May 23, 2016

Remembering Vietnam in the shadow of the wall

Kenneth Pena. Photo by Mike Orazzi.

One from the archives:

BRISTOL -- Kenneth Pena sat on a bench Tuesday morning, waving an American flag half-heartedly and staring at the Moving Wall.
But his eyes were far, far away.
"Panel 23," he said, pointing to a group of names right in front of him. "I was their squad leader. I sent 'em out on an ambush."
The 50-year-old New Britain man, a U.S. Marine veteran who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, spoke softly as he recalled the men who died and the war that killed them.
"There were 19 in my squad. The next morning there was three of us, and we were dragging one of them," he said.
"For the life of me, I don't know what happened that night. Swear to God I don't."
For the past week, Pena has been near the Wall almost all the time, saying little, just watching, thinking, remembering.
"Kenneth Small. 17 years old. John Paulin. Couldn't read or write but he got into the Marine Corps. Tiny was the radio man. Tiny was anything but tiny. He outweighed me 100 pounds. I was their squad leader," Pena said.
"I've got their memory I live with every day, day in and day out," he said. "I was 20 years old. Next week I'll be 51 years old. I'm never ever, ever, ever going to forget them. I'm more devoted to those guys than I am to my wife."
"After my boys got killed, I didn't care whether I came back or not," he said. "I've got two Purple Hearts. That's how close I came to having my name scribbled on that Wall."
During the June 1970 ambush that slaughtered his squad, Pena shared a foxhole with Small, "a white-haired little boy" from Salem, Idaho. Two others were in there as well.
Small finished up his one-hour watch during the night, Pena said, and then woke him to take his turn. "He said 'I got to piss.' He was the first one killed," just a few yards away, Pena said.
"The only reason he joined the Marine Corps: he had two twin sisters. He wanted to help put them through college," Pena said.
Radioman David Patton -- "Tiny" -- got hit during the attack about 3 a.m. He remained in radio contact with the squad as the life drained out of him.
"I said I'd go get him," Pena said, but the lieutenant refused to allow it. "First light, we went out there. David's body was still warm but he was dead. I brought it back into the perimeter."
"I could have saved him," Pena said. He leaped on the lieutenant in frustration and anger. A gunnery sergeant, Pena said, "had to peel me off."
He said he had grown so close to Patton's sister, Carla, through letters that each thought they would marry. But "when Tiny died, I couldn't write her no more."
Growing up in Middletown, Pena said, "I didn't smoke. I didn't drink. I didn't do anything but play sports.
"I came back from Vietnam an alcoholic, a drug addict, smoked like a fiend."
"Democracy," said Pena. "Tell me how John Paulin got in the Marine Corps. Couldn't even read or write. Never got a letter from anybody. But every day he'd sit there and clean that rifle.
"Some of us be out there smoking a joint. But John Paulin be sitting there cleaning that rifle. Came from Owensboro, Kentucky. Couldn't read or write but he passed through the system. He passed the great American system. The one I'm holding this flag for."
"I wonder what they gave him when he got down there to Kentucky. Probably put him in a pasture," Pena said.
"I'm going to go to Kentucky. I'm going to Owensboro, Kentucky. I'm going to find John Paulin."
He said Paulin's grave "had better be in order. It better have a tombstone."
Pena said he's going to go to Philadelphia as well, to search out Patton's grave.
After Small's death, he said, he stayed in touch with his pal's parents, exchanging calls and cards several times a month. He even visited them last November -- and fell apart.
"The pain was overwhelming," Pena said. "I started drinking. I said some stupid [things]" and Small's mother told him she didn't want to speak to him ever again. "I don't blame her," he said.
Pena said Small had "never seen a black person in real life until he was on his way to California to boot camp" but the two became fast friends. "I changed that boy's life around," Pena said.
He recalled a time when the squad "got hit pretty bad" and returned to Da Nang for reinforcements. "All's I wanted to do was take a shower and relax," Pena said.
But Small -- "a warrior who wouldn't give up for nothin'" -- chose to dig into a cooler of beer. He wound up in a fight with other Americans and got beat up bad.
"He came back to that hooch, tent or whatever you call it. Told us what happened. I guess we were 19 or 20 strong at that time. We went back out there" and took care of the attackers, Pena said.
"One dude took it real serious. Middle of the night, he threw a gas grenade in our hooch. The next night, he was Medivaced. I don't know if he lived or died. I really don't give a s--t."
In the field, Pena said, everyone shared every letter and every package with everyone else.
After a long pause, he said, "I can't remember his name. Much as I try, I can't remember his name. Got a 'Dear John' letter from his wife.
"Nobody knew whether that magazine of that M-16 was loaded or not. He put it up on the side of his head. Fully automatic. And he pulled the trigger. Seemed like his body stood there for 10 minutes with no f-ing head on it.
He said he hoped the wife "lived a good life" with the $10,000 death benefit check she got as a result.
Another long pause.
"We killed a rat over there. Put it on a scale. It weighed 17 pounds," he said.
Another pause.
"I was eating C-rations. Stamped right on the box: 'Packed 1945.' I wasn't born until 1947. Scrambled eggs in a damn can. Ham and lima beans," Pena said with disgust.
Yet another pause.
Pena's cousin, who served in the Army in Vietnam, also returned in one piece. After growing up together, the two shared stories over beers after work.
One night, the cousin told him he had to leave the bar and "do something."
"Went home. Sat on the edge of his bed. Put a 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off," Pena said. "He had Agent Orange. It was kicking his ass."
More silence as Pena choked back tears.
He said his grandmother, Pocahontas Moody, died while he was overseas. The military wouldn't let him go to her funeral.
"They took my rifle. Put me in this little padded cell where I wouldn't hurt myself. And you know what? Last year was the first time I ever seen my grandmother's grave," Pena said.
Pena said he'd never seen the Wall before a traveling version came to Bristol. He said he didn't know if it helped him or hurt.
"This is not a monument no more," Pena said. "It's a tourist attraction. There's too many dry eyes come through every day. You got 58,000 names on this Wall. You line up 58,000 coffins and how far does it go?"
Pena said he has five sons.
"My oldest one had to go and join the Marine Corps, just to be like daddy. They just don't know. They just don't know."
Pena said he's never told his sons about Vietnam. "And I never will," he added.
When a young boy walked by, Pena reached out and touched him on the shoulder.
"Hey buddy," he told the boy, "don't ever put on a uniform."

