I have a memory that surfaces every now and then, prompting a churning stomach and I am powerless to control it. What I feared more than 70 years ago — in 1944 or 1945 — did not happen. Yet, since the memory and emotions still haunt me, maybe it will go away if I write about it.
In 1944, my father, Angelo, was 40, a builder and a carpenter by trade. Like many men during that period, he felt he should be serving his country in World War II, but he was too old to be drafted. So, like many men during that period, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, was quickly assigned to a Seabees construction unit and shipped to the Philippines to build bridges and airfields for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
I lived with my mother and father in the Landing section of Glen Cove. My father built our house on Raymond Street in the predominantly Polish area of the city. My mother’s sister lived around the corner and my father’s father and sister and her family also lived very close by. My mother had seven brothers, four in the Army, two in the Navy and one too old to serve. My father’s only brother, Michael, was in the Navy, as were my first cousins. Every evening was spent listening for 15 minutes to H. V. Kaltenborn on the radio to hear news on the war front.
My mother did not drive, so I usually went to church on Sunday with her sister, Nuncia, and her husband, Joseph. We arrived at St. Rocco Roman Catholic Church, one of the three in Glen Cove. St Rocco’s was the Italian church. A few of the sermons were said in Italian and the church itself was actually built by Italian immigrants.
St. Patrick’s was the most imposing church. It was known as the Irish church. My mother went to school there as a girl and I received all of my religious training there. The third Catholic church was St. Hyacinth. Many of the sermons were said in Polish and the masses were recited in Latin.
At St. Rocco’s, I would go to a pew with my Aunt Nuncia; her husband was one of the ushers. This is where the scarring memory I’d like to erase is made. The priest was older and had a with a heavy Italian accent. He started his sermon, saying that the war is raging in Europe and the Far East and that if the congregation has anyone in the war, there is a chance they will not come back home as they may be killed in the fighting.
Wait. My father is in the war. Do you mean he may be killed? Such a thought never occurred to me. My mother and I never discussed this. The families of all my friends and neighbors never mentioned this. It was always “When Stanley gets home . . .” “When Giuseppe gets home . . .” “When Artie gets home . . .” No mention of death. No, “IF Stanley gets home . . .”
My world is crushed. I am dizzy. My stomach is churning (as it is whenever this memory resurfaces). I must get out of the church and get some air. I am going to be sick. My aunt and uncle oblige me. They take me to the safety of my own house with my mother. I recover from the emotional shock after many tears are shed, but the memory of this sermon has stayed with me.
We were fortunate. My father, my uncles and cousins all made it home safely. But to this day, I cannot give this priest the benefit of the doubt. His job is to console, not frighten.
Glad I missed the collection.