The men stood in the outdoor chapel at Calverton National Cemetery to say goodbye to a veteran they never knew. They saluted as taps played, facing the humble flag-draped gray coffin upon which was written a last name: Amabile.
The small clutch of mostly veterans came that day, April 30, to offer a final salute at the burial of Peter Patrick Amabile. The Korean War-era veteran died in December at age 74 in a Manhattan rooming house, penniless and long separated from his family.
"None of his family had been found, so we felt it was up to us to give him the respect he earned when he raised his hand and swore to defend his country," said James Casey, an American Legion leader from Malverne who helped organize the burial.
In December, nine days before Amabile died, Rita Manganiello, Helen Langella and Veronica DeSanto had come to Calverton to say goodbye to their brother Albert, a World War II veteran they believed was the last of their brothers to die. He was buried under a headstone marked with his last name: Amabile.
What the three women could not know then was that their brothers would soon be reunited. When Peter Amabile was buried in April, his coffin was lowered into the ground just a few rows from where Albert had been buried.
This is the story of how an act of respect and kindness by Casey and his fellow veterans helped bring Peter Patrick Amabile back to his family, his brothers in arms, and how his three sisters learned of their brother's fate.
"On behalf of a grateful nation . . . " Casey began, as he stood in Manganiello's Staten Island living room last week. He handed the folded flag that had covered Peter Amabile's coffin to the three sisters.
"Thank you very much for what you did for us," said Langella, 79, as she stroked the flag's star-spangled surface.
A veteran fallen on hard times
"Petey," as his family called him, was the second-youngest of 12 born to an Italian immigrant family in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1954 and served in Korea. He returned to Red Hook after his four-year enlistment was up, and eventually shared an apartment there with his brother Joseph.
Privation stalked the two men, family members say. Joey, as he was called, was deaf. Peter, his sisters say, was never the same after returning from Korea and unable to hold a job. But the big family remained close even after burying their parents some four decades ago.
Peter and Joseph cobbled a life together on disability checks and on the kindness of another sister, Stella Amore. She would shop and cook for them, and showered them with such affection that her husband, Anthony, sometimes complained. The brothers had no telephone, but Peter Amabile often showed up under his sister's window, channeling Marlon Brando's bellowed greeting from "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Amabile would baby-sit his niece, Louise Manganiello, now 40, when she was a child. He amused her with playful crooning, teaching her the words to the song "Smile," the theme music for Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times." "He would always say, 'No matter how bad things get, just smile,' " Manganiello recalled.
But Amabile began to spiral sharply downward following a series of family tragedies. In 1991, a nephew tried to get into a subway car pulling out of Manhattan's Bowling Green station, fell onto the tracks and was killed. The next year, Joey, a World War II veteran, died unexpectedly -- he is buried in a different section at Calverton -- leaving Amabile alone in the apartment. He struggled with rent, and was eventually forced into the street by a fire. He found a room in a hard-luck hotel and stopped calling or visiting family members. Soon, years had gone by and no one heard from him.
A new start for Amabile
Things brightened for him in 2001 when he found a room at Euclid Hall, a once-elegant apartment house on the Upper West Side that in the 1990s was converted into an assisted living single room occupancy facility for the once-homeless, family members said.
Amabile earned a reputation as a colorful street character, entertaining locals with magic tricks -- a passion since his childhood -- while wearing a trademark black hat and cape. He often held court in nearby parks or libraries and in the pizza shop in the Euclid's ground floor, on Broadway just north of West 85th Street.
"He was a pretty popular guy," said Mark Dames, a former Euclid resident now living at a residency downtown. "Everyone in the neighborhood knew him -- even people in suits and ties."
Amabile died Dec. 20 in his room at the Euclid so crammed with children's toys that squeezing through the pathway to his bed would set off a cacophony of electronic voices, giggles and battle sounds.
Jim Morris, the Euclid's director of social work, said the facility's residents and staff organized a memorial service in his honor. They were surprised by how many people in the upscale neighborhood he had befriended.
But Amabile had no money for a funeral, and Morris did not know he had any family left. Amabile had listed his sister Stella as an emergency contact, but she died a year before and her phone was disconnected. Unknown to Morris, the other sisters had moved away from Red Hook to homes on Staten Island.
"I thought someday I would see him knocking on my door but it never happened," Rita Manganiello said. "I don't know how he could have forgotten us."
With his Dec. 20 death, and no known family to provide for his burial, Amabile might have been destined to become one of the roughly 800 people buried each year at the city's graveyard for unclaimed dead on Hart Island, in Long Island Sound.
This is where Casey stepped in.
A fellow veteran takes the lead
Three years ago, Casey, a former state American Legion commander whose home post is in the Rockaways, had read that veterans whose bodies go unclaimed in New York City are sometimes buried in unmarked graves on Hart Island. That is partly because the city's medical examiner's office, which takes custody of the city's unclaimed dead, is not permitted to transport a corpse beyond the city limits -- where all the available local military cemeteries are located.
Casey, 60, a Vietnam War-era sailor who served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, said his passion for honoring veterans was sparked during a visit to a relative living in Belgium, shortly after he joined the American Legion about 30 years ago. While driving through the countryside he came across tiny World War I grave plots honoring foreign soldiers who died defending the Belgian villages where they now lay.
"I said, 'Wow, look at how these people honor these veterans,' " Casey said. "I said, 'How can you not be moved by that.' "
Inspired by this reverence for veterans, Casey helped persuade the Queens County Committee of the American Legion to join two other veterans groups who had the mayor's office classify them as an "organizational friend" of veterans. That has allowed the groups to transport the bodies of 160 veterans to national cemeteries outside the city since the arrangement began, according to a city spokeswoman.
When Casey's Queens County Committee learned that the city had custody of an indigent veteran -- Amabile -- it volunteered to make Amabile's funeral arrangements. The city pays a $900 stipend to help cover costs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a headstone and plot at available national cemeteries, for all honorably discharged veterans.
In April, a group known as the Patriot Guard Riders provided Amabile's hearse with a motorcycle escort to Calverton. The American Legion arranged Amabile's burial through a Queens funeral home, and found a bugler to play taps. They arranged for a pair of Air Force officers to preside over Amabile's burial, and to fold his pall flag into a triangle.
As Amabile's service neared its end, a chaplain recited a passage from the Gospel of John, his voice lifting in the springtime air. "In my house, there are many dwelling places . . . " he intoned.
One by one, people who never knew Amabile paused by his coffin to say goodbye. Casey stepped forward and saluted.
"Farewell, comrade," he said.
A month after Amabile's burial, events brought Casey to Amabile's sisters. He learned from a Newsday reporter that they lived on Staten Island. On Wednesday, he drove from Malverne to present the three siblings with their brother's flag.
He stood before them in Rita Manganiello's living room. Langella reached for a tissue. DeSanto shifted, then was still.
"On behalf of a grateful nation . . . " Casey began, as the women struggled with emotion. Then he handed Amabile's last remaining family the folded flag.
A momentary silence hung in the air. Then DeSanto said, "We just wish we had been there for Petey."