Leo's World

Leo smiled whenever he called himself a "diamond cutter".

The statement, however, was literally correct. Leo pushed the lawn-mower that tidied the baseball diamonds. He also cut and chalked football gridirons and raked running tracks. However, cutting, chalking and raking was only part of his responsibilities with our town's Parks Department. He also planted and pruned trees and grew and transplanted flowers.

But the job he cherished above all was printing panels with the names of local youngsters who entered military service.

Leo worked neatly and with a great eye for space. After all "Joe Jones" and "Carmine Santodominguez" had to fit the same size panels on our civic honor roll. Leo made every name readable.

Leo received the names of new inductees the same day the draft board approved them. And these names were lettered and tacked into position quickly and with the utmost care.

And, sadly, the same day the War Department released its Killed In Action lists, Leo went to the honor roll and painted a gold star on the dead service-person's panel -- between the hero's first and last names. Each hand-painted star seemed identical in its size and brightness. Our downtown honor roll was quietly beautiful and carefully maintained.

Leo moved down to Connecticut from Maine in the late 1930's and he seemed to keep his job forever -- World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and, just before he retired, the Gulf War.

It was more than a job. It was Leo's obsession. Leo's world.

While Leo cut the grass and tended the flora dispassionately, the Honor Roll stirred him. He'd call the parents of each new recruit and tell them, "Not to worry. God is on our side. And I will pray for your kid's safe return." To Leo, these young men and women were "kids" -- his kids. He watched them grow and saw many of them compete in team sports on his grass and cinders. And he watched them work in our hometown.

And on those days he painted gold stars, he'd visit his kids' homes and shared their family's grief. He brought the ceremonial gold star flags to their widows and parents who displayed them on their front door or in their front window. Each badge of honor was softly spotted with Leo's own tears.

He also brought a white rose, which would eventually threaten his job security.

When Judson McComb, the Parks Commissioner, heard that some roses were missing from the city's greenhouses, he discovered Leo was the culprit.

They confronted each other in a closed-door meeting in McComb's office.

The pot-bellied Commissioner and the wiry suntanned diamond cutter rarely made eye-contact. Leo stared up at his boss's forehead and McComb stared down at his desk pens.

"Who do you think you are, Robin Hood?" McComb asked.

"Who are you, Sir?", Leo said politely, "the evil sheriff of Nottingham?"

McComb's bloated face reddened. "These roses are city property -- part of our departmental budget. You can't steal them. We can't give a rose to every family who loses a son or a husband in this war," McComb said.

Leo responded, "We're civil servants, aren't we?"

McComb nodded yes.

"Well, what's more civil than giving one white rose to someone who's given a son to protect us? If you and the mayor would visit these homes with me, you might change your minds. After all, I present the rose from 'Your Parks Department,' not from Leo Small."

"OK, I see, Leo," the commissioner whispered.

"You can call me Mister Small," Leo said with a grin, extending his hand.

The commissioner shook Leo's hand and smiled. And the subject was never again discussed.

Leo continued his daily routine -- cutting grass, planting flowers, pruning trees, chalking and raking athletic fields and updating the honor roll.

The "boys" at Moon's Tavern had the same daily question. "What's new, Leo?

Leo would say, "Danny Gardella just joined the Navy. Remember what a great fullback he was? All state last year."

After work one day, Leo was despondent. He told his drinking buddies that Carl Paine was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

"Where's that?" Red Franklin asked.

"In Belgium, you nit-wit" Moon said. And the "boys" toasted Red's memory somberly, reverently and often.

"I'll be visiting the Franklin home tonight. Anybody care to join me?" Throats cleared. Then silence.

Though Leo Small never married, he had thousands of kids, most of whom returned home.

When he finally retired, Leo was asked to run for Mayor. And, with his personal following, he probably would have won. But he declined. He had enough of politics just dealing with the Parks Commissioner.

While savoring his retirement, Leo still spent a lot of time at the department's greenhouses. And he volunteered to update the reverence roll like only he could -- neatly and with great love, talent and affection.

When our hometown paper interviewed him, Leo was asked why he still tended the civic honor roll.

"It keeps me in touch my kids. I know them by name -- all of them."

[ Ron Gold (Outthinkresumes@aol.com) -- from 'Heartwarmers' ]


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