Memorial Day 2009 — Essay by Ernie Fazio
Tommy was working as a night watchman when the city of New York was building a modern bridge across Jamaica Bay for the IND line
He lived a few blocks away from my house, and I had seen him and his brother frequently around the tavern. Tommy was his name and his brother’s name was Jimmy. To us kids they were just a couple of old drunks. There was an oil drum on the power station property that had the top removed and Tommy was using it to make fire to keep warm, as the night got colder. One night I approached the burning fire to keep warm myself. Tommy said “You’re one of da Fazio kids, right?”
“Yes I am”
“Just keeping warm by your fire”
“OK wid me”
There was a silence as we both warmed our hands over the fire. Tommy seemed to appreciate not being alone. We began to make some small talk. We discussed the progress of the bridge building effort. We were both impressed with the size and quality of the concrete and steel bridge that replaced the antiquated wooden structure that was probably there since the early 1900’s. After awhile I said goodnight and went home.
After that I would stop by each night and say hello, and spend more time than I had planned. I found the “old man” interesting. At age 60 he was old. I was 15 and the age disparity alone would dictate that we had little in common. He was a veteran of WWI and had suffered badly from injuries that were inflicted by chemical warfare. The Department of War, as it was called in those days, had declared him partially disabled and was giving him a small pension.
Despite the difference in age he said I should call him by his first name. Tommy was a drinker, but he never drank while on the job and he was in reality quite conscientious about protecting the property from vandals and thieves.
Each night I would stop, by, and he came to expect that I would. If one night I didn’t show up he’d ask about it the next time I did. Not that he was hurt, but that he missed having company. Sometimes he would wheeze and be in severe pain. I asked him about it. He told me the poisonous gas that he was exposed to during WWI was still affecting him. He told me that he never thought he would live this long, and as a result he never dared think of marriage. The picture of Tommy being no more than the neighborhood drunk, a one-dimensional character, was changing. The relationship continued and he trusted me more and more. He told me stories of the hardships of the war. He told me of his comrades in arms, and how they suffered. We drifted into those heavy subjects and the stories had a profound affect on me.
Fortunately for me our conversations were not all dominated by these depressing accounts of the war. We still talked about people in the neighborhood. We found a lot humor in our miscreant fellow travelers. We talked about the good places to find crabs in the bay. We talked about things I was learning in school. On several occasions we talked about my father, a man that Tommy knew, and held in high regard.
After all these years, I’m grateful that I got to know Tommy. My perception of him he went from town drunk to being a sensitive intelligent human being and a friend that I still think of from time to time. He also gave me a perspective on war that I have never forgotten.