Copyright 1998 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

March 14, 2016

Bill of Rights Concert to be held in Bristol

Neely Bruce, left, and Steve Collins

BRISTOL – Wesleyan composer Neely Bruce will lead a performance of his "The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets" in Bristol as a benefit concert for longtime journalist Steve Collins.
The April 17 concert at Prospect United Methodist Church will feature a choir of local and regional singers backed by an instrumental ensemble. Organizers are seeking singers, sponsors and program advertisers.
Bruce said he wrote the piece “in the style of William Billings, America's first great composer and a contemporary of the Founders.”
“The music I have written is tuneful and memorable. I already know that if you sing it you will become more and more aware of the Bill of Rights, and the condition is ongoing, perhaps permanent,” he said.
“If you sing a text, especially when you are young, you will remember it for life,” Bruce said.
Bruce said he wanted to do the free-will offering concert in Bristol because of the First Amendment tie-in to Collins’ resignation from The Bristol Press to protest unethical conduct by the paper’s editor and publisher.
Collins quit in December after 22 years covering government and politics for the local daily. He is now freelancing for CT News Junkie, an online news site, and recently wrote an e-book on what a Donald Trump presidency might be like.
Bruce said he decided to set the First Amendment to music after reading a 2004 Knight Foundation study that found half the nation’s youth had no problem with the government censoring news.
“The magnificent rhythms of the text were so captivating, and so much fun to set to music, that I decided to set the entire Bill of Rights” to music, he said.
His goal, he said, “is to have every singer in the United States sing this piece. I've got a long way to go, but the performance in Bristol will be Number 24. One step at a time.”
The concert at the 99 Summer St. church on Federal Hill will be Sunday, April 17 at 4 p.m., with a reception to follow.
Those interested in singing with the chorus, advertising in the program book, becoming a sponsor or otherwise helping with the event should contact Jackie Majerus-Collins at (860) 523-9632 or email

Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

January 28, 2016

An update from Steve

I'll post in more detail soon, but I want to let anyone reading here know that I resigned from The Bristol Press on Dec. 24, 2015. My reasons are laid out in this note.
If you want to put my resignation into context, read NYU Professor Jay Rosen's sterling narrative of the whole sorry saga.
At the moment, I am considering options. I plan soon to begin freelancing regularly for CT News Junkie, an established online news site I've long admired.

Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

July 14, 2015

Roche says no to City Council bid

So what are the city's Democrats doing? Who knows?
They still don't have a mayoral candidate or half the City Council candidates. But, hey, it's only mid-July.
One possible council contender, Dave Roche, announced this morning he's not going to run.
He posted this on Facebook: 

Just wanted to say thanks to all the calls asking me to run for Bristol City Council, after much thought I have decided not to run at this time, I have to put 100% of my time leading my brothers and sister Sheet Metal Workers and State Building Trades, along with trying to enjoy my kids and grandkids. To divide my time up any more would not be productive or effective. I will be there to support those who are running and wish you as all good luck. P.S. this doesn't mean I'm done with politics you never know what I may do next but whatever it is it will be for the best interest of the people I represent and it will be when I can put a 100% into it,and that's when I'm at my best.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

