On any typical Saturday afternoon, some of the men who belonged to Saint Frances of Rome parish would gather in Puglia's Delicatessen on Pitman Avenue in the Bronx. My father would collect different shot glasses and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. The men, soldiers of World Wars I and II would tell war stories and drink to their buddies they'd left behind. Mr. Donahey was on Iwo Jima, Denny A. Malvey fought in the first war, and Joey Bell piloted a B-17. Father Flynn, our parish priest, fought in Korea, Mr. Kull was in Carlson's Raiders in the Pacific, and my dad was at Anzio beach in Italy.
I was the indentured servant of Puglia's Delicatessen and would sit on a milk crate in some out-of-the-way spot and listen. Frankly, I don't recall any bombastic stories of battle or heroism. Ironically, these men had seen the "white elephant," a Civil War expression meaning battle. There were moments during their conversation when they would mention the names of fallen soldiers and drink to their memory.
One Saturday afternoon, I summoned the nerve and asked Father Flynn, "Why do guys talk about the soldiers who never made it home?" He told me that as long as you mention their names, they remain with us — but only in our memories. The priest must have seen a perplexed expression on my face. He saud, emphatically, "I believe that."
That memory is perhaps more than 55 years old, and I can understand what Father Flynn meant. No rationale can explain such an assumption. But I too believe it.
At 9 a.m. on Memorial Day, the Commemoration Team of La Cañada will conduct a solemn ceremony at Memorial Park in memory of those soldiers who never made it home. The team, comprised of children and young adults, will execute their duties and borrow from the traditions of the Landing Party Manual of the Fleet Marine Force. Such traditions date back to Baron von Stuben, a Prussian military officer who saved the Continental Army at Valley Forge.
This year Eagle Scouts Leonard Pieroni and John Moore will be the masters of ceremonies and Naomi Stephen, a Girl Scout Gold Award recipient will be the mistress of ceremonies. They have been on the commemoration team since they were in early elementary school.
The youth-driven ceremony assures that their generation continues to commemorate our war dead. Reverence toward a memory is an emotion we can nurture in the children of our community. Respecting the fallen, and a responsibility to do so, evolves from reverence.
On Nov. 9, 1918, two days before the Armistice that ended World War I, Moina Belle Michael came across John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders Fields." She was touched by the lines, "To you, from failing hands, we throw, the torch: be yours to hold it high, if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields." Moina described this experience as deeply spiritual. She felt as though she was called by the voices of soldiers who had been silenced by death. Subsequently, she pledged to "keep the faith," and vowed always to wear the red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance. It would become an emblem for "keeping the faith" with all who died.
She wrote a short verse that was meant for us so we'd remember the fallen.
"Oh! You who sleep in Flanders Fields … Sleep sweet — to rise anew! We caught the torch you threw, and holding high, we keep the Faith with All those who died."
I'll see you at Memorial Park.