Battling the Viet Cong was one thing, but warring with the New York State Department of Transportation was quite another. George Cressy survived his time in Vietnam, but death claimed him before he could wear down the stolid DOT bureaucracy.
Now, almost a year after his death from kidney disease, his daughter, Katie Heaviside, has finally won Cressy's last battle for him by persuading DOT to put a sign on the Long Island Expressway at Exit 63, pointing drivers to the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's a white obelisk topped by the red, white and blue of the flag, soaring above Bald Hill on County Road 83 in Farmingville, and Cressy helped get it built there.
All Heaviside had to do was move an immovable agency and change an immutable rule: To meet DOT requirements for a sign on the LIE, your attraction must have bathrooms. But the memorial has none.
DOT was willing to waive another requirement: pay phones. No big concession there. But until I asked about it recently, the agency stood fast on the bathroom rule, which seemed a tad inflexible to Heaviside, 35, of Northport, a determined woman with a librarian's attention to detail and a stubborn devotion to her father's dream.
"It's not a picnic spot," she said. "It's a memorial. You go there, you sit, you think, you mourn, and you leave."
But rules are rules. That's the refrain she got from a polite but unchanging DOT official.
The origins of this drama go back to Cressy's service. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, went to officer candidate school, and arrived in Vietnam as a rifle platoon leader in August 1967. In 1996, he wrote movingly and at length in Newsday about what the headline called "Three Days in Hell," in the Central Highlands. Vietnam never left him.
"It definitely shaped his life," said his wife, Barbara, who lives in Northport.
Then came the memorial. In 1986, the Suffolk County Executive at the time, Peter Fox Cohalan, appointed a memorial commission. Cressy and his friend, Jerry Busic, a brown-water Navy veteran of Vietnam, co-chaired its public relations committee. Busic said a visit to the Island of an exhibit based on the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington drew excited interest from vets. "That proved that there was a need for a memorial," Busic said.
On the commission, Cressy helped choose the winning design among entries from all over the nation and abroad.
"My dad had a big background in art," Heaviside said. "He was so happy about the design." But he wasn't happy that getting a sign on the expressway was so hard. "It just ate at him every day," she said.
It's not a question of money. Bethpage Federal Credit Union has put that up, and the design is in the hands of the sign company. All the family needed was a DOT go-ahead. But that seemed as tough a hill to climb as any a platoon leader was likely to encounter in Vietnam.
Despite the presence of bathrooms in gas stations and fast food restaurants down the hill from the memorial, DOT was fixated on its potty rule. It also seemed worried that if it granted this waiver, hordes of sign applicants would overrun it.
Cressy and I were both drafted in 1965 and went to OCS. He went to Vietnam; I went to Korea. He felt a need for war memorials; I don't. But we do share this: a sense of bewilderment about DOT, a maddeningly opaque and ponderous agency.
"You see so many other signs go up so quickly," Barbara Cressy said. Not this one.
Now, facing embarrassment, DOT says the sign is a go. So Heaviside has won this one for her dad. And it's only fair. If LIE signs can lead you to eat, drink, and skateboard, why not one that directs you to a place of mourning for the dead of that awful, still-painful war?
Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.