July 04--Their numbers are shrinking, but they remain as dedicated as they were when they served their country.
For nearly two decades, a group of World War II veterans has met for a small part of each weekday afternoon at Chapel Hill Mall. They reminisce, they debate and mostly they like to laugh.
"There aren't too many of us left," said Steve Drake, 90, of Cuyahoga Falls, an Army Air Force vet who was a mechanic at a U.S. base in Italy for 18 months during the war.
On a recent weekday afternoon, five men from the group showed up at the table they share in the mall's food court. On other days, more men show up.
Four of the men served in the Navy at the tail end of the war, entering service in 1945 before the conflict ended.
Zobby Miktarian, 84, of Tallmadge, who punctuates each exchange with his friends with a hearty and contagious laugh, was a baker in the Navy in the Philippines. His unit was preparing to invade Japan when the war ended.
Miktarian ran Joe's All Star Cafe -- a bar that his father opened on East Market Street in the 1920s -- for decades, until it closed in 2000. He said that when he gets in his car, it is almost like it drives on its own from his Tallmadge home to the mall.
"The main thing we do when we come here is watch the girls go by," said Miktarian, whose wife, Peggy, died five years ago.
These days he brings his lady friend, Mary Montabone, to the gathering.
"I talk, too, -- if I get a chance," she said.
Most of the men had friends or relatives die in the war.
Miktarian remembers a friend from his neighborhood named Harold Edgar Summers who was killed on the USS Arizona when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Jack Morrison, 84, of Cuyahoga Falls, a Navy veteran, remembers Bobby Harzinski, a friend he grew up with in Pennsylvania.
"We sat around at night playing guitar," he said. "We swam together. Snowball fights. Played football. Bobby was somebody. He'd keep you laughing,"
And Navy veteran Frank Polefrone, 84, of Tallmadge, a retired spice salesman, lost a cousin, Philip Rocco, in April 1945.
Polefrone and three brothers all served during the war. Phillip Polefrone, a Navy veteran and a regular member of the mall group, died earlier this year.
"We are lucky," Polefrone said. "We were born Americans."
His parents came to the United States from Italy.
"They came over here looking for freedom," he said.
The Fourth of July holiday has special meaning for this group of men.
"We beat up the British, didn't we?" Miktarian said. "I love the flag and I love my country."
He said that when he was growing up, his family would go to a park and cook shish kebabs on July 4.
"Dad had a bottle of booze and he would pass it around." Miktarian said.
Drake, a General Tire retiree, called July 4 a great holiday -- a "symbol of the freedom we cherish."
Drake said that during the war, he and other mechanics who worked on B-24 bombers never got too emotionally close to the pilots because "a lot of them didn't come back."
As for the current state of affairs in America, Miktarian said he wants the war in Afghanistan to end.
"I keep praying to get our kids back," he said.
Navy veteran Jack Masters, 84, of Cuyahoga Falls, retired from the insurance business, echoed the others in saying he was happy he was able to serve his country.
"I got the GI Bill," he said. "I was never out of work in 40 years."
Morrison, who worked for RC Cola for 20 years and another 20 years operated Rose's Laminating, said sometimes the group's talking gets a bit out of control.
When that happens, the veterans occasionally get a free pizza from one of the food court shops "to shut us up!"
Morrison carries a laminated card that he passes out to veterans he meets.
"We WWII vets want to thank you for your service to your country," the card reads. It is signed "Chapel Hill Food Court Vets."
Morrison said he flies his flag proudly -- at half-staff on Memorial Day all the way through July 4 for all those who died.
"That flag means something," he said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.
(c)2012 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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