Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have perished in our nation’s service. Around the country, people will gather to remember the ultimate sacrifice that our brothers and sisters have made for all of us. Though I don’t support the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, I very much support the troops involved. Many Americans seem to have forgotten that this is a time of remembrance and not just the ceremonial beginning of summer to be celebrated with cookouts, beer, and fireworks. Earlier today someone told me “Happy Memorial Day!” The incongruity of that statement struck me. I mean, would someone have the temerity to say “Merry 9/11”?
Memorial day weekend, for me, has customarily been a solemn time. Always, I think of my father and grandfather.
My Father, Ronald J. DePula. 1938-1982
The son of Italian immigrants, he enlisted in the US Navy at 17, trained at the Great Lakes Recruiting command and was billeted aboard the USS Iowa, the lead ship of the Iowa class fast battleships. While serving on the “Big Stick”, my dad was a bosun’s mate 3rd class, he boxed-and won-a couple of fleet championships and ultimately he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving a life while he himself was in severe danger. As I understand it, the Iowa was refueling while underway in heavy seas when a fellow shipmate was injured and went overboard. My dad, without thinking twice, grabbed lifesaving gear and went in after him. He recovered the unconscious sailor and kept him afloat until they were rescued.
My father left this life early when I was but 10 years old. As a man, I never had an opportunity to truly know him. I’ve only been able to piece things together from conversations with relatives, recounted stories, and from the few items of his that I’ve kept through the years.
I believe that my Dad was probably at his happiest while serving in the Navy. He loved vessels of any type and my most vivid memories of him involve a trip to the South Street Seaport in Philadelphia to see the Tall Ships during the US Bicentennial celebration in the mid 1970’s. I was perhaps 7 or 8, but I distinctly remember being in awe of the many fully-rigged sailing vessels on display and my fathers encycolpedia-like knowledge of all things nautical. To this day I always think of him when I gaze at the sea, see ships, or read about anything having to do with the Navy. Here’s to you Dad. You are missed.
My grandfather, Pasquale C. Aversano 1920-2009.
If I could be half the man my grandfather was, I’d be content. He was born into poverty and raised by a loving family in Trenton New Jersey’s Chambersburg Section. Chambersburg, or “The ‘Burg”, was a close-knit Italian immigrant neighborhood in a city that once was a major industrial center. His father, Salvatore, spoke no english and could not read. He eventually worked for Roebling Steel, the company that provided the cable for the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges among others. Finding work during those years was difficult for Italians because they had a reputation as labor agitators. As the only male in a family with six sisters, my grandfather left school after 8th grade in order to help support his family. As a child, he shined shoes on street corners, sold newspapers and also delivered heavy blocks of ice to iceboxes around the city. Mere days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was one of the first neighborhood men to enlist in the US Army.
He never spoke much about his service beyond stories of boot camp and a later stateside assignment guarding Italian prisoners of war. I know he was wounded, the circumstances of which I am not privy to. After the war, he married, had two children and built a solid foundation for his kids, and grandchildren. His work ethic was incomparable, retiring as a Union Bricklayer after 45 years. After my father died, he assumed that role. One of my fondest memories of him involves the shoe shine box he built when he was a child in order to make extra money for his family. Before any important event; communions, weddings, funerals, boy scout ceremonies, and more, he’d break out that kit and set about shining shoes as if it were a solemn ritual. He taught me how to spit shine my shoes and would offer bits and pieces about his life that enthralled me. Later, as I got older, he’d offer advice. He was never one to really share his deepest feelings, but during those now cherished moments he was at his most candid. In January of 2009 he passed away. After the funeral and graveside military honors, my grandmother gave me his ancient shoeshine box. I took it home to Wisconsin, and didn’t open it for months. Finally, on a particularly troubling day I opened the box and discovered all his tools, polishes, dyes, brushes and rags neatly arrayed as they’d always been. The scent wafting from the box immediately transported me back to when I was 10, and the world was new. I spent 2 hours conditioning, then spit shining a brand new pair of boots. And I cried.
So today I’m reflecting on the deep gratitude that we all should have for those that have served, and more specifically, the contributions that my own family has made. It’s not just about grilling out, and gathering with friends in order to relax and drink beer. It is a day to remember.