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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Tales of one of the Fighting Irish echo as Armistice centennial nears

As a child, I’d sit on a milk crate listening to the stories of the neighborhood elders. Each Saturday afternoon they would gather at Puglia’s Delicatessen on Pitman and recall when they were soldiers. Mr. Donahey was at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, Mr. Kull was a Marine Raider in the Pacific, Father Flynn was on Iwo Jima, my dad fought at the beach in Anzio, Italy. Then there was Denny A. Malvey, my surrogate grandfather. He was with the Fighting Irish, 69th Regiment of the famous 42nd Rainbow Division during World War I.

In the 1950s I had a connection with these men. Mr. Donahey was my scoutmaster. Mr. Kull was my American history teacher; Father Flynn, my parish priest and nemesis at Saint Frances of Rome, and of course my dad. Then, there was Mr. Malvey, the old soldier from the first war. At the time, I thought him to be ancient. That was until as a teenager I stepped into the ring with him where he proceeded to box my ears in. Denny Malvey coached me to the semifinals of the Golden Gloves.

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It’s unfortunate, but I never truly appreciated Denny Malvey until he was gone.

He was born in Hell’s Kitchen, an Irish enclave on Midtown Manhattan’s West Side. In the neighborhoods, everyone had a street name. Mine was “Joey Boy,” his was “Denny A.” In 1914, he beat Gene Tunney in a street fight, joined the 7th Calvary and in 1916 crossed the Rio Grande with Black Jack Pershing. In 1917, Denny A. joined the 69th Regiment. Joyce Kilmer, an American poet, nicknamed them the “The Fighting Irish.” Denny A. lost three fingers in a gunfight at the battle of Chateau Thierry, which would keep him from going pro.

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Each Veterans’ Day, Denny A. took me on a pilgrimage to visit the WWI memorials. New York City had close ties to the war. Hometown regiments like the “Fighting 69th” and the “Harlem Hell Fighters” became famous during WWI. We found these memorials at obscure street crossings in Brooklyn and Queens and on the sides of public buildings in downtown Manhattan. Some were hidden and forgotten.

At each memorial, Denny A. would say a silent prayer, salute, take a deep breath and shout “Faugh a Ballagh.” We’d then disappear into the subway to find yet another memorial. Denny A. explained that “Faugh a Ballagh” was the battle cry of his regiment, the Fighting 69th, the Irish Brigade. It was a Gaelic expression that meant “clear the way.”

This Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, which ended on the 11th day during the 11th month at the 11th hour. There will be a commemoration at Lanterman House at 1:30 p.m. The children who participated in our Memorial Day service will highlight the WWI poets.

I recall a story Denny once told at Puglia’s Deli. According to him, on June 3, 1918, the 69th surged toward enemy lines. Trying to overwhelm the enemies’ heavy guns, the 69th swept the field, but Denny was hit shortly after crossing a stream. As he lay wounded, he explained how he found peace by staring at a small church with one bell in the steeple.

Many years later I was traveling through France and visited the battlefield at Chateau Thierry. I was thinking of Denny A. and unconsciously crossed a large field that dipped into a shallow gully cut by a slow meandering stream. I crossed the river, and on the other side, I saw an old church with one bell in the steeple.

Denny A.’s story teaches that without reverence we are only half a community. Please come to Lanterman House on Sunday.

Here’s to you, Denny A. Faugh a Ballagh!

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