I didn’t know Vincent Cannizzaro, Jr. He was born ten years before me and died at the age of twenty. To be exact, he died on Sunday, February 26, 1967 as a result of “multiple fragmentation wounds.” Vincent was a PFC in the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division, Alpha Company. He was killed in a Viet Cong attack on his perimeter camp, which had been set up to protect Army engineers laying roads and supply lines through the Filhol Plantation in the Mekong Delta. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his sacrifice.
On Vincent’s official Army page, one of his buddies, Anthony Silvestre, writes about growing up with Vincent in the Bronx. “We did softball, the Junior Holy Name Society and hung out. I last saw him at my going away party when I joined the Holy Cross Brothers. The next thing was receiving a letter about his death. Vinnie was a good kid. Vinnie, you are missed and remembered.”
I happened to find out about Vincent purely by accident. I sing in the church choir and noticed a gold-plated plaque on the lectern one night during rehearsal. So, while the choir director was hitting the high notes with the sopranos, I went to investigate. The plaque said: “Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cannizzaro, in memory of their son PFC Vincent Cannizzaro, Jr, killed in action, Vietnam, February 26, 1967.”
The plaque is situated on the front, lower part of the lectern and is hidden by a microphone stand. The lectern sits on the right side of the sanctuary as you face the altar, near the choir. It is lost amid the stained glass and smooth marble of the church, tucked away, as it were, like an afterthought. Robert McNamara used to talk about the “fog of war,” and this seems to be part of it: a war memory lost inside a ritual that can be as unfathomable as it is ancient.
I remember the time I went with my wife to visit her mother’s ashes, which were kept in a small crypt. At one point, I left her to wander around the grounds and discovered walls filled from floor to ceiling with urns tucked away in cubbyholes, sometimes with a discolored photograph or cluster of plastic flowers. It was obvious that some of them had not been visited in years. Few things in my life have been as depressing.
Vincent’s parents probably died long ago. I am sure they never lived a day without thinking of him and aching with grief. To die at the age of twenty is inconceivable to me, especially in combat. To have to endure that as a parent must be hell.
I keep thinking of the plaque. I go up and read it nearly every Sunday. I ask the oldtimers about it, but no one seems to know much. The memory dies, the plaque tarnishes, and the rituals we perform for our daily bread go on. But I can’t help thinking of the plaque in a larger sense; that is, as much as it is an homage to a son, it is much more than that. And it is perhaps the “much more” that makes the plaque so significant.
What I mean by this is that the plaque, the photos, the plastic flowers, all of the things that we do to remember, are not just to remember. They serve two other functions. They declare to whoever reads or observes them that (1) this particular person–Vincent Cannizzaro, Jr–lived, and (2) he made a difference. He meant something. He wasn’t just a speck of dust or a statistical anomaly. He had worth.
It is ironic, of course, that Vincent’s plaque is in a church, because that’s what liturgy is supposed to do. It is supposed to remind us that, like Vincent, Jesus lived and made a difference. Like Jesus, we, too, must live and make a difference in whatever way possible. We are not specks of dust, anomalies, or cannon fodder.
Let’s start by making the commitment not to sacrifice twenty-year-olds, especially on Memorial Day.
Haven’t had enough? Check out Robert Brancatelli. Top photo: dog tags of the 58,211 American military members who died in Vietnam (National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum).