Just off my right shoulder, a soldier got up from being on one knee and proposing to a young girl in front of the whole company formation, and she was left so excited that she shook. She was saying that she had been totally surprised and now this woman came up to her and said, "Let me see your ring," and the girl held out a left hand that was trembling so much that she had to apologize.
In front of me is Staff Sgt. Chakka Baptiste and I am asking him things and trying to concentrate on him because he was going to war. Between Baptiste, who has to go to war tonight, and the young woman with the ring on her shaking left hand, I didn't much notice the girl clutching Baptiste's arm. I assumed who she was and I said, looking down at my notepad, "This is your wife?"
The circle of people around Baptiste screamed.
"Can't you see? Does she look like a wife?"
I was flustered, and now that I looked at her, I could see that she was very young. I asked the girl, "How old are you?"
Now they all shrieked.
"What's your name?" I asked the girl.
She kept clinging to her father, who tonight would be going to Fort Dix with his reserve unit to get ready for Iraq.
I turned to the older woman with Baptiste.
"Are you the wife?"
"Mother!" They all screamed.
His mother's name was Yvonne. She said she was from Lincoln Road in Flatbush.
I asked Baptiste, "Is your wife here?" And his mother said:
"He's still looking for that one." This was on Friday night at the headquarters of Baptiste's unit, in Fort Totten, in Bayside. There were more than 400 soldiers of the 424th Quartermaster Company of 77th Regional Readiness Command, U.S Army Reserve. There was a ceremony for the company's departure to the nasty roads of Iraq.
Families sat along the walls. The company commander, Louisa Bargeron, spoke. A woman small enough to fit into a trombone case carried by the band that was in the corner of the room. Two generals spoke. Mayor Bloomberg came and he went down the line, shaking hands with the soldiers. Then he went to the families and a woman stopped him dead with a headlock and shouted and somebody from her family snapped a picture and, again, people shouted happily.
In the center of the floor were three thin, young women with USO patches on their blazers. They were a scene out of a World War II movie. One was in white, the second in red, the last in blue.
It all would have been charming, amusing, warm. But these were young people, very young mostly, who were going away to war, and the thought of any of them not coming back turned the pleasantries into grave admonitions from the visiting generals and others: Make sure you get home.
There was nobody from a neighborhood known for great comfort. The soldiers were from East New York and Jamaica. They worked in municipal jobs or the low end of construction. There were no lawyers, writers, doctors, investment bankers or business owners here. This is how America fights its wars, with the rich not involved.
The soldiers, in camouflage fatigues and boots, were milling around, happily, nervous, with their families. There was Spc. Zaher Ali, 29, who works for Con Edison. He lives "in the Bronx by the Stadium." Jaime Prendergast, 43, a platoon sergeant, said he was a bus operator for City Transit. He was quite nervous.
He said, "I can't think of anything. Money? I don't know exactly if I lose money on this. I can't remember that."
He turned and waded quickly through the crowd of soldiers.
April Perez, the wife of Staff Sgt. Tomas Perez Perez - "that is how they do it in Puerto Rico" - said that she already had moved into Perez's father's house on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Somebody else said he worked at Home Depot. Jan Starr, 23, was a mason for swimming pools and earned $11 an hour and he didn't know how much he was going to get for being a private in Iraq.
"The money isn't important," he said. "I'm doing something for the country."
"You feel that way?" he was asked.
"Everybody does. There's no way we could be going to Iraq if we didn't feel we were there for the country."
There are no political arguments among soldiers going to war. God Bless America.
After the ceremony, Bloomberg drove to Maspeth, where they had a Christmas tree lighting in the triangle at Grand Avenue. There were several thin trees and one full, lovely pine, with white lights making it a thrilling sight. There was a memorial plaque on the triangle for members of Squad 288/HAZMAT 1 who died in the World Trade Center attack. Nineteen dead. Five Maspeth residents also were listed. One was a firefighter from a Manhattan house, Mickey Weinberg. I went to his funeral and I didn't like that; and I didn't like seeing his name on the memorial on Friday night. He was young and handsome and strong and he should have lived for 50 more years. And I had just left a roomful of the same brand of people at Fort Totten. A night meant for beauty, with children's eyes widening and glistening as a Christmas tree is lit, became ominous. Christmas carols and death.
A big, heavy guy in a Santa Claus hat and leather coat came up to say hello. He was Jim Oliveri. I haven't seen him for years. Once he was a fireman who took one look at a construction worker almost completely buried and thus dead in a cave-in at a construction site on Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike. Earth kept pouring on him. Rescue workers couldn't get at the worker. Soon, he would have his face covered with dirt. Jim Oliveri looked and said he'd be right back. He drove to his house and he made a tool that he brought back to the cave-in and the rescue workers used it to get the guy out. It was a wonder.
"I remember you as thin," I said. "What do you weigh now?"
"What did you weigh then?"
"I was back from Vietnam at 155."
I mentioned coming from the reserve unit being called up. "I didn't agree with what they were doing in Vietnam," he said. "But I was in the Army. I did what I had to do. The same now, I guess. They have to do it. Nothing ever changes, does it?"
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.