April 2, 2015

Closing the deficit and fixing I-95, too

Bear with me because I know this sounds crazy. But perhaps it's not.
One way to close the deficit and put the state's finances on more solid ground is to create a Connecticut Highway Authority and sell it I-95. After all, the highway is worth billions of dollars.
The authority, which would be an independent government agency just like New York's Turnpike Authority or the Port Authority in New York City, would sell bonds to pay for the road and its modernization, too.
It could charge tolls to get the cash to pay back bond purchasers.
But the authority could also develop state-owned land along or above the road to make even more money.
I don't profess to have the details, but I am reasonably sure that there's big money to be made through some kind of deal that transfers the busy highway to an authority that would be obligated to maintain and improve it.
It's not as if we'd be selling it to a private company. An authority would be a governmental entity, just not the state itself.
And it would, of course, mean that driving on I-95 would no longer be free. But, hey, paying for the right might make it so those who do shell out some toll money would actually have the opportunity to drive on the highway instead of sitting in traffic.
Anyway, it's something to think about it. Selling the highway would close the looming budget deficit and it might, at the same time, open the door to a better future for the road itself, which clearly needs some help.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

November 4, 2014

Voting today in Bristol, updated for 8 a.m. counts

In the first hour of voting today in Bristol, turnout totaled 4 percent the city's 31,499 registered voters.
Turnout was highest at Chippens Hill Middle School, witi 6 percent of voters showing up at the polls before 7 a.m., and lowest the Bristol Elks Club, where only 2 percent made an early appearance.
Overall, the turnout rate matched the rate of the 2010 election, which wound up with 54 percent casting a ballot, the same rate as the city saw during the 2002 gubernatorial race.

UPDATE FOR 8 a.m. --
Turnout reached 9 percent by 8 a.m., the same figure Bristol saw in 2010's gubernatorial race at the same time. The highest turnout is at Chippens Hill, at 12 percent, while the Elks Club and Mt. View School are at 7 percent each.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

October 29, 2014

Mailings turn negative in Senate race's final days (Updated at 11 a.m.)

I've asked both candidates in the 31st District state Senate race about these mailers, which I won't characterize except to say that many of the people receiving them have told me they are offensive.
I don't know who started it. I only know these exist.
I flipped a coin to see whose mailers would be posted first, but the order means nothing. You can click on the images to see a larger version.
First, here's one that the Republicans sent out about Democratic contender Rob Michalik:

And here are a couple from Michalik's campaign about Republican contender Henri Martin:

And in black and white:

And this one:

And in black and white:

If anyone can provide me with better copies, I'd love to have them. I asked the campaigns to send me copies as well.
Anybody who's interested in expressing their opinion of them for a news story, feel free to send me a note at Be sure to include your name and let me know if you're connected to the political world somehow.
Update at 10:30 a.m.: Martin sent along a half dozen copies of mailings his campaign has used. Here they are.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

October 28, 2014

Is the mall site's future coming into focus?

When you put the pieces together, it sure looks as if city leaders have something in mind for the 15 empty acres where the mall once stood on North Main Street.
They seem to have worked out a compromise that sets up this situation:
1. Renaissance gets until Jan. 31 to come up with a financing plan for a building along Main Street that is mostly market-rate apartments, but its ground floor would have commercial space that, with luck, would wind up including a restaurant or two.
2. The city will spend about $2 million on infrastructure work on the site that includes streets, lights, water and sewer pipes and such. It would also include the much-discussed public piazza behind the building on Main Street.
3. The Bristol Downtown Development Corp., which has overseen the project since former Mayor William Stortz set up the nonprofit to keep former economic development director Jonathan Rosenthal out of it, will likely disband, handing oversight of the parcel to the Bristol Development Authority and its energetic new leader,Justin Malley.
4. After Jan. 31, if Renaissance doesn't have an approved plan in place -- and city leaders doubt it will be ready by then -- other developers can step in to move forward with the overall Depot Square plan. That sounds better than it probably is in real life because nobody's waiting in the wings and, in truth, only Renaissance has the background to keep pressing ahead quickly.
5. Except... Bristol Hospital's interest in putting up 60,000 square feet of new medical offices, which are inherent top-notch, high-quality spaces, makes for a potentially critical shift in the picture we've been seeing. If the hospital were to work something out to put those offices, which it wants in the downtown area, on the ex-mall site, then suddenly the prospects for swift development pick up sharply.
Yes, there are issues about parking and questions about whether medical offices attract the young people and empty nesters eyed by Renaissance to fuel its pedestrian-friendly urban center concept. But there have always been questions about parking.
Perhaps Mayor Ken Cockayne's boosterism for Tom Foley may come in handy should the GOP gubernatorial candidate win next Tuesday. If that happens, there would be a governor who might be more amenable to having the state pay for a parking garage, for instance. But even a second-term Gov. Dannel Malloy might be willing. The state has expressed support for revitalizing downtown Bristol for a decade or more. At some point, it has to put up some money to make that talk mean something.
Of course, there's no guarantee that any of the pieces of this puzzle will ultimately fit together. It could remain a dusty jumble of competing notions for years to come.
But there is a glimmer of hope there that with luck and care, Depot Square might become something more than a pretty picture on a Renaissance slide show.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

