Monday, December 12, 2005

Vassar -- 2,069


This is excerpted from columnist Danny Lanzetta

2,069 pairs of combat boots

“If there’s only one boot in this exhibit, it’s too many,” says Marq Anderson, EWO National Tour manager.

“Have you spoken with Celeste Zapalla?” he asks. “Her son died in the war,” he says. He then points behind me to a woman standing by herself in a corner of the chapel.

Celeste Zapalla appears to be in her mid- 50s. Her arms are crossed and she appears absorbed, maybe by the speaker, maybe by something else. She is wearing a long jacket that partially covers a memorial sweatshirt, something she obviously had made. Mostly, she looks tired.

I approach cautiously and introduce myself before asking her for a few minutes. She agrees, and we head toward the chapel vestibule, so we won’t have to talk over the anti-war speakers at the altar. We stand beneath a doorway as I take out my notebook and pen and ask Celeste to tell me her son’s name.

“Sgt. Sherwood Baker,” she says slowly, spelling it out for me to make sure I get it right. “He was 30,” she adds. She also tells me that her son was the first Pennsylvania National Guardsman to be lost in combat in more than 60 years.

I then ask her why it’s important for people to see the exhibit and Celeste becomes very emphatic.

“We mustn’t sanitize (the war) and pretend we don’t have to think about it because it’s far away,” she says, as if she’d been listening to my thoughts. Guiltily, I continue to write. “We have to acknowledge it, face it and deal with it if we’re ever going to have peace.

“I want people to remember my son,” she continues, the outlines of her eyes now becoming red, her tears restrained, and yet palpable, as if she has learned exactly how to control herself for interviews. “It wasn’t just our family that lost him. His country lost him, too.

“He had a great future. He was a case worker for mentally retarded adults. He was a musician. He was a father. Everything he would have been to the community is lost. Now multiply that by 2,069. And it’s going up as we speak.

“It’s important, no matter what people feel about the war, to remember that each pair (of boots) is a person, a family, a future. For the folks who say we have to stay the course, I want to know, what is your level of sacrifice? Some people don’t even want to pay taxes.

As she finishes, something in me can’t help but reach out and touch her arm. I thank her and watch as she walks back into the chapel.

The number 2,069 flashes into my head as I drive off.

It’s only later, hours after I left the chapel, that I understand what Marq Anderson was saying. For if it were only the boots of Sgt. Sherwood Baker that traveled around the country and landed in the Vassar Chapel on a chilled November afternoon, it would still be too many boots.

Far too many.

Epilogue: By Nov. 16, the second day of the exhibit, the number had risen to 2,072.

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