by Kevin Leese
Three weeks ago, I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey. The network that hired me to shoot a reality TV show was nice enough to find me a place right on the Hudson River, sort of in the heart of where all those “Wall Street banker types” that we have been hearing about lately seem to live.
I have to admit I knew absolutely nothing about Hoboken before I arrived, and what I have learned since comes mostly from walking my dog.
Every time Princess and I head out along the river, we pass an area that was all fenced off and shrouded in mystery –– until this morning.
Today the fences were down and workmen were putting the final touches on a memorial to the 159 men of Hoboken who died while serving in World War II. The monument featured two life-size figures that we all recognize as GI standing in front of a dozen rifles bayoneted into white sand with helmets resting on their upended stocks.
This part of Hoboken used to be a rough one, filled with piers, warehouses and longshoreman –– the inspiration for “On the Waterfront” –– and today lined with swanky bars, hi-rise condos and astroturf soccer fields.
I watched a handful of guys put out folding plastic chairs. They fumbled around with the public address system, set up some coffee and doughnuts, and looked anxiously at the threatening skies.
It was pouring down rain when the ceremony started, but every seat was filled. The WWII re-enactors marched in and presented the colors. The PA crackled with feedback and cut out about 40 times during the long speeches that characterize this sort of event. Even though the rain showed no sign of letting up, spirits were high. There was a lot of handshaking and hugs. The Boy Scouts were there to dry off seats so the women could sit, and quite a few vets were in the audience, as well as cops, firefighters, daughters, wives, and kids.
I stood for a while next to an old man wearing a USS New Jersey Cap. He held his umbrella loosely and the water poured off it down onto his soaked back. He paced around looking hard for someone, maybe one of his old buddies.
Another vet from either Korea or Vietnam rolled up on a folding bike, no umbrella, soaked to the bone. His blurred and blued tattoos covered him from his knuckles to his neck. When the “Liberty Belles” sang the Marine Hymn, he popped up off of his bike seat and stood at attention. I could see by the lost look in his eyes and the deep lines on his face that he had seen the sort of things that most of us only hear about. It made me cringe of the thought of what three and four tours of Iraq-istan will inevitably do to today’s young soldiers.
Had I come across this scene five years ago I probably would have walked right past it to get to the nearest Starbucks for my venti latte. I never really paid that much attention to the veterans of WWII when I was growing up. Then I met my wife’s grandfather Vernon Miller.
He was living in Youngstown Ohio, married with a baby daughter when the war broke out. He shipped out on his 30th birthday and served in the 7th armored Division 31st tank battalion. More than once he faced death. First when his tank rolled over in an artillery battle, and again while hot on the heels of the retreating Nazi’s.
His tank was leading the battalion when the Americans rolled into Wissman, Germany, on March 27, 1945. A German bazooka hit them from the rear. Vernon clamored out of the flaming shell and ran through the streets armed with a submachine and carrying a chunk of German ordnance that was just lodged in his back. German civilians hid him and his crew mates in a basement while our guys shelled the crap out of the town until a hundred or so German soldiers surrendered, and he was saved.
Earlier this year Vernon’s wife Veronica passed away. Since then, the house that Vernon and Vern have lived in for the past 50 years has become Vernon’s memory box. Without Veronica interrupting with “oh for crying out loud Vernon, they don’t want to here that dumb story again!” we have all gotten to hear a few more tales from his past.
I guess that Veronica thought we were all bored with her husband’s ramblings. Now, perhaps as his form of coping with the loss, more stories come out each time we visit. They aren’t the typical “cannon fire and bullets flying” stuff you expect from such a horrific campaign.
One of his favorites is the tale of a box of holiday cookies that made its way from an uncle in Ohio all the way across Europe to finally meet Vern in a blown out train depot in Cologne. Four months of travel had rendered the cookies, like the city he was standing, into rubble. But the starving war-torn children in town devoured these crumbs with delight.
When we moved Vern out of his house we found a version of this poster,
On the Banks of the Hudson
I stood there dripping wet on the banks of the Hudson, Princess chomping at her leash, and listened to the speeches, but my mind drifted through some of the incredible stories that Vern told. He delivered them with such subtlety it was easy to forget how a stupid piece of metal just a few inches to the left or right might have obliterated all the happy things I inherited from him.
When the last speaker came to the podium, he made a plea for everyone to write their Congressmen to get our boys in Iraq the body armor they need. The dedication ended with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” blasting out of the PA system until it suddenly cut out, like someone might have tripped over the cable.
A Living Memorial
The crowd quickly dispersed as anyone who has stood in the rain for an hour and 40 minutes would. I walked my dripping dog into the adjacent park across the block and noticed a wreath placed on one of those big old trees, the kind that has no bark. At its base was a simple brass plaque that was now rusted and overgrown by tree flesh in a morbid yet appropriate tribute to one young American’s life.
It was a simple memorial to one Private Duffy, one of Hoboken’s fallen soldiers in The Great War (what we now call World War I.) Private Duffy was 17 when he went into the infantry, and 18 when his body left France in a box.
The tree was planted as a “living memorial” to a dead teenager, and it continues to grow, consuming as it does the iron and brass attached to its base, but never able to eradicate the memory.
November 11th is Veterans Day, chosen because it falls on the day World War I ended. The last American to fight in that war died this year. But the brand new monument unveiled just a few yards away reminds us there are other wars to be remembered, other lives sacrificed in the cause, and more futures that never will be so we can have ours.