Stories go over easy over breakfasts in Oak Lawn
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org July 19, 2012 6:48PM
With longtime waitress Sonia Mielcarek looking on, Steve Berklan (left), of Oak Lawn, and Andy Ratkovich, of Palos Hills, kid with each other at Jedi's Garden restaurant in Oak Lawn. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Tale from the front
Tony Matkovich was recovering in a Florida rehab center when a group of colonels came in and pinned the Purple Heart on him.
Though he survived being shot twice and being captured by the Germans and marched as a prisoner of war for weeks, Matkovich doesn’t consider himself any kind of hero. Not even now, more than 60 years after World War II ended.
“What happened, happened,” he said, stoically. Of greater impact, he insists, was his ability to bring closure to the family of a war buddy who died during a shootout in Luxembourg.
“The family only knew that he had died,” Matkovich said. “I was able to tell them how and to introduce them to some of the guys who were with him when it happened.”
Matkovich is among the large group of men who for 15 years have been meeting for breakfast on Friday mornings in Oak Lawn. He calls the gathers a nice thing, a way to stay connected with guys with whom he has a lot in common. Not only are all of the breakfasters of Croatian descent, most also have served their country. All have interesting stories.
Matkovich was just shy of age 20 when he found himself holed up in a foxhole with two others during a battle in Berg, Luxembourg.
“Our sergeant was in the foxhole farthest away,” Matkovich said. “He’d apparently called for us to retreat, but word never made it to our foxhole.”
When they ran low on ammunition, the three guys tried to scurry into a neighboring foxhole. The first man out was killed. The second was shot in the face. Matkovich took bullets to the stomach and abdomen.
The Germans closed in and took the wounded soldiers to their command post, where Matkovich said he was given a shot of cognac, patched up a bit and put in the sidecar of a motorcycle for transport to a field hospital. He spent a couple of days there before being driven to a real hospital in Alzey, Germany.
He said he spent three to four months as a German POW recovering in Alzey.
When Allied troops began advancing, he and the other 13 American patients were ordered to march to another town. But the Allies advanced again and the injured soldiers were marched to yet another location, getting shot at once along the way by American fighter pilots who mistook them for the enemy.
Finally, Matkovich said, on the morning of April 29, 1945, the POWs were awakened from their makeshift beds in rural barns by a commotion outside.
“We looked out and saw German soldiers running everywhere,” he said. “The Americans had caught up to them.”
The prisoners were liberated that day. After being processed, the men were flown to Rehm, France, and finally, Cherbourg, their last European stop before heading home.
“That’s my story,” Matkovich said, having finished his meal.
“You ought to come back next week,” Berklan said. “We’ll tell you some more stories.”
Updated: August 21, 2012 6:09AM
George Peso was once paid $25 a day to play the role of the enemy.
“That was a lot of money to a serviceman in 1968,” he said.
Peso, an Army veteran and longtime resident of Evergreen Park, had just arrived at Fort Benning, Ga., after being home on leave following a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. A movie, “The Green Berets,” was being filmed on the grounds of Fort Benning because the area resembled Vietnam.
“A number of us were used as extras,” he said. “They dressed us up to look like the enemy and we were used in various attack scenes.”
During the filming, he met actor John Wayne, who starred in the movie.
“He was a very down-to-earth type of guy,” Peso said.
Such are the stories traded among 27 local men who meet every Friday morning at Jedi’s Garden restaurant in Oak Lawn to reconnect and enjoy a hearty meal. All of them are Croatian, most are veterans, and some are regular comedians if you ask waitress Sonia Mielcarek, who has waited on the group for the past 15 years.
“When they started, there were 12 of them,” Mielcarek said. “I used to call them my 12 Apostles.
“They’re easygoing; we have a good laugh,” she said. “Steve told me today that I’m getting older. I told him I get older each Friday.”
Steve Berklan, 80, is a veteran of the Korean War. He calls the weekly get-togethers “a nice heritage thing.”
“We call it ‘Dobro Utro’ — The Good Morning Club,” he said.
“We don’t just sit around and talk war stories,” said Peso, the zoning board chairman for Evergreen Park and vice chair of its historical commission. “We talk about our personal lives, our wives, our grandkids.”
When pressed, however, some of the men will put down their coffee cups and share their most compelling tales.
Donald Mavar worked at the Conrad-Hilton Hotel in Chicago’s Loop for 50 years. Now retired, Mavar said that during his stint as a waiter he served 10 U.S. presidents, six cardinals and four or five governors.
Harry Truman was his favorite famous guest partly because he was the first president to sit at one of Mavar’s tables.
“You know, it’s that ‘first date’ thing,” Mavar said.
But he also liked America’s “buck stops here” president because “he looked you straight in the eye when talking to you. He treated you with respect. JFK (John F. Kennedy) was the same way,” Mavar said. “And (Jimmy) Carter was a very nice man. It’s that country thing.”
Mavar, an Oak Lawn resident and a graduate of De La Salle Institute, said he enjoyed his job immensely.
“To be a good waiter, you gotta like people, you can’t have any prejudices, and you need comfortable shoes,” he said with a laugh.
Hugh Lynch, 88, served on a submarine in the South Pacific during World War II. He went on seven war patrols, taking at least a few hits.
When fired upon, he said, the sub would simply go quiet, with the men aboard hoping and praying for the best.
Back then, submariners were all volunteers. Lynch admits youth and impulsivity compelled him to sign on for the specialty.
“I was 18 or 19. You’re young, you don’t think about things,” he said. But he never regretted his decision.
“We were called the ‘dungaree Navy.’ No dress blues for us,” he said.
Ray Perisin, of Homer Glen, is both a Purple Heart recipient and a former prisoner of war.
On Dec. 16, 1944, he was shot in the chest in Nuremburg, Germany. He was treated and then moved to a POW camp, where he stayed for four months until the Allies broke through and liberated them.
“That day was like New Year’s Eve, a big celebration,” he said.