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Page 13
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<< 12. Guadalupe Ccallocunto Olano: Peruvian Human Rights Activist14. Fallen Comrades: Jack McCloskey >>


By Elton F. Manzione, Jr.

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The first time he saw the thing, a heavy piece of canvas covered it like a blanket. He tried to peek under the cover, but it was tied too tight and the boards holding down the ends had been nailed into the ground.

He was surprised at the sight of it, even though he had expected something. He saw the men, the mud, the shovels and the tools. He smelled the wet-dirt smell of fresh cement. They never left behind anything like this. It wasn't a building; they never covered them up. This just rose, up into the air, flat and so wide he couldn't reach both edges with his arms stretched out. It was thick, but not real thick. It reminded him of a fat slice of pound cake standing on end.

He had tried to climb it, but there was really no way; no nook or cranny for feet or fingers. It just sat there, canvas-covered, in the corner of St. Casimir's churchyard.

He didn't tell his mother or father about the thing. It was probably dangerous - that's why it was covered up - and he didn't want them to tell him to stay away from it. Eight-year-olds weren't supposed to do anything. It was in a churchyard. Churches shouldn't have anything dangerous. But even the priest had chased him away the one time he tried to climb it.

He walked around it, poking and pulling at the cover but it was tight and stiff. He tried the ropes, but they were so tight he couldn't even get his fingers under them. Near the middle, just above his head, he saw it - a hole. He wriggled a finger though the hole and touched the thing. It was smooth, like glass, but it also had big scratches in it. He could feel them. A line of scratches, then a finger down and another line of scratches for as far up and down as he could feel. He pulled at the hole, trying to make it bigger.

"Hey, get the hell out of there!"

He whirled around and saw a man sitting in a chair with wheels. The chair and the man were between him and the gate. He'd have to run behind the church, over the fence. He turned, but saw the two sisters and the priest looking at him from the other end of the yard. He turned back to the man, wanting to run but crying instead.

"I'm sorry mister, honest. I didn't do nothing. I'm sorry," he wailed.


"Shit," he thought to himself. He didn't want to scare the kid, but he felt almost as if the thing was his. As if he was part of it. Sadlowski, Domerski, Yanush - all those guys. They were certainly on it.

"Whoa, dude. I won't hurt you. I'm sorry I hollered." The boy looked at him half-frightened, half curious.

"I didn't mean nothing, mister. I was just trying to see it."

"They're unveiling it next week."


"The memorial, that," he pointed. "They're unveiling it next week."

"What unveiling?"

"They're going to take the cover off it. You can come if you'd like."

"Maybe. What is it mister?"

"A war memorial."



That was it! It was something from the war and of course it was dangerous - like a gun or a bomb. That's why the man had yelled at him. That's why the man was being nice now. He was giving him a little card with numbers on it.

"Now here's today," he said, pointing to one of the black numbers, "and here's the day of the unveiling." It was a red number.

"It's on Sunday. Sundays are red."

"Nope, this is a special day but it's not Sunday."

He took the little card home and each morning, as soon as he woke up, he carefully crossed off one of the numbers. Today was the red day and he took his trike out onto the sidewalk. He sat backwards on the seat and reached down to spin the small wheels with his hands. What a surprise it would be for the man in the chair with wheels. Maybe they could race. The trike moved in a tight circle and he straightened the handlebars and tried again. He could see the people across the street walking toward the church. It must be time. He gave up. He'd just have to walk to see the man.

He sat in the chair waiting for the ceremony to begin. He felt better today. Al Janowski had wheeled him over from Ann Street. Janowski had lost a son over there. Danny's name would be on the monument. Danny had come after him. He was one of the first. He remembered how the others had sought him out when he came back. How they asked him the questions he couldn't answer and wanted to hear the stories he couldn't tell. How awkward they were in his presence - never knowing when to offer and never knowing when it would be refused. Never understanding that he couldn't explain any of it.

He remembered how they came back - one by one. How he'd read about them in the paper or seen their funerals announced in the church bulletin. He had come back a hero and the war was so far removed from the high school, the factory jobs and the Saturday night cruising that they never understood what the word meant. Now they had a monument, and he had this goddamned chair.

