By Ken Trainor
Al Provenzano hasn't let 94 years of living slow him down. He still drives, for one thing, and his license plate, "WW 2," proclaims his proudest involvement. The plate also mentions his Purple Heart — from the time he picked up shrapnel in both legs on the way back from a reconnaissance mission outside Saint-Lo in Normandy after determining there were enough Germans dug in up on that hillside to warrant air support, but when the planes arrived, they dropped short and killed, among others, Gen. Lesley McNair, the highest ranking American officer in the war to die of friendly fire.
This all happened in the weeks following the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day when Sgt. Provenzano led 60 men out of an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) onto the sand, his first experience of combat and the first of his five battle stars.
Unfortunately, we can't verify this (except for Gen. McNair's demise). Documentation isn't Al's strong suit — but storytelling certainly is.
Three or four times a year, he and Darlene Downs, the organist at Al's church, Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Cicero, head over to the Hines V.A. Hospital to entertain the "troops" with his mellifluous voice, remarkable for a 94-year-old — although he fudges his age.
"I was born on Feb. 29, 1920," he says, "so I'm 23 ¾."
He certainly looks younger than … his age, and one can't help wondering if he's always had this much energy.
"As long as I can remember," he replies, smiling. Which is a long time because Al Provenzano's memory is definitely long-term.
"I can sing 500 songs," he testifies. "I used to play guitar, but now my fingers get a little cramped. So I play the tambourine and Darlene plays the piano. I do some parodies that a couple of buddies and I composed in the Army. When we had a little spare time, we'd sing songs and make up words. Do you know the song, 'If you knew Susie, like I know Susie …'? Eddie Cantor used to sing that. We would sing, 'Those Red Cross donuts, those Red Cross donuts, Oh, my, how heavy they ride …'"
After FDR died and Truman became commander in chief, with the war winding down in 1945, they would sing, "Give my regards to Harry, tell him that we're stranded here …"
"I'll tell you," Al says, shaking his head, "you gotta keep your sanity when you're in the Army — sad times, good times, scary times."
Downs, 83, describes Al as a "super-entertainer. He identifies with the veterans and he always makes them smile. He's got a gift."
His memory is a little fuzzier when it comes to D-Day. He says he was in Patton's Third Army and landed on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944. Patton, though, wasn't involved in D-Day, except as a decoy to throw off the Germans. But online reports indicate that the Third Army formed after the Normandy breakout, and troop reinforcements made for a pretty fluid situation.
Al says he was in the 42nd Infantry Replacement Battalion, 184th Infantry Replacement Company and that his commanding officer was Col. William Freehoff. That would place him in the 9th Replacement Depot, stationed in southwest England before the invasion. Some of those troops, Al says, were plugged into the invasion.
As a staff sergeant, he says he had 60 men under him in the LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) and that none of his men were killed. Since casualties were heavy in the first wave, that would mean they probably landed later in the morning or early in the afternoon.
Al says that when he came ashore, "The Germans were just starting to retreat," indicating that the battle had already been going on a while. The breakthrough occurred between 12:30 and 1 p.m. that day.
Turns out it's not a simple matter to verify a person's World War II military service. Al says his records were lost in the July 12, 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, which destroyed approximately 16-18 million official military personnel files (according to Wikipedia). But he does have a "Certification of Military Service," issued by the NPRC in 1999.
All of which is to say that, to some extent, we have to take his word for all this. But the details he provides check out. Before D-Day, he recalls, he was stationed in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, which is located relatively close to the English Channel in the general area where the 9th Replacement Depot was located. When they came home at the end of 1945, he had to cross the channel again (something he swore he would never do after his experience with the rough seas on June 6, 1944) and sailed home on the Europa, a captured German luxury liner docked in Liverpool. That checks out as well.
On D-day, after Omaha Beach was secured, Al remembers seeing First Airborne paratroopers hanging from trees.
"They shot 'em while they were hanging there," he recalled, pausing to compose himself. "Their parachutes got caught in the trees and they didn't have a chance. So sad. They did the first landing really. The First Airborne went ahead of everybody. We lost a lot of men. They lost more."
The famed Normandy hedgerows prevented rapid progress, but they also provided shelter against mortar shell bombardment, he said.
