Some months ago I wrote a story about my grandfather and how he taught me how to be full of CHIT: Curious | Humble | Intentional | Teachable. Today, I want to talk about this World War II veteran and how he has lived a life as a gritty hero, not just of World War II, but of the game of life.
I have seen the documents typed on an old-school typewriter by some nameless clerk, doubtless doing their duty for our country, the paper was worn, brittle, once durable, once able to withstand being struck so hard by each off-kilter element of typeface, each record is an aging survivor of the decades stuffed in a drawer or filing cabinet God knows where:
Army of the United States: Honorable Discharge 552nd Bomb Squadron
Battles and Campaigns: Air Offensive Europe, Central Europe, Normandy Northern France Rhineland
Decorations and Citations: European African Middle Eastern Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal
I recall looking at the bottom of the discharge papers and seeing the mark of this man I had seen on hundreds of other documents from checks to rental agreements, Dominick Demonaco, a signature etched by a much younger man who must have felt a huge relief that he would get to go home. He must have been grateful as he signed that none of the bombs he attached went off when he was handling them, that none of the missiles intended for him and his buddies hit and that none of the planes that came in full of holes and live explosives, that forgot to drop when they were supposed to, put an end to both his military career and young life before victory was achieved and his good conduct medal was issued.
To add to our family’s honors, I also had an uncle, Rocco Margagliotti, that received both the purple heart and the bronze star for saving his captain at The Battle of the Bulge. He and my grandfather were best friends but they served in different parts of the war. They grew apart later in life due to family squabbles and drama and that is a shame as my uncle Rocky left us many decades ago. I take solace in the fact that one day soon, Dom and Rocco will share a Miller High Life in Heaven together, and there shaking her head at them will be Rocky’s sister, my grandmother, Josephine or Jay Margagliotti Demonaco.
Thankfully, unlike the family of my Uncle Rocky, that day is not today and I still get to celebrate my full of CHIT Pepop on Veteran’s Day weekend and not Memorial Day. I get to think back on his service to our country with pride and thank him for it.
I sure hope I don’t offend anyone, but that service is not the service I am MOST thankful for.
The service I am most thankful to Pepop for is the service to his family. The way he got up every morning, put shoes that were often too tight and too worn on his broken and aching feet and went to work every day to help support his impoverished family. I was lucky enough to live with this man, both when I was very little, as a teenager and again as a young adult. I watched him hobble on those feet and go to physical jobs. His work was so unlike mine, it involved driving, moving, hauling, standing for hours on end. Every time he got up from his chair or bed, I heard him suck in a breath and utter a slight curse as his feet sought to betray him. I also watched him as he walked to work later in life after his eyes gave out and he could no longer drive a beer truck or a garbage truck. It was then that he embraced his true love (after my grandmother) to make a living, cooking.
Yet even that was a sacrifice, beyond the walking to work, when he arrived he worked for people who did not give him a raise in the decades he slaved in their kitchen. He was made to pay for the pizza he brought home to us- the mere cost of ingredients to the owners – even on holidays. Sometimes his employers would give him a free bottle of wine at Christmas as a bonus, but the rest of the time, it was pay as you go. I saw him sacrifice another way too. He had to save his creativity for home. He can make a gravy or as you non-New York-Italians call it – spaghetti sauce- that was second to none, yet he had to make the sauce their way. He had to make the sausage and peppers their way, and then hobble home and cook for us.
Years prior to his Italian restaurant job, his dreams for doing it “his way” were dashed when a failed attempt to relocate and reconcile with Rocky and start his own restaurant ended in further family separation, Soprano’s level Italian family infighting and the collapse of the former buddies’ business shortly after it started. I think he tried to make a go of it alone and we basically ate all the profits even as he tried to serve New York Heros to Titusville, Florida’s former “what’s a hero?” sub with extra mayo eating public.
The amazing thing about my grandfather is that he took all this in stride. In times of distress, my grandfather is famous for his colorful phrases belted out in a half chuckle like :
ya’ sista’s a$$ !
ain’t dat som’ $hit? or
you gotta’ be kiddin’ me!?
Yes, that’s my Pepop, utter a curse and move on. Thank God for what you DO have and move on. Dom is a study in both CHIT and grit. He even takes the same attitude when he talks about his time in the war. No somber serious recollection of planes flying in with a live bomb hanging off a tattered wing, no urge to come in closer and listen to what he did to save the day. Not my Pepop. When asked what he did in those situations he said, “we shit in our pants and prayed to God the damn thing wouldn’t blow us all to hell!” and he laughs as he says it.
If you want to hear Pepop’s voice and more stories about his growing up in the depression and WW2 here is a StoryCorp interview Dominick Demonaco my niece did with him.
Pepop got one of the first injuries to his feet as a teenager driving a milk truck in New York City. When he was a teenager, they used giant blocks of ice to keep the milk cool and he dropped one of those mothers on his young foot! That is probably where all the cursing started and it never stopped! LOL! (oh…did I mention that he still lives on the second floor of his apartment building and walks to the store sometimes?) Dom went from delivering milk to delivering beer, attached and detached bombs somewhere in there, came back delivered more beer, drove a garbage truck as a teamster on Long Island.
He built a house on Long Island and moved his family out there when it was still considered “the country.” I have pictures of he and the family picnicking. My mom and triplet sisters and I moved into that house with my grandfather, my aunts and my uncle when I was a toddler and we lived there, with houses popping up all around us, but still adjacent to some woods, until I was nine and we attempted the failed reconciliation I mentioned above.
On the Space Coast of Florida, years before the first space shuttle launched, the reconciliation failed and the restaurant sank in the swamp but our lives as Floridians began. Pepop left the Teamsters and never drove again. Never went to test for his Florida license. At that point, when he was close to my age as I write this, he said: “I’ve been driving all my life, I’m done.” From that moment forward he cooked and he walked. I’m 50 now. He worked well into 70s, well after he should have. He worked at several restaurants and he was beloved by his coworkers and known as a hard and dependable worker who made people laugh at each and every eatery, including the one that couldn’t spare the free pizza. They love him too and he loves them, he celebrates occasions there sometimes to this day! Dom bears no grudge, he only holds only the memories of laughter and crazy times with them, that is who he is.
No matter his age, he never stopped taking care of those around him. What is his is yours. Whether that is a roof over your head, food, money, time- he gives it. He is still doing it today, still helping the family when they need it in some of those same, often non-monetary ways. For a while it has been my turn to pay him back monetarily a little, I have sent him a small supplemental allowance twice a month, for many years now. When I get a raise he gets a raise. Every time I talk to him, we have the same ending to our short and sweet conversation- He says: “John thanks for all your doin’ I really appreciate it man” and I say “Peep-it is just my turn I could never do for you what you did for us.” I say “I Love You Peep” and he says “Take Care Kid” (which roughly translated means “I love you kid” in Brooklyn Teamsterize).
So forgive me if I am selfish and his being a veteran in service to this great country of ours is not what I am most thankful for this weekend nor any other weekend. I prefer to forgo celebrating only the good conduct medal and rather like to think of Peep also getting the Golden Spatula for Meritorious Service to his Family.