Derek Gentile: Veterans transformed by wartime experiences


PITTSFIELD — I remember, many years ago seeing the epic World War II movie "The Longest Day," about the Normandy invasion, which most of us know as D-Day.

The movie featured a host of high-profile stars: Richard Burton, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Fabian and others. They took starring roles as the good guys.

I remember seeing that movie with my father. I was about 12 or so. Dad had served in the Pacific Theater during WWII. I asked him if he knew anybody who had been in Normandy that day.

"Yeah," he said "Fiock was there."

I was impressed. Edward L. "Fiock' Farinon was one of dad's pals. They were part of a group of neighborhood kids who grew up together in North Adams in the '30s and '40s.

Fiock was one of those kids. They all had these dead end kid-type nicknames. "Fiock" apparently was some kind of slang word that meant "lazy" in Italian.

This was pre-Internet, so I didn't glean a lot of info. My father wasn't helpful and he urged me not to pester Fiock with questions.

"It wasn't a fun time for him, remember," Dad said.

It was a reasonable point. But I knew Fiock liked me. (I was a scrawny, bulb-headed kid with a flattop haircut in those days. What wasn't to like?)

So the next time I saw him, I mentioned it.

"Fee," I said (in addition to nicknames, Dad's buddies shortened more than single syllable nicknames further. So Fiock became Fee And so on.)

"Fee," I said, "so you were at D-Day? That's pretty amazing."

Fiock rolled his eyes. "What did your father tell you?"

Dad was, at times, known for his tall tale-telling.

"Just that you were there," I protested. "And that you were a hero," I embellished.

Fiock shook his head.

"I wasn't a hero, Derek," he said. "The guys we left on the beach that day were heroes."

I knew Fiock was being serious, because he usually called me "Joe Jr." (Dad's name was Joseph.) So I had sense enough to know that I wouldn't get a lot more. That was fine. I didn't want to upset him. I liked him too much.

For a long time, I thought people who said that the heroes were to ones who had died were just being modest. But after a while, in my interviews with many veterans of many wars, I began to understand.

When you are in an unimaginably savage place like Normandy or Iwo Jima or Heartbreak Ridge or Da Nang or Basra or Kabul, and you survive it, you undergo a transformation.

The guys who got out alive, they have an opportunity to continue their lives. They get to eat steak, and watch a ball game, and see their kids grow up. The guys that didn't make it, forfeited all that.

And the survivors think about it. It's only natural to wonder, "Why me?" What did God have in mind for me? A question with no answer, really.

I'm glad we have a holiday, Veteran's Day, on which we can formally thank veterans for their service. I think about veterans much more often than that. And Fiock has a lot to do with that.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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