinctive sounds of the M-60 and the AK’s in the distance, but when he stopped hearing the machine gun, Lou had a sickening feeling that his friend was dead. As the North Vietnamese soldiers started moving toward the chopper, Lou focused on taking out as many as he could before they overran his position. He was extremely fortunate that Kilo Company, Fifth Marines was less than a click (a thousand meters) away and heard the gunfire. They caught the remaining NVA soldiers by surprise and ended the threat.
After being medevac’d to the rear, Lou was then transferred to Japan where he had surgery on his ankle. It was while he was there that he heard that Sergeant Major Chatfield was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. While recuperating from his injuries and hiding his emotional pain, Lou was placed on light duty and given a desk job; it was enough to convince him that the time had come for him to leave the Corps.
After his separation from active duty, Lou returned to Kansas City and was met at the airport by his younger brother, Frank. “Welcome home, big brother.”
“Good to be back, how is everybody?” Lou asked.
“The family is fine,” Frank answered.
“Anything new going on?”
“We moved out of the old neighborhood.”
“I saw the new address on the letters, I was wondering what that was all about. I didn’t think Dad would ever leave that house. He damn near built it from the foundation up.”
“He didn’t want to, but it got too dangerous for us to stay there,” Frank answered.
“What do you mean, too dangerous?”
“Why don’t I just show you,” Frank suggested.
Frank drove to the old neighborhood and it only vaguely resembled the well- kept area that Lou grew up in as a boy. The streets were littered with trash and abandoned furniture and half of the houses were boarded up and for sale signs were posted on many of the others. A group of men were congregated on the corner and they scowled at Frank and Lou as they drove by.
“Who are those guys?” Lou asked.
“Jamaican street gang, they moved in under some kind of government relocation program. Once they got in, they started taking everything over and those that resisted were either beaten or killed. We were able to sell our house and get something for it; a lot of the other families just packed up and left.”
“That bad, huh?”
“It worse than bad, they deal in drugs, extortion, turning girls into prostitutes. There is nothing they won’t do or anybody they won’t kill to make a buck.”
“What about the cops?”
“They’re understaffed from what I hear so they are just writing off neighborhoods as hopeless and focusing their attention on the more affluent areas of the city,” Frank responded in resignation.
When Lou got home, he saw that his father was now walking with a cane. It seemed that one of the Jamaican gang members had hit him in the knee with a baseball bat, causing irreparable damage to the joint when he was robbed on his way to work.
After a few days of visiting the family, Lou decided that it was time to get back to work, the kind of work that he was very good at. Every day for the next few weeks, Lou drove to his old neighborhood and scouted the area with the same attention to detail that he developed back in the Nam.’
One of Lou’s acquaintances from the old days was a ‘wise guy’ named Charlie Bonacurso, who could get anything for a price. He had moved to a fancy apartment in the Plaza area of Kansas City where he operated a variety of illegal enterprises.
Lou knocked on the door and a man opened it, “Lou Saladino.”
“Let him in,” came a voice from inside the apartment.
Charlie was sitting on the couch drinking a beer when Lou entered, “My dad called and said that you wanted to talk to me. I didn’t even know that you were back from Vietnam.”
“Only been back a few weeks,” Lou responded and sat down in the overstuffed chair across from Charlie.
“My parents always liked you, they were always telling me when I was growing up to be more like you.”
“Your mom and dad are good people, it seems like you’re doing alright for yourself,” Lou commented.
“I know this isn’t a social call, it is not like we were good friends. What can I do for you?”
“I need to buy two guns,” Lou answered.
“45 caliber automatic,” Lou said.
“Military issue alright?”
“Yeah, how much?”
“Consider it a welcome home gift,” Charlie answered.
“I’d feel better if I paid you,” Lou said.
“I’d feel better if you wouldn’t insult me by not accepting my gesture of appreciation for your military service.”
“Thanks Charlie, I appreciate it,” Lou responded.
“Give me a couple days,” Charlie pulled out a business card and handed it to Lou, “This is my private number, it’s Tuesday, I’ll have them for you by Friday, call me around 6pm.”
Lou started to leave, “One more thing,” Charlie said.
“Whatever you need, see me first,” Charlie offered.
Lou picked up the weapons on Friday evening and on Monday morning he rented a vacant store in his old neighborhood and put up a sign in the window, ‘Opening Soon, Discount Appliances.’ Lou had no intention of doing business, but was expecting customers very soon.
Eight men entered as Lou quietly sat behind his desk while reading a Louis L’Amour western paperback. “Hey Man, there is a two hundred dollars charge per week to operate a business in our neighborhood,” One man with gold teeth, brightly colored clothing and dreadlocks said,
“When is it due, man?” Lou mimicked.
“At the end of the week,” The man responded, “Be ready man.”
Lou was waiting in the alley on Friday when the eight men came walking through on their way to collect their money, “I don’t have two hundred, man.”
“How much do you have, man?” The good toothed man snarled.
“I got ninety on me right now, two forty fives” Lou opened his jacket and pulled out both handguns and shot the eight men.