"Very strong bushes. If we put those along our highways, we wouldn't have many cars driving off the road."
They fought their way past Cherbourg and Saint-Lo, then headed toward Belgium where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He saw enough combat to cause nightmares when he returned home. The first time, he recalls, "They were shooting at us and I was shouting, 'Throw the f-ing hand grenades!' I made the motion and hit my wife across the side of the head. My wife was 5 foot 2 and 105 pounds. I said, 'I'm sorry. I had a flashback.'"
Blanche, whom everyone called Bunny, was from Oak Park and the couple moved to 1143 Cuyler in 1950. When Irving School expanded, they had to sell and move to the north end of the village, where he lives still.
Al worked as a sales manager for Sergeant's Pet Care products, traveling around the Midwest.
"Sergeant's Sure-Shot Capsules for worms, Sergeant's cough medicine for dogs. I would sell the products to drug stores," he recalled. "I also had a line of pharmaceuticals. One of my products was No-Doze. In the college towns it went like crazy, enough caffeine so if you're cramming for exams, it helps."
Eventually, he decided to go off on his own and started a small company making rawhide bones for dogs at a factory in Melrose Park. He still stocks a couple of Caputo stores.
"They've got my bones in a nice spot by the cash register for impulse sales. I said, 'You don't have to pay me for them until you sell them. If you have them a year, you don't have to pay me anything. But I'll be selling more to you in a week.'"
Bunny died on Christmas Day, 2011. She went into a coma two weeks before that.
"The doctors said, 'She can hear everything, so be careful what you say. She just can't respond.' She always liked Christmas Carols, so I started singing. I even sang 'Dominic the Donkey.'
"All of a sudden, her eyes opened and she's looking at me, eyes wide open. I thought, Christmas Day, it's a miracle. I told the doctor. 'Don't build up your hopes,' he said. 'She wanted one last look at you. She'll be gone in the next hour or so.' And he was right."
Since then, he keeps a busy social schedule. He spends mornings at the Onion Roll around the corner on North Avenue. "We hang around for two or three hours," he said. "We solve the world's problems and talk about baseball, football, hockey."
In the afternoon, he heads to Pascuale Caputo's cheese shop at North and 15th avenues.
"Different gang over there. They've got a little deli bar where they serve sandwiches and have free coffee. And endless soup. You can have all the soup you want. On Wednesdays, they have pasta e fagioli. Everybody likes that. Usually one bowl fills you up, but you can take a bowl home. They don't care. So I eat well. I watch my diet. I can't eat what I used to, but I've always been healthy."
The recently retired Onion Roll owners, Louie and Judy Cardone, longtime friends, invite him to their home for dinner on a regular basis. "I try to take 'em out once in a while. Compensate, you know. Everybody's been very good to me."
His next-door neighbors, Bob and Laura Ulicny, call him the "Mayor of Marion Street."
"I like to joke around, I like to sing, I like to see people happy," he says. "The Lord's been good to me."
His pastor, Rev. Diane Johnson, says Al has been a real blessing to his adopted church. Gethsemane Lutheran in Cicero was his wife's church originally, but Johnson now calls him, "Our dear Al," adding, "I haven't seen anyone Al hasn't liked. He has an amazing ability to connect."
Though the church is quite diverse, she says, "Al finds common ground with everyone. Even language doesn't get in the way. When you meet Al, he's your friend for life. And," she adds, "you hear his jokes for life."
He didn't officially join until Bunny died and now has the distinction of being the "oldest new member" in the congregation's history. He's a lector and communion minister as well, and even gives an occasional sermon.
Last summer, Johnson was going out of town for a family baptism, so she asked Al if he wanted to preach. He told her, "I'm your man."
What was his subject?
"Something I've had on my mind for a long time," he said, showing his serious side. "About 10-12 years ago, they started having services on a Wednesday evening for people who couldn't make it on the weekend. This young lady would play the organ. Beverly was her name, and she was always dressed neat as a pin. She looked like she stepped out of Mademoiselle magazine. So after services one day, we're standing in the aisle and one guy said, 'You know, the pastor was talking about prayers. When is the best time to pray?' I said, 'You can pray anytime. In fact, I was on the expressway and I was all alone, driving, and I found myself saying, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name … and Beverly said, 'Al, when you're driving on the expressway, you have to say your prayers.'
