Celebrating one man's life lived fully in the moment

January 24, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE FRIENDS OF John Pica Sr. will gather tomorrow night in Annapolis to celebrate the great man's 75th birthday. Things being how they are, most of you could not be invited. Therefore, this will explain why you should eat your heart out.

Pica lived a life of minimal editing. From his heroics in World War II to his political days around here, to his spontaneous, seat-of- the-pants, what-the-hell schoolboy incorrigibility, he's led a life most of us are too chicken to lead. Take a chance, he figures; worry about the rough spots later.

Take the war years. Or take the postwar V-J Day celebration, when Pica and some buddies swiped a coffin from the Della Noce Funeral Home in Little Italy, dressed up a guy in the neighborhood to look like Hitler and put him in the coffin and paraded it through the celebratory streets. Or take Pica's years on the City Council, including the night he tossed a cherry bomb down a stairwell to liven things up. Or take the day in 1976 when he persuaded officers on the Italian tall ship Amerigo Vespucci, docked at the Inner Harbor, that he was Baltimore's personal ambassador.

But first, take the war years.

Pica, white-haired now but tall and lean as ever, modestly says of his military decorations, "It was nothing. Every time I ran for my life, they gave me another medal."

But it's a fact that he won a bunch of them, including the Silver Star for "heroic gallantry in action" and the Bronze Star for "bravery and valor."

He was 20 when he won the Silver Star. According to War Department records, Pica was with the 34th Infantry Division near Mount Paniano, Italy, when he volunteered for a hazardous mission scouting German defense positions, crossing flat terrain under enemy fire with no trees or rocks to hide behind.

"I zigged and zagged to dodge the fire," he said later. "I remembered the zigzag snake dances we used to do back home after a football game."

After scouting enemy positions, Pica, making his way back to his own lines, heard a man moaning. In a minefield, he found an American officer who'd lost a leg and his eyesight when a mine exploded. Pica got through the area by taking mines out with his bayonet. Then, through bursting shells, he carried the officer for six hours back to safety.

The next day, Pica was hit in the knee and hand by shell fragments. Blown 30 feet by the concussion of a German shell, he spent 35 days in a hospital, then was sent back into action, where he spent days and nights in a driving rain, crouched in a foot of water barely 100 yards from the German lines.

He was shipped home shortly before the end of the war. Stationed at Fort Meade, he'd sneak down to his parents' home, 244 S. Exeter St., for Sunday evening dinners. Since this is known as going AWOL, MPs were sent to bring him back. When they arrived, Pica told his mother, who spoke no English, "Don't worry, Mom, they just came to invite me back."

The mother, delighted, invited the MPs to stay for dinner. Thus, on all subsequent Sundays when he got unscheduled urges to go home, every MP at Fort Meade wanted Pica duty.

He had his own little construction company after the war. One night, in a Little Italy restaurant, a guy tried to rob the place. Pica threw a steel tray, knocked the guy down and helped subdue him.

When the case came to court, the guy was distraught. He only robbed because he couldn't find work, he explained. "If the man needs a job," said Pica, "he can work for me." And he did.

Elected to the Baltimore City Council, Pica understood constituent service as it is never explained in the civics textbooks. An elderly lady complained about a tree in her front yard. She wanted the city to remove it. The city said no, it was on private property. The woman appealed to Pica.

In the middle of the night, he took it upon himself to cut down the tree. Then he placed it strategically in the middle of the street so that the city itself would have to haul it away.

In 1976, Pica took family and friends to the Inner Harbor to join huge crowds welcoming the tall ships. As the Amerigo Vespucci docked, Pica found inspiration. He bolted up the gangplank and disappeared into the ship.

After a while, his daughter Maria was dispatched to find him. There he was, she remembers, "enthroned among admirals, captains and sailors. He was holding court, speaking to them in Italian. With a wink, he turned to me and said, `Get the family. We're staying for dinner.'

"We wound up in the captain's quarters, with serenading violins, wine and outstanding Italian food. And every now and then we heard this admiral call my father `ambassador.' "

Ambassador, indeed. John Pica's an ambassador to the life well lived, the uninhibited life where you dash across the landscape and edit out the rough spots later. They're honoring him for 75 years of such living tomorrow evening.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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