October 16, 2014

Marketing panel set up for Bristol

The city's temporary marketing committee became a permanent one this week.
"We are ready to move into the next phase," Mayor Ken Cockayne said.
Replacing the ad hoc panel that led the effort to create the "Bristol - All Heart" campaign will make it possible for the city to ensure that somebody's keeping close tabs on marketing opportunities.
Cockayne appointed five men to the committee: former city Councilor David Mills, who led the earlier panel; Howard Schmelder, a longtime Bristol Development Authority commissioner; John Smith, vice chairman of the Board of Finance; Mickey Goldwasser, another veteran BDA commissioner; and Jack Ferraro, who's done lots of volunteer work on the Memorial Boulevard School project and the Mum Festival.
All served on the earlier marketing committee.
Still, it's curious that a committee established to try to sell the city consists solely of older white men.
Trying to sell the city without including women, young people, minorities or others who don't fit the demographics of City Hall's typical profile is at least a questionable move.
But not a single city councilor piped up to ask about it.
Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

Democrats: Republicans should stick to facts

The other day, city Democratic Chairman Dean Kilbourne and Vice Chairman Bill Wolfe sent along this response to a recent GOP open letter:


There they go again – the Republican Town Committee leaders are on the blog with negative attacks on our Democratic elected officials and candidates.  What would be more beneficial to the readers and to the voters are actual ideas and plans.  Answers that include: what would you do, and how would you accomplish your goals.

Voters on all levels, local, state and federal are tired of partisan politics.  Stop the bickering and the negative campaigning and put a plan into action.

If the Republican leaders are not able to put forth their plans for the City, then, at the very least, they have an obligation to write with some semblance of a factual basis.

First, as to Rob Michalik – let’s look at the facts: 

From 1999 to 2009, Plainville had the 11th lowest annualized effective tax increase in the state (out of 169 towns).  Rob was on the council for six of those years.  Also, while on the town council, Rob spearheaded various efforts to save the town money.  For instance, Rob pushed the town to purchase its streetlights from CL&P, thereby saving the town approximately $50,000 per year in maintenance costs.  He advocated that an Ebay-like auction procedure be implemented for the sale of bonds, which saved thousands of dollars in interest costs.  In addition, Rob championed an aggressive delinquent tax program, which has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes being collected and reduced the tax burden on those who pay their taxes on time.  At DEDC, Rob worked primarily on efforts to help small businesses.  He worked on the Small Business Express program, which assisted more than 1,000 small businesses in Connecticut (including several in Bristol) and created or retained thousands of jobs across the state.  Rob proudly worked extensively in helping to establish a new Manufacturing Innovation Fund in the state, which will assist small manufacturers in making the investments in equipment, technology and job training to remain competitive, win new businesses and grow jobs.

Rather than focus on the upcoming election of our state candidates, the Republican leaders attack our three Democratic Council members who all have taken a stand on some very difficult issues; slinging mud and calling them hypocrites.  In particular, they politicize the downtown/
Renaissance issue. 

Ellen Zoppo-Sassu has offered a compromise agreement that does not involve handing over city money to a private entity, but still gives the City a stakeholder position in the development.  Council member Zoppo-Sassu has moved a substantial amount of business forward for the City in her eleven months back on the City Council. 

They twist Mary Fortier’s statement about Renaissance being the preferred developer and point out that there is now new proposals at Ten Main Street and other sites.  These proposals are not on the seventeen acres and Renaissance is not the preferred developer of those new projects, yet it proves Council member Fortier’s point that private development may stimulate what is being proposed on the seventeen acres.

Lastly they criticize Calvin Brown for describing this as an emotional issue for the City and characterize his stance as absurd.  Calvin is 22 years old.  He was the highest vote getter in Council District 1 and city-wide.  Voters identified with his idealism.  It is Calvin’s generation that we need to retain and attract in order to maintain our middle class with young families choosing to live here, buy homes here, and put their children in our schools.

The Republican leaders conclude by stating that we cannot afford more of this “leadership.”  That is the key word – leadership.  Our elected officials and candidates take a stand on the issues.  They make their positions known.  We welcome and encourage public participation and input.  We are willing to engage in meaningful debate.  There is too much at stake for negative politics and sitting idle.  It’s time to put words into action!

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at

Council to meet on Oct. 30 about Renaissance

The special City Council session on Renaissance and Depot Square is slated for 6 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30 in the council chambers at City Hall.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at