Flagging down a patriot on a Greektown street


June 14, 2000|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

THERE IS only one American flag on my block.

Cut from the morning paper, it is taped to the parlor window of a Macon Street rowhouse in Greektown. By this morning -- Flag Day -- this modest Stars and Stripes may be joined by billowing patriotic pennants hung from second-floor windows. Maybe not.

But since Memorial Day, the small paper flag on the west side of the 600 block of South Macon Street is the only evidence of Old Glory in a once-pristine neighborhood strewn with trash.

The flag belongs to 79-year-old Walter Simancek, a decorated veteran of World War II. Mr. Simancek has lived in the same house for 48 years. He is a widower who, like my namesake grandfather who was his neighbor, began sleeping on the living room couch after his wife, Eleanor, died; whose legs -- which once carried him across North Africa and Italy to lay phone wires in the fight against fascism -- are no longer strong enough to climb upstairs to hang a proper flag from the side of the house.

But there it is, taped with pride beneath eight medals -- including the Legion of Merit -- that Mr. Simancek earned while an infantry communications expert.

"It was my flag, and I fought for it," he said. "In those days, we had a different attitude. It meant a lot. It still does."

Mr. Simancek, a native of Scranton, Pa., was living in Highlandtown when the war broke. He tried to get into the Navy, but bad teeth kept him out. His choppers were good enough, however, for the Army, which drafted him as a 22-year-old cable worker for the Western Electric Co. on Broening Highway. Today, the 223rd anniversary of our flag's adoption by the Continental Congress, Mr. Simancek will finally have the rest of them pulled. He wishes he'd taken better care of his teeth and his medals, which are replacements issued by the government after the originals were lost "somewhere between here and Scranton."

This is the first year Mr. Simancek has displayed his Bronze Star and the others -- "some of them I didn't think I deserved." And he's not sure why he put them in the window facing a street where other East Baltimoreans once celebrated the Blessed Mother and FDR, except that they seem more important as he grows older.

"At one time, I was the only person who had communication with advancing troops in Africa," said Mr. Simancek, who saw combat for 15 months. "I think that had a lot to do with me getting the Legion of Merit."

Do kids care about war stories anymore? When my father was growing up across the street from Mr. Simancek's house, World War II was the defining event of his childhood, even though that experience was limited to radio broadcasts and trading war cards with grade-school friends the way children exchange Pokemon cards today.

Macon Street, considered a low-class section of Greektown by some folks who live closer to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church a few blocks east on Ponca Street, is busy with curious kids and delinquent adolescents; darlings who drop boxes of half-eaten french fries in front of their own homes and have broken nearly every branch off a pair of young dogwoods that struggle to grow in front of mine.

These kids have seen plenty of guns on television; some, I'm sure, in their kitchens. Perhaps they even dream -- nighttime, rapid-eye-movement dreams -- of firing weapons.

Would two modest rows of medals from the most important war in the Earth's history -- simple decorations not much bigger than a quarter -- attract their attention in a digital world?

Would Mr. Simancek's peers even care?

"A few people stopped and asked if they were mine. Just a few," said Mr. Simancek, who was never wounded. "But I'm no hero. I consider it a blessing that I got home with the decorations."

His brother, Edwin, was not as fortunate.

"We went off together. He was in a bomber squadron and his wife was going to have a baby," said Mr. Simancek. "You had to fly a certain number of missions before you could come home, so he started taking all the flights he could get. I guess he pushed it too far."

Edwin Simancek was shot down over France. His widow named their son Edwin Jr. The youngster's Uncle Walter came back from the war in 1945, was paraded around a Florida boot camp in a crisp uniform and medals for the benefit of new recruits, and settled down to a 40-year career at Western Electric. In Mr. Simancek's time at Western Electric, the preferred vehicle for carrying the human voice moved from wire to threads of light.

"I wasn't needed anymore," he said of his 1982 retirement.

Mr. Simancek sort of feels the same way today, sitting out on his front steps on hot summer nights alongside a paper flag.

"The people who move here now, it looks like they're finding freedom from something, but they have no regard for the neighborhood," he said. "We used to call it Rose Alley around here. Everybody had roses. Everybody had pride. Not anymore. You can tell where the old people live just by looking at the houses."


Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun, and a fiction writer. His new book, "Orlo and Leini," was released last month by Woodholme House. He can be reached at rafaelalvarez@sevarez.com.

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