But the chair looked nice today. A deep blue velour covered the tray and the Distinguished Service Cross glittered against the dark background directly in the center. He had twenty or so enameled American flag pins and his Purple Heart, Silver Star, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and Vietnam Campaign Medal accented the corners of the tray. The damned thing looked almost festive. He had Al position the chair on the edge of the crowd. He hated being closed in - crowded. As he looked at the brakes he saw the boy from last week coming around the corner. He was glad he hadn't scared the kid too badly. It just seemed like it was easier to holler than to smile.


When he walked around the corner he wasn't ready for what he found there. Flowers filled the churchyard and large crowd of people had gathered. A band was playing and there were flags everywhere. There were priests, and men in Army uniforms and men in Navy uniforms.

He saw the man in the chair with wheels, but both man and chair looked different today. The man wore an army uniform, but it wasn't stiff and glittering like the others: it was dull and muddy and faded. He wondered why the man hadn't washed it. The chair, though, now that was something. Ribbon and flags and stars and crosses glittered on it in the sun. It looked almost like one of the booths they had down on Oliver Street during the Feast of Our Lady.


It always pissed him off when the World War Two guys would give him shit about his fatigues. He couldn't believe they'd kept their dress uniforms in some closet for twenty-odd years. They probably waited for days like today to pull the damned things out and wear them again. He had stuffed his dress greens into a shit can at the Newark bus station. They never really were his uniform - he wore them out of AIT and he wore them when he was discharged - all the time it had been the fatigues. The fatigues and the bandanna.

"Can't you wear a suit or something if you don't have a dress uniform?" the VFW Commander had asked him.

"I will," he said. The fatigues were his suit. 'Nam was the only career he'd ever known. He wondered if the VFW Commander thought all those guys died in suits over there.

"If fatigues are good enough to die in, fatigues are good enough to parade in," he thought. He saw the boy looking at him, and motioned him over.


The man wanted him to come over. He guessed the man wouldn't holler at him. He hadn't really done anything that other time. He just wanted to know what it was.

"Hey kid, how ya doing?" The man seemed friendly enough.

"Hi mister." He sidled closer to get a good look at the star on the table of the man's wheelchair. A priest stood in front of the thing and began talking. The boy heard words like "duty," "sacrifice," and "courage."


He knew it would be like this. It always was. They'd repeat words they couldn't possibly comprehend and use them to try to give meaning to it. He'd tried all the words and they didn't work. They couldn't give meaning to what he felt was meaningless. Had those boys, the ones whose names he knew were there, tried to explain it to themselves in their last moments? He doubted it.

He wished there was something he could do, something he could say that would let them know that honor and glory existed only in their minds. For him, the notions were as dead as his legs: as dead as the men they were honoring today.


Now an Army man was coming up. Maybe even a general. The boy looked at the medals on the Army man's chest and the gold on his hat. Someday he'd be a general too. He could kill gooks and Japs and krauts as good as anybody. He did it in Independence Park all the time. He'd shoot and watch Teddy grab his chest and fall - another dead Jap.

The army man with the gold on his hat was talking about "good men," and "duty," and "the ultimate price," and "freedom." It made him proud and the flags made him proud. A man with a horn played a sad song: the one they played at night in the cavalry forts on the TV programs. Then the general pulled a rope and the cover slid off the thing. Army men fired their rifles up in the air and the people clapped.


He wondered why he had come. The first bars of "Taps" had brought that choking feeling up into his throat, dragging up the rage, frustration and powerlessness. The sound of the salute sent chills up his spine and pictures seared though his brain: the sappers, the flashes in the dark, the bunker caving in; and the terrible dawn when, high above it in the evac chopper, he could see what was left of Nam Dong - scattered bodies and burned out buildings.

He thought of the doctor; the news that he was paralyzed from the waist down and that his legs, and everything else down there, wouldn't work.

He thought of the months in the VA rehab program learning to deal with the chair and all the little tasks of life that were now so much more difficult.

He had to stop thinking. He saw the boy - wide-eyed and fascinated.

"Let's go look at it," he said.


Up close the boy could see now that the scratches he had felt were names all the way from the top to the bottom in more then ten rows. It was big and white and shining and had a crying angel at the top.

