Peter Weiner had five offices above the oldest bank in Secaucus.
Climbing the stairs to the second floor was like walking back in time, the ancient building straight out of a 1930s mystery thriller, and you would expect some character from a Dashielle Hammett novel. Office doors lined one side of the hall, made of a combination of wood and translucent glass, Weiner's name was written on several panes -- although on the nearest was a cardboard sign telling visitors to seek a room around the corner.
Weiner -- wearing an oddly expressive checkered tie -- was one of those characters you might find working as a backwoods attorney on a weekly television sitcom, his broad shoulders and full face more fitting in Mayberry, than Hudson County. For an attorney, he was remarkably soft-spoken, and the oddest feature about him was the way he combed his hair towards the back of his head.
At 54, his hair had the salt-and-pepper look that made him seem older than he was.
While he dreamed of becoming an attorney since he was a small boy living on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the road to his law degree was a complicated, although as he puts it, interesting process.
His family moved to North Bergen from Manhattan in 1960 when he was 13. He had skipped grades, and graduated North Bergen High School at 16 1/2 in 1964.
He remembered the school being strict about neatness, and says he was required to wear a suit and tie all the time, while girls had to wear a dress or skirt.
“If it was 100 degrees in May, they might have let me take my jacket off,” he said, displaying a deceptively quiet humor.
Whereas most kids graduating high school would have gone off to college, Weiner’s family didn’t have enough money, so he did odd jobs until his 17th birthday, at which point he enlisted in the army in January 1965.
The army sent him to helicopter repair school in Virginia, where he spent 19 weeks.
"I thought I was going to be assigned to Germany," he said. "They sent me to the war zone instead."
He might have suspected something when the army did not assign him right away, but transferred him to Oklahoma to wait until he was 18.
His orders for Vietnam arrived a few days after his birthday, a bitter greet card that soon sent him overseas. Although typically, the army tended to demand longer service for people trained in specialized skills, Weiner spent only one year in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1967.
"I worked in a number of locations," he said. “I was part of a recovery team that picked up helicopters and small planes."
Nearly all of these rescues sent him into combat zones, where he had to pick up the pieces of American's fighting machines after they had come into conflict, and put these pieces back together so they could go back out and fight again. But war -- despite movement of extreme fear when his rescue efforts came under enemy fire -- was not hell so much as routine, going and coming, dragging back the pieces of machinery, not people, although plenty of people perished around him.
Weiner understood the risk, he and his fellow soldiers took, but took to heart those times when he dragged in aircraft with the familiar logo of the Red Cross on them, knowing that the enemy did not make a distinction between warrior and savior.
"I lot of the helicopters I brought in were unarmed," he recalled.
Perhaps his early upbringing kept him sane, that constant sense of order he had suffered through in school. Certainly the heat of his classroom prepared him for the pressure cooker Vietnam became.
Some old soldiers constantly recount tales of their adventures; Weiner simply shrugs his shoulders and moves on.
After he returned to the United States, he continued in helicopter repair in Virginia. He thought he had a career. Indeed, for a while after his release from service, he continued in the field. He worked at a local airport in North New Jersey for a while fixing planes. He even did two-year stretch at the Port Authority.
Yet he couldn’t get out of his head his earlier dream of becoming an attorney.
“In 1972, he got married, and went to school at night.
“My wife calls me a professional student. The first 20 years we were married, I was going to school,” he said.
He took his bar exam in May 1990, and was accepted to the bar that December and became the Secaucus public defender in December, 1992.
While he says there is great satisfaction in the job as attorney, and he finds it very rewarding helping people, the pressure is immense and he is constantly fighting deadlines and meeting demands of consignment judges and clerks.
“Criminal law is about perseverance,” he said. “If you know you are right, you keep fighting until you get the outcome that is just.”