Epitaph for a Patriot

Mr. Morano is a member of the New York City Police Department.

A few men probably hated Pop. They were workers he had caught stealing G.I. rations from the Army depot where he was a guard during the Second World War. He had a special knack for catching them "waltzing out," as he put it, with hams, legs of lamb, and other products or equipment stuffed un­der their jackets.

It wasn’t getting caught that bothered them so much as it was what Pop would tell them in the process. "You bum!" (He said it in a way that went right through you, never jokingly. Calling peo­ple names was no joke to Pop.) "Don’t you know that some G.I. is lying in some stinking fox hole praying for that? Hope to God it’s never your son!"

No one else could say anything like that without sounding corny. But Pop couldn’t be corny if he tried. And he never tried. His words were entirely spontaneous. And he meant everything he said. What he said came from a terrific pride in America. Pop was a super patriot. He would never have un­derstood that the term is meant to be an insult now. To him it would have been the highest compliment. If you of the new generation find this hard to believe, please hear me. He was no square. He and his kind made the twenties "roar," real swingers in the literal sense of the word, sampling all of life to the hilt but getting their biggest kicks from courage. These were the men of World War I who were proud to be "over there."

Mom screamed as the rifles cracked over his grave that cold February day at Pinelawn National Cemetery. When the platoon leader of the burial detail handed her the flag that was draped on his casket, she buried her face in it and sobbed, "That’s all I have left — a flag. But that’s how you wanted it, Lou, wasn’t it? To go out like a soldier — wrapped in a flag." (And how better to remem­ber Pop! For years, at his insist­ence, we had been the only family in the neighborhood with a full-sized American flag smack in the living room.) I didn’t shed a tear. That is the way he wanted me to be — soldier like. But, today, I can’t watch a parade without bawl­ing like a baby.

It isn’t because of the many pa­rades I had watched with him. Not because he was forever pointing to the flag and saying, "Here it comes, kid — Old Glory! Isn’t it beautiful?" It’s because I can’t help remembering Pop’s walk. He didn’t just walk — he marched. Not an arrogant, chauvinistic march, but a happy, proud-to-be-alive and free type of march. You could spot him in a crowd a mile away because of it. He looked like an Italian James Cagney. "Here comes your Pop," Mom would say. That walk displayed a bold pride, and also concealed the meanest scar you ever saw. A German "eighty-eight" fragment had passed through his thigh, taking half of it along on the way out. That he hadn’t the slightest limp was beyond understanding.

"I knew I was going to get it," he confided to me as a boy. "I had made a promise to St. Joseph that if he got me out of the last show [battle] alive I would say a prayer to him every day. He kept his part of the bargain but I didn’t. So I knew one of those ashcans [artil­lery shells] had my name on it." The force of the explosion hurled him against a tree in the Argonne forest. Not only was he wounded severely, but he and his buddies had another problem. They were caught in a trap. Completely sur­rounded by Germans and cut off from the main American force, they were the "Lost Battalion." His sister still has the letter from the U. S. Government regretfully informing her, "Your brother Louis Morano was killed in ac­tion."

But these soldiers were very much alive, as the Germans were to discover when they sent in a captured dough-boy bearing a beautifully-worded surrender re­quest: "You must be very proud of this soldier. He has refused every question put to him and will only give us his name, rank, and serial number. But we can hear the cries of your wounded from our lines. We beseech you on their part, for the sake of humanity, there is nothing to gain by resist­ing further. Surrender and let us treat your wounded."

The American commander read the note aloud to his men. They spared him the agony of making the decision. In direct contrast to the eloquence of the note, they yelled back in their own "Hell’s Kitchen" terms, "Come and get us, you Dutch bastards."

The rest is history. The Lost Battalion held out until an Ameri­can relieving force was able to break through and rescue them. And Pop was soon home.

Home was the East Side of New York City, "where some of the worst hoods and finest men grew up side-by-side," Pop would say. He had a strong conviction that "it doesn’t matter where you’re from in this country — only where you’re going. So long as you have the guts." He told me how most of the "wise guys" and "fast buck guys" he grew up with were now either behind bars or "standing in the East River with cement shoeshines." And when he noted my amazement at how casually he mentioned big-name Mafia leaders who came from his neighborhood, he reassured me, "The Mafia is nothing to worry about, kid. They only push those people who will let them. Like the poor old Italians who came to this country with a fear of them. But we’re Ameri­cans, kid, and no so-and-so is go­ing to push us around." One of his favorite mottoes was the one printed on the old colonial flag, "Don’t tread on me!"

