Memorial memories

I didn’t know John Brady Jr., killed in Vietnam half a century ago.  But I was friends with his father, John Sr. The elder Brady parked cars at city hall when I was city hall reporter for the Freeman. He always got me a good parking spot and kept me posted on the comings and goings. Once a while we’d walk over to the Shamrock Tavern on Broadway for a few beers.

When word came that young Brady had been killed in Vietnam, one of 41 county residents sacrificed in that useless war, I wasn’t sure who it was. An editor said the family lived on such and such street in midtown Kingston, a few blocks away from city hall. I said I knew the family.

Naturally, I was “volunteered,” but not without trepidation. There can be no greater tragedy for a family than to lose a child; John was barely out of high school. I did not want to intrude on their grief. But, like in the service, orders are orders.  I called first. They said it was alright to come over.

To my relief, they wanted to talk about their son, how he grew up, his friends, the army, how they worried about him, how they got the news. The services usually send an officer and a chaplain to deliver the message in person. The family had known about John for about a week before the newspaper was notified. It would be almost 50 years before we would learn the details of his death; by then both parents had passed.

I had noticed a color photo of John Jr. on the mantle in the Brady living room on the way out. I hesitated to ask if we could use it – I mean, really?  – but knew editors would ask. John’s mother handed me the photograph without my asking. Her son, she said, would have been proud to have his photo in the paper. Such nice people at such a terrible time.

A lifetime later – a lifetime John Brady never got to share – I spotted a headline in the New York Daily News that read “I was with John Brady when he died.” Could it be? Brady is not an uncommon name. He mentioned Kingston.  It was our John Brady.

The author of the first-person piece, Mark Prendergast, a journalism professor at St. John’s University in New York City, wrote that he had been Brady’s platoon sergeant when their unit was ambushed by North Vietnamese in a night action. Surrounded and badly outnumbered, the Americans suffered heavy casualties until relieved early the next day. Prendergast, like most of his platoon, was wounded in the action.

Brady did not live to see daylight. “John Brady called to me. He died in my arms,” from enemy gunfire, Prendergast told me by telephone. “I come up to Kingston around Memorial Day to visit his grave”.

That year, we joined Brady’s sergeant at his grave in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kingston on the Flatbush Avenue side.  It was a cold and windy late spring day, much like this year’s Memorial Day weekend.   Kingston Times photographer Phyllis McCabe took a photo in the pouring rain of Prendergast laying a small bouquet on Brady’s grave, among the hundreds decorated with American flags by local veterans.

I drive by John Brady’s grave from time to time; sometimes I visit and think of the life he might have had.  John and his high school sweetheart were close, a friend of his told me just a few weeks ago. They wrote long letters to each other, as did many veterans, reminiscing about their times together and with hopes for their future. “They liked to take walks to Kingston Point,” he told me.

Let us dedicate this Memorial Day to all the John Bradys who never came home, to those who survived with life-long physical and psychic wounds and their families, to those who can’t even speak to the horrors of wars they endured and to those veterans who served honorably to return to raise families, build homes and their communities.

Thank you.

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MEMORIAL NOTES – Some families, liked the Bradys, wait years to learn details about lost loved ones. Mario Catalano, my radio partner, never knew his uncle Angelo, killed on Christmas Eve, 1944 with more than a thousand U.S. soldiers when a Belgian troopship was torpedoed in the English Channel.

“The family never talked about it. It was too painful,” he told me.

Catalano recently learned from a televised documentary on the sinking of the Leopoldville (suppressed by the government for almost 50 years) that his uncle died on his 21st birthday and that he had been engaged to marry. His body was never found.

By and large, veterans in general are none too fond of politicians – they sent us to war, after all – but Kingston’s mayors are always invited for a few appropriate remarks on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. (They’re different: Memorial Day honors all deceased veterans; Veterans Day is for all vets.) Kingston Mayor Steve Noble is no Cicero, but he connected with his audience this year in lamenting how an inordinate number of elderly veterans fell victim to the virus last year.

And, he made City Hall available for ceremonies a few days before its official June 1 reopening so that veterans and participants could mark the occasion on dry land. Thanks, Your Honor.

I mentioned World War II Navy petty officer the late Harriet Katatsky in a recent column – we were American Legion pals – and her daughter Eileen sent me a lovely photo of her mother. “Hattie,” as they called her, died last year.

The Kingston High School Alumni Choir was in fine voice, as usual, at services. We vets truly appreciate their loyalty.

To us old-timers, “Memorial Day” is May 30. The federal holiday which created a three-day “Memorial Day weekend,” dates to 1971.