On March 22nd, 1924, a true hero of the Greatest Generation named Antonio Dilemmo was born in Brooklyn. He goes by Tony, is an artisan woodworker, and moved here just a couple of years ago to be near his family. His father was born in Italy, and came over as an indentured servant. His dad served for six years to pay off the price of his passage, became a mason, and Tony was never aware of this part of his father’s story until Tony was in his 50s, and heard his father share his story with his grandson.
Tony endured the things that make people tough, and that included going to bed hungry during the Depression, as well as having no heat in the house during the frigid NY winters. “We used to heat up some of my father’s bricks on the hearth and wrap them in cloth. Then we would put them down by our feet so we could fall asleep. Kids today don’t understand what that is like,” he said. I nodded in agreement.
At the age of 18, Tony enlisted in the Army, was part of the 82nd Airborne, and was part of the D-Day invasion. His time on Normandy is not something he cares to discuss, and simply says, “I lost a lot of friends.” I thanked him for his service, and for awhile we swapped literal war stories; for my part I told him stories about my dad serving in the Pacific during WWII, as well as a little about being in Iraq for 3 years. He served under General Ridgeway, and emerged from his time in the Army as a sergeant. He was actually present for the famous ticker tape parade held in New York City at the end of the war.
Tony married Marge, and they had 4 kids. “We were married 3 months short of 70 years,” he told me proudly. They had booked a cruise to celebrate, but Marge passed before they could go on the trip. They also lost two children, and Tony told me, “It was the worst thing in the world. No one should have to bury their children.”
He spent his working life as a machinist, and in every respect, he has experienced the American Dream. He lived frugally, invested well, and was able to retire in his mid 50s in order to spend more time with Marge. “Marge loved to fish,” he said.
I could have spent all day talking to Tony; it was like being with my dad. But, it was time to move to the topic of “favorites.”
Favorite color? Blue
Favorite food? Figs. He went on to tell me that his dad had a fig tree in their yard, the only one in Brooklyn. It survived NY winters because his dad made a special box to protect it. They played stick ball, and the fig tree was second base.
Favorite actors? Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. His favorite movie is Cooper’s “The Plainsman.”
Favorite actress? Kate Smith, and how she could sing “God Bless America.”
Favorite President? FDR. “We had bonfires in the street to celebrate the election,” he said.
He saw Frank Sinatra, Harry James and Benny Goodman perform in NY, and he used to go to the movies for a nickel.
He goes to Lamb of God Church on County Line Road, and his favorite scripture, as well as picture, is the account of the Garden of Gethsemane. “Not my will, but thine…” is a truth he carries in his heart.
Biggest change? “Transportation. The most important invention was windshield wipers on cars. Boy, what a difference they made. We used to have to carry a bucket and a rag, pull over, and wipe off the windshields. It was a mess,” he said.
He has loved the care he has received during his time at Athens Rehab, but he admits he has gained a few pounds. “There’s so much food!” When he goes home, he’ll go back to working in his woodshop, and will be able to spend more time on his feet, so the pounds should come off quickly. He produces dressers, bedroom furniture, grandfather clocks, mantle clocks, and more. He showed me pictures, and they are indeed beautiful.
I asked him what he wants young people to know. He said with a knowing smile, “Learn to manage your money.” Sage advice from Sgt Antonio Dilemmo, an American hero.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner