Just discovered it was John Duchessi Sr’s birthday today. Those of you who didn’t know the second of Amsterdam’s “Duke” Duchessi’s (John’s older brother Pete was the first Duke in the family and his son, former Amsterdam Mayor and namesake John Jr was the third) missed out on a unique experience. I thought I’d use his birthday to offer some memories I have of a special group of WWII veterans from Amsterdam, who I got to know many years ago.
I met Duke when I was around eleven years old. My Uncle was a member of Amsterdam’s Frank Sirchia AmVet Post and so was he. Every spring before Memorial Day, their post used to put the flags on the graves of all the dead veterans buried in Amsterdam’s cemeteries. What made this task extremely time consuming was the mediocre and inconsistent burial records each cemetery maintained at the time. It was known pretty much which veterans were buried in each cemetery but a map showing where each of their graves were located within that cemetery did not exist. As a result, someone needed to walk each row of each cemetery looking for each veteran’s grave. Since all the members of the Post had full time jobs during the day, the search at each cemetery didn’t begin until after dinner, usually about 6PM which meant you had about three hours before darkness fell. That’s why my Uncle used to always bring me along to help and that’s how I first met Duke and the other members of Amsterdam’s Sirchia Post.
Guys like Red Botch who used to run a diner up on Prospect street right across from the Clock Building; the Picciocca brothers Tony and Johnny; the Manganelli boys, Nick and Ralph; Tony Marcellino the mason, Joe Campochiro the house painter; Mareo Tambasco the insurance agent and Joe Callella, the only guy in the group who did not tend to use four letter words as an adjective every now and then.
I have to tell you, those spring evenings, walking through our local cemeteries with that group of middle-aged men, putting flags on the graves of people who served this country was one of the nicest memories of my childhood. First of all, it impressed upon me just how many folks from this community fought for our country. Keep in mind that this was the mid 1960’s when the Vietnam War was raging and a large portion of Amsterdam’s WWII vets were just reaching 40-years of age and still very much alive.
I remember when we’d come across the grave of someone the guys knew while growing up in Amsterdam and they’d say things like “Boy could this guy hit a baseball” or “Remember his sister? She was a doll. Whatever happened to her?” Once in a while, when we’d come across a grave of a fellow WWII Veteran killed in action who the Post members had known especially well, there’d be instant silence and three or four of them would stand together around the grave and say a prayer and you’d see at least one wipe a tear from his eye.
On Memorial Day mornings, the Post would serve as the honor guard for the annual Mass said at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. Since I played the trumpet when I was a kid, I became one of the Post’s official buglers for a few years. I used to love seeing all these guys show up at that cemetery all dressed in their uniforms. They’d joke around like crazy and insult each other mercilessly right up until drill sergeant Johnny Picciocca got them into formation. As soon as he ordered them to attention, the joking ended, those smiles disappeared and they did their best to become acting soldiers again. They marched in step to the outside altar, stood proudly with the colors through the entire mass, fired a three-shot volley in honor of the heroes at rest around us and stood at proud erect attention while I played taps.
With the exception of Duke Duchessi, who became National Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, one of the things this group of proud respectful veterans usually never did was talk about their own experiences in the War. I used to beg my Uncle to tell me what fighting in Africa and Italy was really like but he’d always change the subject. Now I realize how hard it had to be for members of their generation to relive what must have been some horrific memories. But what they never failed to do was spend so many spring evenings of their busy lives and every Memorial Day morning making sure their fellow veterans who left this Earth before them were appropriately recognized and honored. Like I said, some great memories from my childhood.
Happy Birthday Duke!