How Pop resisted pushing was related to me by one of his World War I buddies. A Connecticut "hayseed" when she married Pop, Mom was ill at ease in the gangster land of the lower East Side where they set up their first apart­ment. Sensing this, he took her by the hand and marched down to the pool parlor across the street. This was the hangout for the local hoods. "Listen, you guys," he said. And all hands stopped in the middle of their games. "This is my wife, and our apartment is across the street. If I catch any­one near her or it, I’ll break his back." Mom got a wide berth from then on, and there was not one case of back trouble on the East Side. Eventually, the Moranos moved to Staten Island.

One of my uncles, who couldn’t read or write English, had eco­nomic gumption enough to open a dress factory during the depres­sion. Not only did he thus amass a small fortune, but also he put most of my aunts and uncles and a few cousins to work, my mother included. But even with both Mom and Pop working, there wasn’t enough to give my sister and me the education they wanted for us. So Pop began painting murals and backdrops for the local Catholic private school. The nuns in return gave us a break on the tuition. I didn’t turn out to be the smartest kid in the school — my sister did; but I was the proudest. During the school plays, I would nudge the kids on either side of me, point to the scenery, and say, "My Pop painted that!"

When we first moved to Staten Island, our neighbors felt sorry for Mom. They heard Pop’s gruff, East Side voice and assumed he was a tough of some kind. But they soon knew better. Despite his Bogart-like exterior, he was a gentleman — and an intellectual. Indeed, most people he engaged in conversation (and he did this with total strangers) credited him with no less than a college education. But he had never finished gram­mar school, having lost both par­ents at age eleven. The extent of his self-education made him the informal "lawyer" of the neigh­borhood. Relatives and friends were constantly ringing the door­bell to present Pop with their problems. He helped more people get their citizenship papers than has any nongovernment agency I’ve known.

One day, at the wedding of one of my cousins, the music stopped and the band leader announced: "The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor." Everyone was crying. I remember turning to Pop and say­ing, "The Japanese? The Nazis? Can we beat them, Pop?" He grinned confidently and reassured me, "This country has never lost a war and we are not going to lose this one." Chauvinism? No one had more respect than he did for the militarism and resource­fulness of the German people. Hadn’t he fought them before? "But free men are still better fight­ers," he told me.

As I watched every one of my cousins who was of military age (nine in all) march off to war, I couldn’t help feeling deeply en­vious. While Mom was thanking God that I was only nine years old, I was cursing my misfortune. I knew how to be a soldier. Hadn’t my Pop taught me the manual of arms backward and forward since I was five? I even knew what Army chow tasted like; Pop al­ways took us to the nearby Army base on "open house day" to eat in the mess halls. Why, at that age I could spot the technical er­rors committed by Hollywood in the war movies. After all, I had fought through every World War I battle, vicariously, with Pop. I could even tell you how a German "eighty-eight" sounded on its way over. Like being under a bridge as a fast freight train passes over it. Right, Pop?

There was only one person who wanted "in" more than I did. The recruiting officer must have had his laughs when Pop walked in and tried to re-enlist. He was fifty at the time — to say nothing of his wound. Pop walked out dejected and muttering, "Pansies. You guys are pansies. In my show we were soldiers."

So he had to be content fighting the battles from his armchair through the newspapers, explain­ing every action to me. His Gods were Ike and Mac. Though tradi­tionally a Democrat, he voted for Ike when he ran for President. Not because of his hero image either, but because Pop was a conserva­tive Democrat. He never forgave himself for voting for Roosevelt, who had campaigned on a conserva­tive platform.

Pop died in February — the month of his birth, as well as that of two other great Americans. Un­fittingly for a soldier, he died in bed, with his shoes off, in the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital. But he was surrounded as he would have liked, by veterans — some of them from his "show."

There was much weeping and wailing at the wake. But being of Italian extraction accustoms one to that sort of thing. What broke me up was when Pop’s Jewish buddy walked in. He strode past every­one, and instead of kneeling at the casket in the Christian manner, he just stood there bowing up and down, tears streaming down his cheeks. It must have taken courage because most, of the older Italians there probably didn’t understand. He said to me as he was leaving, in a voice choking with emotion, "I never met a better American than your Pop."

The tombstone at Pinelawn just reads, "Louis Morano, Company I, 307 Infantry, 77 Division, Febru­ary 24, 1891 to February 15, 1955." That is the way Pop wanted it: "Army style — plain and simple." But no man who loved his country so much deserves to go without a more fitting epitaph. I hope this will serve. Forgive me, Pop.