"I said, 'Bev, you deserve a hug.' And I never had someone hold me so tight like she did. And she whispered in my ear, 'If you only knew how much I needed that.' In my younger days, I would have said, 'Let's go out for pizza and have a glass of wine.' But she knew I was happily married, and I didn't know why she said that. A week later, they found Beverly in the garage with the motor running. Suicide. So that's what I'm going to preach on. I'm going to say, sometimes people are telling you something and you really don't understand what they're saying. I once was lost and now I'm found, was blind but now I see. The person who wrote that song, do you know who he was? A slave boat captain. He finally came to his senses. A very wealthy man. He decided that was the wrong thing to do. So he was blind but now he could see. That doesn't mean you're literally blind. Sometimes you just can't see things. You're looking at something else. I'm going to talk about that."
Johnson said his sermon drew rave reviews. When he reads from Scripture, she notes, he often offers a short commentary, and he's also renowned for eulogies that always end with a poem, which he can recite from memory (and did during our interview):
"God looked around his garden and found an empty place. He then looked down upon this Earth and saw your tired face. He put his arms around you and lifted you to rest. God's garden must be beautiful. He always takes the best. He saw that you were suffering. He knew you were in pain. He knew that you would never get well on Earth again. He saw the roads were getting rough and the hills were hard to climb. So he closed your weary eyelids and he whispered, 'Peace be thine.' It broke our hearts to lose you, but you didn't go alone, for part of us went with you the day God called you home. You left us beautiful memories. Your love will be our guide. And though we cannot see you, you are always by our side. Once again our family chain is broken and things don't seem the same. But as God calls us, one by one, our chain will link again."
"He gets up and says it," according to Johnson, "even when he doesn't know the family."
When she thinks of Al Provenzano, Johnson is reminded of what God said to Abraham, calling him "blessed to be a blessing."
"That applies to Al," Johnson said. "That's what Al is."
On patriotic holidays, he leads the congregation in singing, "My Country Tis of Thee," she said, "whether the organist is ready or not,"
Although he and Bunny never had children, Johnson added, Al is great with the young people at church.
"He respects them. He treats them like human beings." After Bunny died, they would sit next to him in the pew to make sure he wasn't alone.
"He's the most charming, loving person I've ever met. For a short, little guy he's very powerful. How can a 94-year-old leave me in the dust?" she marvels.
Then again, this leap-year youngster is technically not 94.
"We had a huge party for him when he turned '21'," Johnson recalled. "We told him, 'You can finally drink!'"
Al Provenzano has seen a lot in his life, but "there are things going on today that I couldn't believe," he said. "A man loves a man and wants to marry him? I guess that's OK to do as long as they get along, if that's what they want. Let 'em live their life. Eventually, they're going to allow the priests to get married. I think that's why a lot of 'em are messing around with kids. They got no one to go to, so they pick on a poor little innocent altar boy. They're afraid to mess around with an adult. They'll have problems with an adult. The kids look up to 'em and they're going to give in to 'em. Their mother always says, 'Listen to the priest.' So kids can go astray very easily. If the Pope passes a law that the priests can get married, there's a lot more who will go in the priesthood. And I think that will eliminate a lot of this pedophilia."
He's proud of his military service, but he's never been back to Normandy. He took a trip to France once with friends but only got as far as Paris.
"I told them, 'I don't want to see that again. I'm starting to cry already.'
"I hope nobody ever has to go to war again," he said. "World War II was supposed to end all wars. Didn't work out that way. It's no fun. It's not a game. People are going to get to the point where they're going to wake up and find that war isn't getting us anyplace. Eventually, we're going to get peace.
"Don't think about war, and don't be too hasty about sending people to war. It's good to try to help people, but there has to be a limit. We can't just disperse all our troops all over the world. Let's have peace on Earth. Then we won't have to worry about sending our troops anywhere."
On Feb. 27, his friends are throwing a birthday party for him at Caputo's on North Avenue, celebrating 95 years or 23 ¾.
Only the young at heart are invited.
Answer Book 2018
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