"Whose names are they, mister?"

"They're - uh - heroes from the war," he said, choking out the word "heroes."

"Where are they?"

"They're dead."

Now the boy understood. This thing was just like the one in the graveyard where his grandmother was buried, only bigger.

"Why did they bury them all together?"

The man shook his head and smiled. "They're not buried here. This is just a memorial to the men from this church who were in the war."

The boy wondered why the stone was there if the heroes weren't buried there. "Were you in the war mister?"

"Oh, yes. A lot of us were."

"Was everybody a hero?"

"Nope, not too many. A lot just worked and didn't really have to fight."

"Are all the heroes dead then?"

The man was quiet for an awfully long time. When he spoke it was different than before. The words were sharp and the man bit his teeth. "Most of them. But not all of them. Some of them lived more or less."

"Did you fight in the war?"

"Yeah, that's why I'm in this chair."


"The war."

"How come?"

"Because I can't walk."


He wished the kid would go away, stop poking and prodding. But someone always was, that was the hardest part. He picked up one of the little flag pins and held it out to the boy.

"Would you like a flag to pin on?"

"I don't have any money, mister."

"This one's free. It's a special one for you."

The boy pinned the flag onto his jacket and looked at it, then at the man's legs. They were both there. He wondered why the man couldn't walk.

"But you have legs."


"You have legs. Why can't you walk?"

He wanted to tell the boy why he couldn't walk, but only managed to choke out: "I can't feel them. They're dead."


The boy looked at the man's legs. He couldn't see anything wrong. The war couldn't be the reason. He and his brother played war. People died in war. Of course there were people like Gus. He had no leg on account of the war, but this was different. There were two good legs there.

"Are you a hero?"

"I guess some people think I am. There's my medal," the man said, pointing to the star. It was a big star on a flag ribbon and in the middle of the big star was a small silver star.

"Is that the Medal of Honor?"

"No, that's the Silver Star, son."

"Is that bigger than the Medal of Honor?"

"Well, no, it's almost as big."

The boy wondered if you had to die to get the Medal of Honor. His father told him Uncle John got the Medal of Honor, but Uncle John died. Maybe they gave you this medal if you didn't die. He wanted to be a hero, but he certainly didn't want to die.

It wasn't the medal that bothered him, but the man's legs. The legs were fine, but the man said he couldn't walk. He was sure the man was lying. He probably lied to get the medal. That must be it. The man was a faker and a cheat who wanted to be a hero. He'd get to the bottom of this. He wondered what the man would do when he showed him for the cheat he was.


He was glad that the people filing out of the churchyard had taken his attention from the boy. The questions didn't have real answers. Never had and never would. Several of the people were buying flags and pins and talking to him. The boy asked him something and he nodded. The boy picked up the Silver Star.

He held the medal in his hand, turned it over and opened the pin on the back. The man was talking to a lady now and not really paying attention. He moved a little closer to the side of the chair. The woman was talking about her son and buying a flag. He looked at the man's leg.

As the man reached for the lady's money, he took the pin and stuck it into the top of the man's leg. The man didn't move. The medal hung there on the leg and a small red spot began to grow around it. He looked at it, then at the man who was still talking to the lady. He stared at the growing red spot and she must've noticed. She looked too.

"Oh, God. My God!"


The woman's scream startled him and he followed her gaze down to his left leg. The Silver Star hung like a limp flag and a circle of blood was forming on his fatigues. He looked at the boy who seemed poised to run, yet hadn't moved. He could see the fear in the boy's eyes and feel the frustration, rage, confusion, and sadness building in his throat. Not this. It was almost as if he felt what the boy was thinking, but there were no words, no gestures that could span the gulf between them. The boy would never understand. No one would ever understand. The tears flowed almost as violently as he fought to hold them back.


When the lady screamed, the man looked at his leg, the medal, the spot and then at him. He wanted to run, but he couldn't stop watching the man. It must hurt. He could see that in the man's eyes - the tears were starting. He turned and ran, and ran, and ran. Now he knew the man was a fake - heroes don't cry.

<< 12. Guadalupe Ccallocunto Olano: Peruvian Human Rights Activist14. Fallen Comrades: Jack McCloskey >>