Sullivan: Giving thanks for ‘good life'
The shrapnel remains lodged in the neck, a baby's breath away from the jugular vein.
It's been 70 years since an anti-tank grenade rifle blew up in the hands of Tony Procopio, and it's a rare day that the city native doesn't cast a grateful nod toward fate and his maker for the chance to live a "good life."
That life has lasted for 88 years, the past 65 married to his beloved and devoted wife, Helena.
You want a story about thanks today? Well, you got one.
Some friends and family members kiddingly call him "Tony Pro." But his baseball skills were considerable at Pittsfield High, and it's safe to assume he might have been drafted into a major league organization instead of the Army.
The 1942 PHS graduate was a powerful hitter on the diamond, leading all scholastic players in Western Massachusetts in home runs during his senior year.
He played on Pittsfield teams under coach Chuck Stewart with other great players such as Tom Caliento, soon-to-be major-leaguer Earl Turner and southpaw pitcher Carl Heidl. But a pro career wasn't to be, and here's why.
"The Japanese hit Pearl Harbor during my senior year of high school," said Procopio, who was inducted last week into the UNICO Berkshire County Baseball/Softball Hall of Fame. "Most of the guys in the city were ready to get involved. But I'll tell you what -- most of the athletes from Pittsfield High and St. Joe who enlisted or were drafted never made it home. So many were just wiped out. I think the entire starting lineup for the 1942-43 St. Joe basketball team died during the war."
Procopio did his basic training and more advanced training at U.S. Army bases in Little Rock, Ark., and Tyler, Texas.
He was then selected and assigned to the 10th Mountain Division that was training at Camp Hale in the forlorn mountains of Colorado.
The objective was to train soldiers to fight and survive in the snowcapped high mountain ranges of Europe. Some had skiing experience.
Most, Procopio included, had never been on skis. It was no picnic.
"We had to walk about five miles to camp," Procopio recalled. "And it was about 30 degrees below zero. When I walked into our barracks the windows were open and water was all over the floor.
"I thought the roof had a leak, but someone told me they put down buckets of water on the floor each night because the air was so thin they had to get some moisture into the air or you would wake up without your voice. We were about 12,000 feet above sea level.
"One time, Sugar Ray Robinson came to see us to put on a boxing exhibition. The air was so thin he had to quit after just three rounds of a six-round exhibition bout. He couldn't take it."
Procopio tried at one point to segue into the Air Force and transferred to a base in St. Louis. But he wasn't alone, and the glut of soldiers seeking to make that same change were so many that the Air Force sent some back to the Army. Procopio was on that list and returned to the 10th.
He was assigned to Camp Swift just outside of Austin, Texas, and things began to get serious. Troops at this base were going through final drills before being shipped overseas and into the belly of the battle.
"All our training there was with live ammunition," Procopio said. "There were a number of soldiers wounded and even killed just because of that.
And then, fate intervened.
"We went into an open field and sat in bunkers," Procopio said. "We were practicing with anti-tank grenade launchers. The grenade was about two feet long and at the end of a rifle. When you pulled the trigger, the grenade would spiral off like a football. You really could take a tank out with one of those grenades."
The unit was practicing shooting at bales of hay. A soldier next to Procopio fired his grenade and missed. The soldier had one more grenade and Procopio thought it would be a good time to give his friend a lesson. At that very moment, however, the lieutenant running the drill threw tear gas into the bunker.
"I yelled, ‘Gas!'," Procopio said. "And we all put our masks on. It's a good thing I did. That mask might have saved my life."
Procopio then went about the task of firing that last grenade. He pulled the trigger, but the weapon never left the rifle. It was defective and exploded about two feet in front of Procopio's face. He was unconscious for the next 27 hours.
"I heard someone say, ‘Look at Procopio's neck, it's wide open,' and that's the last thing I remembered until I woke up in the hospital. I heard later that a soldier was killed in that explosion and that another lost his arm."
Procopio suffered a fractured skull, a busted ear and burns on his chest. The shrapnel, meanwhile, lodged perilously close to the critical jugular. It was too precarious a medical maneuver to take a chance on removing it.
"I told them I have to play ball," Procopio said. "They told me not to do anything that might cause the shrapnel to move. They didn't even want me to lift anything. So, that was it for the baseball career."
Procopio stayed behind while the rest of the troops headed out. He eventually was honorably discharged.
"I had been ready to go with the rest," Procopio said. "I was already packed."
A high percentage of those who did leave were involved in the battle at Riva Ridge in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy. Soldiers from that Austin camp were part of a successful exercise that secured a critical vantage point from which the Germans had been able to track the movement of U.S. troops. They had to scale a snowy and icy mountain in order to control the ridge. There was a significant casualty rate in the operation and many who Procopio knew were among the 1,000 American troops killed.
Procopio's father, Dominic, had bought land on West Housatonic Street during the 1920s in the area where the McDonald's is now. The Procopio family has owned a garage on Route 20 for years. The family and the family name are both relevant to the city's history. Tony's nephew, Paul, excelled as an athlete and coach at St. Joe.
What's equally relevant is that Tony and Helena, 88 and 85, respectively, are still going very strong. They will be acting as hosts today for many generations of Procopios, all of whom will no doubt give thanks that Tony and his wife are still in good health and very active.
If Tony Procopio thinks he's had a "good life," then we all must take him at his word. After hearing his story, how can you not?
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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