How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chapter 15: War Stories

(Author's note: Talk about timing -- these stories, although fictionalized, reflect the experiences of several of my cousins. The last of these heroes -- my personal, life-long hero, passed away this past week just after his 86th birthday. To Anthony G. Visk, I dedicate this.)

Once FDR declared that the US was at war, every American's focus shifted. There are always people opposed to war, but anti-war protests subsided, German sympathizers were stifled and if there ever was a unanimous national will, it came sharply into focus in late 1941.

Troy's factories were dedicated to providing our exponentially-growing military forces with clothing and other materiel. Underage boys pleaded with their parents to let them enlist. As men left their jobs to fight overseas, women who weren't already employed took their places in factories, offices and the local Watervliet Arsenal, which had been turning out cannon since the War Between the States. Women who were nurses, secretaries and language specialists were called into service.

The country's national symbol, Troy's own Uncle Sam, was once again pointing at each and every American, emphasizing the need for personal involvement in the war effort.

For four years, from 1941 to 1945, boys – and some girls – who were in high school one year were in uniform the next – forced into grown-up roles, facing the horrors of war, yet writing letters to their teachers, friends and families that hid the facts and bolstered our hopes.

Of course, there was genuine fear and conscientious objection to war. I remember hearing a story long after World War II ended, about a young man -- not from Troy --who was determined not to be drafted. He was so fearful of being shot by the enemy, that he shot himself in the foot, only to discover that he was too short to serve in the first place.

The story is apocryphal of course, because no one was “too short” to serve. In fact, two of Aunt Giovi's boys, who lived upstairs over Eddie and Esther Case and me, their baby son, were just over 5 feet tall, and the Army found important work for both of them.

Willie, known forever after to the family as “Smilin' Jack,” was recruited into the Army Air Corps (later the US Air Force) as a tail gunner. They had to be small – there was barely enough room in the tail of a bomber for a man and a machine gun. But it was a vital position, because once the planes took off from their bases in England, and were over German-occupied Europe, the tail gunner's life expectancy was something like seven seconds. The Luftwaffe fighter planes would attack from below and behind, as shrapnel – or flak – filled the skies ahead of our planes, protecting the industrial targets below.

Our “Smilin' Jack” was given a small stuffed creature, called a gremlin, by his beautiful little sister, Michelina – known as “Mike” – before he went overseas. He took it with him on every flight, held on to it even when his plane was shot down over the English Channel, and brought it safely home and later, gave it to his daughter. I remember hearing about other things he and his fellow flight crew members carried – false identification papers, currency and compact emergency rations – necessary for survival in case they were shot down and survived after parachuting into enemy territory.

Anthony, who was known as Kokomo, or “Coke,” from a popular comic strip of the time, graduated high school a year after Willie. Although even on tiptoe he barely reached 5 feet, he became a jeep driver in Patton's army. His legs were just long enough to reach the pedals, and his diminutive size left more room in the jeep for the mail he would deliver from mobile headquarters to the GI's on the front line.

Stories of amazing feats and heroic deeds mingled in the local newspaper with lists of dead, wounded and missing soldiers from all over the area. I still have a yellowing copy of a clipping about “Coke” when he was written up for disobeying orders, and took off for the front lines with “Victory Mail” from home for the fighting men on the front line, in the middle of a ferocious battle. Instead of being reprimanded, he was awarded a medal for bravery.

Vittorio, or Vic, another Case cousin fresh out of high school, found himself, in the last year of the war, slogging through Italy, pushing the retreating German Army northward, where the weary and mostly disillusioned enemy soldiers were eager to survive and return to what was left of their ravaged homeland. That didn't make them any less dangerous, of course, and incredible as it may seem, even today you can see film from the US National archives, on your home computer, of my cousin's unit rounding up German soldiers amid gunfire, as they liberate a northern Italian town!

The video was found and uploaded to the website of a resident of the town, Cornuda, whose main street has been renamed for the date of the US liberation. There are plenty of grateful Italians there, and no “ugly Americans.”

As I write down these family tales, and watch that black and white film, I find it hard to believe that, back then, boys just out of high school were forced to become men of such strength and courage and resolve. No wonder we owe them so much.

©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Book 2, Chapter 5: Life goes on.

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