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Remembering an Era

An uncommon Memorial Day story. 

This isn’t the story of a war hero, nor is it an account of a military man or woman who has gone before us. This story represents the few who still remember. It’s the story of Peter Scianna, an everyday hero still living and breathing through all the memories of those he served with who didn’t come home from the war. It’s about a man who stayed the course when he returned from WWII in order to help build a life for himself and his family, and subsequently a small piece of the foundation of America’s future.

Peter Scianna is just shy of 96 years old. He lives in Fairfield Glade, a lake community near Crossville, Tennessee with his son Peter and his daughter-in-law Michele. He plays harmonica gigs around town, has the most infectious laugh, and gracefully transfers his smile through phone signals.

We were fortunate enough to hear a bit of his story recently, told in his unmistakable Italian-meets-Chicago accent.

Meet Peter

Peter Scianna, born the son of a barber from Palermo, Itlay in Chicago in 1922, signed up for the Army in January of 1943. He was sent to the Persian Gulf in 1945 where he served as a military police officer for 16 months during WWII.

When asked about his service, or any details about deployment, Scianna invariably says, “Well, I was very fortunate,” or, “I was one of the lucky ones.”

And, when asked about being awarded “The Quilt of Valor” last year, given to psychologically or physically wounded veterans, he replied, “It was quite an honor.” After a short pause, Scianna said, “So many didn’t come back. And, I’ve always wondered why. Why not me?”“

But, don’t underestimate Scianna’s chattiness. He’s a conversationalist from way back. Despite his inability to hear well, he listens intently, responds astutely and with vigor, and laughs whenever he has the chance.

Scianna says that growing up during The Great Depression kept him out of high school. His family needed him to work. So, when he returned home after WWII ended, he was at a loss. He had been working in a factory before was deployed, but factory jobs were tough to come by after the war.

“Again,” he said. “I was very fortunate. My sister-in-law knew a guy who worked for a floor-layer, and he was able to get me an apprenticeship.” And, the rest is history. After 38 years in the trade, Scianna finally retired.

A Sign of the Times

“I’m the oldest member of my ‘local’ (trade-specific union) in Chicago,” he said. “I’m the only 70-year member left. So, they invited me for my 75th to come back to Chicago to give a talk. I was honored, but I didn’t know what say. What did I have to offer them? But, my daughter-in-law convinced me to go. And, I’m glad she did,” he said with a chuckle. “Who knows, maybe I’ll be around for 80!”

Scianna and his wife, Shirley, enjoyed many years together in retirement before she died in 2001. “I thought we’d be in Chicago forever,” he said. “But, I’m glad we weren’t. I was happy to get away from it up there. It’s not just the expense; it’s the weather. All that snow; it’s just awful.”

Scianna says that he loves life in Tennessee. He’s grateful to get to watch his grandson grow into who he calls “one the world should be proud to have.”

In his spare time around The Glade, Scianna goes to The Good Samaritan, a nearby assisted living facility, to play harmonica for the residents. Hymns and big band tunes are his favorites.

Memorial Day Remembrance

So, what is a day like Memorial Day for Scianna?

It’s a time, he says, when his memories have more definition – his brother, killed at 26 in what he was told was an automobile collision in Africa, where he was stationed during the war. He remembers friends he never got to see again, mothers and wives who lost sons and husbands, and the collective courage and bravery of so many. He’s acutely aware that he’s one of few from his era left to recount these memories. And of course, he says, he feels very fortunate.

It’s true that Scianna is humble, funny, and quite gracious. He sticks to the positive stories – the bravery, the camaraderie, and how blessed he was and is to have had his wife, his children, his daugter-in-law, the union. The rest he expresses through music.

With chilling precision he honored our final request by playing “The Old Rugged Cross”, his personal favorite, on his harmonica. And, quite instantly, all of the untold stories flooded through the phone note by note.

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