A few weeks ago, on the road back from covering the race in the Massachusetts Fourth, I detoured to a nursing home in East Hartford, Connecticut, to visit a couple who had come to mean a lot to me. Frank and Sara St. George — probably San Giorgio before Ellis Island — were not my grandparents, but they treated me like a grandson in all the years I’d known them. See, when I was 17, I fell in love with their youngest granddaughter, and she was kind enough to return the favor. And that, that was endorsement enough for Mr. and Mrs. St. George.
But about two years ago, the slow ravages of age and infirmity had made it necessary for them to move out of the house they shared with said granddaughter and her family in New Jersey, and into a care facility near the hospital where another daughter worked as a senior RN. For a variety of reasons (reasons that were never really good enough) I had seen Mrs. St. George just once or twice in the intervening time, and the increasingly bed-ridden Frank not at all. So I wasn’t going to miss this chance.
Frank was in a bad way — 91-years-old with a heart like a locomotive, but a nervous system that was failing him. Whether it was Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s was anybody’s guess, not that the specifics mattered much any more. He was made comfortable, we hoped, but he had more bad days than good, and had all but lost his ability to communicate. He slept most of the time I was there, and I did not stir him.
Sara, on the other hand, herself well into her late 80s (she won’t mind me saying), was lively and happy. We talked, looked at old pictures, watched TV, and — like every Italian grandmother since the dawn of ages — she forced food on me. I could only stay for a couple of hours, but they were a good couple of hours — restorative to the soul. When I left, I hugged Mrs. St. George and said my goodbye to Frankie.
The next morning, maybe 12 hours after I’d left, I got one of those phone calls where you know what it’s about even before you pick it up. Frank had passed away.
I bring all this up because, when I found myself back in East Hartford a few days later for funeral services, I learned a lot about a Frank the Army private, who was in the South Pacific building airstrips for allied bombers during The War. I’d known him as a grandpa unparalleled in his affections, a devout Yankees fan, and a seafood enthusiast who was always good to down about 30 of the mussels marinara I made every Christmas Eve. But at his wake I read a love letter he’d written Sara from the Philippines, circa ‘43 or ‘44. It was full of little observations on Army life and reviews of the “pictures” they watched in the battalion theater. But most of all, it was full of statements of his undying affection for his girl in the Lower East Side, and promises that on his return he’d love her forever and never leave her side. It got some of us wondering how many desperately lonesome G.I.s made promises like this to faraway sweethearts, with intentions that were less than pure! But Frank kept his promise to the letter — they were together nearly 70 years.
And though his service in the Army was two oceans and seven decades removed, Frank was proud of it until the end. From one daughter we had the tale of a veterans’ group that came to the nursing home to sing some patriotic songs for the residents, just weeks before he passed. Frank, listening but unable to form the words to speak his appreciation to the group, raised a shaky right hand to his forehead in salute.
And if Frank never forgot, neither did the Army. At the funeral, as they laid him to rest in a veteran’s cemetery, an honor guard stood at attention 30 yards off, and a lone bugler played Taps. There was a gun salute, and the American flag draped over Frank’s casket was ceremoniously folded and presented to Sara, a “token” as the guardsman said, of the nation’s appreciation for his service.
It is, as Lincoln said, altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But it struck me then as it strikes me now that the flag is but a token, that the thanks we give on Veteran’s Day is but a token. Because how do you really thank men and women who’d die for you without ever having laid eyes on you?
Still, for whatever it is worth, I thank you Frank, as I thank all the men and women who wear the uniform.