McGrath: Price of freedom greater for some than others
By David McGrath July 3, 2012 9:30PM
Joe Pletzke | Supplied photo
Updated: August 5, 2012 6:18AM
For Joe Pletzke, it’s simple. The Fourth of July is about soldiers. Through our history, it has been the military that fought for our freedom. And freedom is what this day is all about.
Then again, for the 77-year-old Oak Forest resident, just about every day of the year is dedicated to the armed services.
An Army veteran from a family of military men and women, Pletzke is a member of the Oak Forest Veterans Commission and American Legion Post 111 in Orland Park.
He is also a member of the honor guard at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, where he has participated in nearly 4,000 military funerals. And he designed and maintains the Homeland Heroes wall at Oak Forest City Hall, a photographic memorial to local veterans.
Full disclosure: Joe Pletzke is a distant cousin of my mother, Gertrude Cichoszewski. But I never would have understood who he really is were it not for my late friend and Ojibwa poet, Eddie Two Rivers.
Considering the history of Native Americans, whose culture and land were taken over several centuries, I asked Eddie if he celebrated Independence Day.
He laughed at my question. “Aren’t we Americans, too?” he asked.
He explained that the Ojibwa celebrate freedom and love of the sacred land on July 4. Among his ancestors were warriors who fought to protect their land against invaders like the Lakota, and that those warriors’ descendants fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — again for freedom and for America.
But there is more to it than that. The Ojibwa word for warrior is ogichidaag, which means helper of the people.
Ojibwa warrior culture is not just what we think of, the warring and aggressive aspect, but a vocation, a life of selfless commitment to all his brothers and sisters. That is why the veterans contingent is among the most highly honored at their annual pow-wow.
Which is the approximate feeling you get talking to Joe Pletzke. Pride in the country, of course. But like the Indian warrior culture, an unquestioning acceptance of responsibility to all his American brothers and sisters.
And it begins to make sense when you learn that Pletzke began “service” to others when he was seven years old.
It was 1941, and his father, a neighborhood air raid warden, would take his young son along as he patrolled the neighborhood around 70th Street and Emerald Avenue on the South Side — knocking on doors to make certain everyone cooperated with the defensive blackout, dousing all lights and drawing the dark curtains.
Seventy years later, Pletzke still marvels at the country’s unity during wartime.
“Everyone was very patriotic and cooperated fully. The kids in the neighborhood collected papers, metal and rubber for the war effort,” he said. “On every street corner there was what they called a ‘victory garden,’ where the neighborhood raised vegetables, and every corner had flagpoles with plaques with the names of local boys in the war.
“My mother sent me to the local butcher shop at 69th and Halsted streets with bacon grease to be used to make ammunition. I remember the butcher shops with sawdust on the floors.”
He recalls that serving the country in those days was such a badge of honor that those who could not do so felt disgraced.
“I do remember hearing about the young men who were declared category 4F by the draft board for various reasons,” Pletzke said. “People looked down at these guys. It probably wasn’t their fault. I was told many committed suicide for the shame of it.”
So when Pletzke was drafted in 1958, there was no debate about where his life was headed. Following basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he spent six years in U.S. Army Ordnance, repairing tanks and trucks. Though never in combat, his unit trained around the clock to be ready to supply the Pentagon anywhere in the world.
“Always in the boonies, sleeping in tents, supporting the training of troops in war games every day. We would get tear gassed every day while trying to keep the tanks running during their war games training,” Pletzke said.
Pletzke today still eats, sleeps, walks and talks the military. Like the Ojibwa ogichidaag, he remains part of the warrior clan that included his father, Joseph Sr.; his brother, Dan, who served in Korea; an aunt who was an Army nurse; three uncles who served in WW II; and a cousin, Jerry Frost, who was wounded twice in Vietnam.
Pletzke told me about a recent experience that made a strong impression on him, reminding him of the continuing sacrifice of those in our military service.
He was at Hines VA Hospital, eating in the cafeteria, when he was surprised to see a beautiful young woman among the many aged and infirm men. And then he saw that she was in a wheelchair, both of her legs amputated.
It’s the price of freedom, paid by some so much more than others, that we have occasion to contemplate as well as honor on the Fourth of July.
And what Joe Pletzke thinks about the other 364 days.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.