THIS SIDE UP

A call to our WWII and Korean War vets

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I didn’t ask the obvious, “Do you have a cell phone?”

I’m sure Betty Law has one. Who doesn’t have one and who doesn’t think it perfectly natural to dial a number, or say “call” with a smartphone, and you’re connected. Betty remembers a time when such instantaneous connections were still a dream. Until the rotary dial became the latest rage, Betty and a group of about 30 operators worked the switchboard office on Warwick Neck not far from where the bus turnaround is today.

She and her coworkers would take incoming calls and pair them with the requested number. It wasn’t always as easy as that sounds. As Warwick grew, those seeking to make calls exceeded the system’s capacity. People weren’t able to get Betty or another operator. There was no Siri, no such thing as a recording, saying “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t handle your request at this time.”

“There was flashing [of incoming calls] and no cords to answer them,” Betty recalled Sunday at A Veterans Day of Honor, hosted by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Hub at Twin River. When that happened she knew she’d hear from the “crabby” folks in the service area, demanding to know why she hadn’t picked up so they could place their call.

Betty didn’t go out of the connection business with the advent of the dial system in the early 1950s, which explains why she was at Sunday’s event. She was there with Korean War veteran Giovanni Migliaccio and his daughter Donna. Betty first learned about the Honor Flight two years ago when retired Providence Fire Chief and Honor Flight chair George Farrell spoke at a meeting at Quidnessett Country Club.

As was the case then, as well as now, George was looking for World War II veterans before it was too late to fly them to Washington D.C. for a day where they would get to visit war memorials and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The mission, which he made clear Sunday, is to honor these veterans. So far since the first Rhode Island flight in 2012, almost 500 World War II and 50 Korean War veterans have traveled to Washington in 17 flights.

When George told the meeting at the club Honor Flight was being expanded to include Korean veterans, Betty thought of Giovanni and urged him to apply. He did and was told he’d be placed on a waiting list. When he got the exciting news he would go on the flight held last June, Giovanni suggested Betty be his guardian. Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian.

Giovanni was told they wanted someone from his family. Donna ended up being his guardian, but Betty suspects it may have something to do with her age. She is 95.

Betty is no slouch. She still tap dances with the Happy Hoofers, bowls every Thursday and sings with the St. Kevin Church choir. Only recently did she cease taking water samples for URI Watershed Watch at Little Pond not far from Veterans Memorial Junior High School. Betty lives on the pond and took water samples for 21 years.

I met Giovanni, Donna and other members of the family who showed up at the Baltimore Washington Airport on that June Honor Flight. With the name Migliaccio, my first question was whether Giovanni was related to the Migliaccios who at one time owned my house in Conimicut. That wouldn’t have been extraordinary, for as I’ve learned everybody in Rhode Island is “connected.” But no, there is no close family tie although, not surprisingly for Rhode Island, Giovanni lives at Shawomet Terrace all of about two blocks away from me.

I’ve wondered how George Farrell and the honor flight find so many World War II veterans – they keep finding them even today – and I’ve learned that despite the media coverage, so much of it is that person-to-person contact.

I saw it at the Thursday Warwick Rotary Club meeting. George was there to see a presentation by Rebecca Carcieri, a Toll Gate student who traveled to Normandy as part of her research of Sgt. Donald Rubery, a Warwick resident who died shortly after the D-Day invasion in 1944. George got to talking with Rotary club member William Palmisciano, whose father in-law it turns out is a World War II veteran. Now, it seems, Bill as a guardian will accompany his father-in-law on the next flight being planned for April.

George’s passion to honor our veterans is infectious, and the perfection with which the RI Fire Chiefs Honor Flights are conducted – everything is thought of – it’s no wonder that the Rhode Island hub was selected from 144 other organizations nationwide for the “leading by the example award.”

If the veterans among us are to have this experience, it takes sponsors and it takes more than George and the Honor Flight board to recruit them. Surely sponsors are needed, but so too we don’t want to overlook our veterans.

If Betty can do it, so can we.

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