The flag popped and snapped, as if dancing to a mad fiddler’s reel. Hung with a shining, blue sky for her background, it was Memorial Day 2018 and the assembled were there to honor those who had given the full measure of duty when called upon to protect this blessed land we live in.
The old soldier attempted, seemingly in vain, to battle the gusts of wind to light the Eternal Flame. The spit and snap directly overhead, brought to mind, what must have been the sound of bullets passing or striking the deck of the USS Phoenix as she was engaged in the battle of Surigao Strait and Leyte Island in late October 1944.
I recalled stories I’d heard about those times, some of which drew your writer’s pen to that below.
Edwin Szamatulski was a first generation, American citizen, his parents emigrating to a new and foreign land to escape the ravages and carnage of a madman, who had taken their beloved homeland of Poland.
With nothing but the shirts on their backs and some coins hidden in their socks, speaking no English, Edwin’s parents had come to this new land of promise, determined to seek and carve out a new and better life for themselves and their two young children.
Edwin eventually put himself through night school, while tossing roofing rolls during the day, helping his parents through the Great Depression. He eventually obtained a degree in engineering, going on to work for a New York City construction company.
At one point during that time, he was sent to the small Iowa town of Boone to work on the construction of a power plant. One day while sitting at a small luncheonette, he looked down the aisle to see a beautiful, red headed woman, named Arlene Harris. Brash and true to his Chicago street rearing, he introduced himself to the young lady, eventually asking her to a dance the upcoming Saturday night at something called a Grange. Enchanted by the tall stranger’s swagger, she blurted out a “Yes” to his invitation.
As Arlene and her best friend walked back to the hair salon where they worked, Patsy inquired as to whether Arlene had lost her mind, as she was going with Tom, a local attorney. Arlene, still in a state of blush, after Edwin’s invitation, decided to have Tom pick her up early for the Grange dance.
And so, on that soft summer evening in Boone, Iowa, lawyer Tom, picked up his girl, Arlene, and they drove off for the Grange which was located in the outskirts of that small town. Passing the city line where the pavement turned to gravel, Tom, checking his rear view mirror, remarked, “Must be some crazy fella, driving that way.”
At that, a shiny Hudson Hornet passed them on the left, then forcing them to pull over onto the shoulder. Edwin got out and walked up to lawyer Tom’s car, opening the passenger door, while taking Arlene’s hand and thanking Tom for getting her that far to the dance, but he’d take over from there.
And with that, Edwin took her by the hand from the lawyer’s car and escorted her to his sleek vehicle. Arlene later said that was the moment she knew she was going to marry Edwin — which they did nine months later, only weeks before he enlisted in the Navy to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific. Short months later, my mother left her beautician job in Boone and went to Philadelphia to enlist in the WAVES in support of Edwin and America.
After the war, Edwin and Arlene moved to a small town outside of Newark, New Jersey. Finding prejudice against persons of Polish descent — seems it’s always the latest wave of immigrants that gets targeted — Edwin changed his last name to his father’s first name, Alexander. A short time later, they had me and my sister.
Years later, when I was home from college, I chanced to find a polished mahogany box. Inside, I found a length of cloth. It bore embroidered white stars against a blue background, the rest of the strip bearing single longitudinal stripes of red and white.
My father was a man of few words and even fewer when I was around. I asked him what it was and he told me it was the pennant stripe of the USS Phoenix, which flew over the light cruiser that bore her name in honor of the capital of Arizona. I learned a pennant stripe was hoisted above the ship at the time of her commission, in Phoenix’ case, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on Oct., 3, 1938.
I asked him how he came to be in possession of it and he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. I was later told by his first cousin, who served in intelligence during WWII doing code breaking duty, that my father had been awarded the Phoenix’ pennant stripe for helping pull a wounded shipmate off the deck in the middle of a kamikaze attack during the battle of Leyte Gulf.
Years later, as my father was dying of cancer, he asked me to help draft a letter to then-Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater with the intent of donating the pennant to the State of Arizona and the City of Phoenix. Goldwater arranged to have my father flown to Phoenix to accept the pennant stripe personally from him. It resides in a museum in that town.
This past Monday, we celebrated Memorial Day once again. As is my custom, I take a photograph of my mother in her dress uniform from that time and stand in honor of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of freedom and our country. For the past 10 years, I have had the privilege of standing with Superior Court Chief Administrator Sandy Linderman and husband Monte during the service.
Once again, I had the privilege of listening to Scott Rogers moving introduction and recitation of “Flanders Fields.” On that day, the wind gusted up and past 30 mph at times, making the lighting of the Eternal Flame near impossible. Near, but for the determination of soldier Stan Jones who refused to bow to the elements in service to the celebration.
Add to that, Bob Cochran’s rousing rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which got all of the assembled to join in. I’m sure George M. Cohen and Jimmy Cagney were smiling down.
And, once again, the moving, haunting and impeccable playing of “Taps” by Christie Lynn Rust, who Thursday evening told me it was such an honor to be able to contribute to a country and community she loved so dearly.
As the rattling of sabres and death in wartime in so many parts of this world continues, once again, that Memorial Day celebration at our veterans’ cemetery reminded us of the blessings of liberty and those who gave of themselves to ensure it.
A final note, personal issues did not allow me to file this timely. That said, there is no day within the 365 of a calendar year, not to have occasion to give thanks and prayer for those who have gone before.
Apropos: This article is dedicated to the honorable senator from Arizona, John S. McCain, of whom no greater hero or patriot lives and continues to serve our country today.