From that day on, Lou declared war on the gang in his neighborhood and used every one of his combat skills to destroy the intruders. He set up ambushes and booby traps and used a sniper rifle to pick them off as they congregated on the street corners. Lou placed Molotov cocktails in their vehicles and turned them into burning hunks of metal. He posted flyers around the neighborhood with the stern warning, ‘Leave or Die’ in bold red print. Lou prowled around at night like an avenging phantom with only a K-bar knife and whenever he saw a target of opportunity, he eliminated it in the most brutal manner. The Jamaicans lost over twenty five men and were so terror stricken to leave their safe house that they wouldn’t venture outside unless they were in a large heavily armed group.
Lou made a powerful fifty pound bomb with black powder and gasoline and placed a twenty second timer on it. Late one evening he climbed onto the roof of the Jamaicans’ home and lowered the bomb down the chimney and tied it off so that it could not be seen by the men in the living room, then made his escape. When the bomb leveled the house, the gang that invaded the ‘North End’ ceased to exist.
Now that he had taken the neighborhood back, he now needed to get some capital to get things back to the way they used to be. Since no bank would lend him money, Lou knew he would have to find a different and quicker way to get working capital. He was always a fairly good poker player although the game never interested him that much when he was growing up. It would serve a need now, so Lou polished his skills by playing in some penny ante games and when he thought he was ready he asked Charlie to get him into some high stakes game. Combine his calm and deliberate demeanor in high stress situations with his ability to evaluate human behavior and it wasn’t long before Lou became a formidable player. He soon began traveling all over the country to compete against the best players and won more times than he lost.
Lou used his winnings to buy residential and commercial property throughout the worse areas of the city and when the criminal element was eliminated by mysterious means, the value of that real estate rose dramatically. He also brokered deals and brought businesses back to the neighborhoods and offered attractive leases with options to buy to fill the vacant houses.
Things were working out so Lou started a property management and real estate company and began hiring people to fill various positions. He also began purchasing properties in other cities and used his same business model to make them profitable.
Five years later, Lou received a visit from a high school friend, Gina Falcone, the girl he had taken to the prom. The shy awkward girl was now a beautiful and self –assured woman.
“It is good to see you again, Lou,” Gina smiled.
“The years have been good to you, you are even more beautiful than the last time I saw you.”
“I was afraid to say two words to a boy back then,” Gina reminisced.
“That is because you only spoke when you had something important to say,” Lou said.
“I’ve always felt that the time you took me to the prom was a major turning point in my life. After that night I began to think that high school wasn’t so bad after all and that I wasn’t such a loser. My grades got better and I developed a more positive outlook on life. I went to junior college, University of Missouri and law school. I graduated at the top of my class and was hired by a major Washington D.C. legal firm and it all started with that night and you.”
“You give me too much credit. You deserve to be successful because you’ve earned it and because you are good person,” Lou said, “It is that simple.”
“You’ve set the bar pretty high for doing the right thing,” Gina smiled, “ This isn’t strictly a social call, I wanted to discuss a matter with you that is strictly confidential.”
“Just between you and me, you got my word,” Lou answered.
“Good enough,” Gina smiled, “I’ve been paying attention to all the good work you did in our old neighborhood and what you’ve been doing around the city and I’m very impressed.”
“Most people want to have a decent life, if I can help them out, I figure it is worth the effort.”
“Same old Lou Saladino, always looking out for the other person,” Gina said, “There is going to be a new international airport built outside Kansas City. It will be a major hub for several airlines with hotels, shopping center, apartments, entertainment and a convention center. There are even talks about a baseball and football stadium as well. It is a multi- billion dollar project. Federal, state and local politicians, big party donors and lobbyists all have their hands in the pie and stand to become very rich. Everything is set and the contracts have already been signed.
“You haven’t heard the most interesting part,” Gina smiled, “I am one of the many attorneys working on the deal. I recently noticed an oversight in the filing of the paperwork, but I’m sure that one of the other lawyers will catch it just like I did very soon. Right now there is a very small window of opportunity for someone to swoop in and take control of the entire project.”
“Would I qualify as that someone?”
“Yes you would, I’d rather that you use the money to help people who really need it than see it go into the pockets of corrupt politicians,” Gina pulled out a sheet a paper and handed it to Lou, “There is a lawyer who is capable of handling this, her name is listed at the top. Tell her to follow the steps just as I have outlined them with no variations. It will probably cost you a hundred thousand dollars to get it all done, but it will be worth millions later. This meeting never happened and do not mention my name.”
“Roger that, will I see you again?”
“Not for a while, it is safer that way. I’m sure we’ll meet again when they have to negotiate with you to finish the project.”
Lou retained the attorney that Gina suggested and she followed the instructions and he was able to purchase two thousand acres of unused farmland by paying the back taxes. The large consortium had no choice, but to agree to a two hundred and fifty million dollars payment and a twenty five year lease at fifty million dollars per year before they could begin construction.
After the negotiations were concluded, Gina waited a reasonable amount of time before resigning her position with her law firm to accept an offer with the rapidly expanding Saladino Properties as senior legal counsel. Lou and Gina did not mind mixing business even after their wedding and when the situation warranted, the former Marine continued to use more direct methods to deal with those individuals that operated outside the law.
Lou immortalized the advice of his friend by placing a large engraved wooden plague on the wall behind his desk;
Always try to take the high road,
Do your best to hold the high ground,
Last but not least, buy low and
Sell high, By Damnit”