Seven years ago on Memorial Day I wrote a post about Vincent Cannizzaro and how he was killed in action in Vietnam in February, 1967 at the age of twenty (see In Memoriam: Vincent Cannizzaro). I had come across a plaque dedicated to him from his parents on the front of a lectern at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish at 187th Street in the Bronx, where I lived at the time. I asked people in the neighborhood if they remembered Vincent or knew his family. No one could tell me anything. Even the old timers had no recollection.
I think that’s what affected me the most and continues to do so today. It wasn’t death or even learning about someone so young dying in battle, as unnerving as those are. After all, he barely had begun to live. It was the idea of annihilation, of non-being that gnawed at me. No one remembered him, his parents probably died years ago, and no record of his existence survived except for a half-hidden plaque on a lectern near the choir stall.
Vincent has an official Army page, and one of his friends from the Bronx, Anthony Silvestre, wrote on it: “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.”
Anthony wrote those words more than twenty years ago. I don’t know where he is now or if he is still with the Holy Cross Brothers. But I do know that being missed and remembered are two of the greatest things we can offer the dead and their survivors. Some might regard that as a quaint religious notion, even superstitious, but I would say that’s exactly what we need. So much of the cynicism infecting life today extinguishes hope and a sense of the transcendent. Missing comes from the heart, remembering from the head. Both are acts of courage and love. What could be more important, whether we remember those killed in action or, as has happened recently, the classroom?
If you look at the casualties Alpha Company suffered during the battle in which Vincent died, you will see that most of the men were twenty and many nineteen. An Army account lists them by family name. If a society is measured –judged–by the way it cares for its children and youth, then we have a lot to answer for. From abortion to school shootings, urban violence, and endless war, we don’t have a very good record. What kind of sickness does that to a society, to a people? What makes us so callous? This is more than a sociological subject of interest. It is evil.
Maybe I have no business digging up the dead, especially when so many years have passed and I have no connection to Vincent other than a plaque in a church. There is some truth in that. I don’t mean to intrude on his memory or his relatives’ lives. But the point of history is to learn from it, remember it, and thereby prevent further evil, at least concerning those acts within our control. Admittedly, there are some that are in God’s hands alone. But making sure no more twenty-year-olds die in battle isn’t one of them. We can do something about that right now.
What, exactly? We can begin by not forgetting. We don’t have to become obsessed with keeping memories alive as some might, but we ought to remember the past so that it influences our decisions today and tomorrow. We are capable of acting that way right now. We are hard wired to remember, which may be the origin of the religious instinct. We don’t have to throw everything down Winston Smith’s memory hole.
I have seen Vincent’s plaque and even now, seven years later, there is no unseeing it. I don’t believe I will ever unsee it. I recall T.S. Eliot: “We don’t actually fear death, we fear that no one will notice our absence, that we will disappear without a trace.”
Image credits: feature by vu khoi. Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”