To give you an idea of what constitutes being a "real man" to me, I'd like to share with you the story of someone very close to me.
It began humbly in a small cold water flat in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment building in 1917. There, Anthony, a "real boy", shared an apartment with his immigrant parents and six brothers and sisters. He grew up in the boom times of the 1920's, when Hollywood began to take control of the American style barometer. Stars of the silver screen were written about as if they were the saintly heroes, and young Americans, with money to spend, emulated these icons. It was quite different for Anthony, and millions of other recent Italian immigrant families, who couldn't share in the fun of the roaring 20's. They struggled and lived their meagre existence to the best of their abilities, happy in the fact that they had family, a roof over their heads, and any kind of clothing on their backs, let alone the latest fashions.
When the Great Depression hit a few years later, Anthony, and families like his didn't feel it in the same way that the American History books tell it. In fact, things were so desperate when these immigrants got here, due to heavy competition for jobs and a form of racism that still exists today within groups like the minutemen, that the Great Depression and the New Deal policies FDR enacted to counter it, actually helped advance them as a whole while the rest of America used them to struggle just to get by. While the nation was still recovering from the severe economic downturn of the 1930's, newsreels began broadcasting frightening scenes from across the Atlantic and Pacific of fascist dictators who were taking control of their nations. In the mother land of Anthony's parents, Italy, a man named Benito Mussolini was ruling with an iron fist, eliminating anyone who criticized him or his regime. He took his army across the Adriatic Sea to conquer Albania and into Africa to reclaim Ethiopia after the Italians were embarrassed there nearly half a century before. To the north in Germany, an even more terrifying ruler was gifted control of his country promising to not only restore dignity to a deflated German people, but to eliminate all those who were to blame for dragging their nation down, specifically Jews.
Then, on December 7, 1941, the newsreels were not of foreign conflict, but of conflict right here on our own American shores as the US Navy was attacked at Pearl Harbor by Japanese fighter planes. After the death of almost 2500 US servicemen, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared "a day that will live in infamy", and war on Japan. Through a network of alliances, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and many Americans took up that call, and ran to defend her in the face of the naked aggression that was fascism and totalitarianism. Anthony was one of those brave men.
As a 23 year old kid, Anthony joined the Army and went to basic training, to defend the only country he knew. Throughout the basic training in Ft Benning, Georgia, many "white" Americans gave Anthony and his fellow Italian Americans shit for not being "American enough". "Dago Wap!" they'd shout at him. "Mussolini's bastard!" his commanders called him. This was the thanks he got for volunteering to defend the country he loved. He'd been used to it though, but for some reason, which he never shared, he took these bigoted insults more personally than the ones thrown his way on the streets and in the factories of Brooklyn. Perhaps it was because it was these men, whose hatred seethed through the surface, were the same men he'd be depending on to keep him safe and alive against the foreign hatred that awaited overseas.
It wasn't all bad at Benning though. He wound up forging friendships with other men that would last their entire lives, however long they'd be. Two of his best friends were also Brooklyn sons of Italian immigrants, Joey Dondiego and Sebby DiCarlo. Anthony, Joey and Sebby were inseparable, on and off base, for the entirety of their stint in Georgia and beyond. When given leave, and back in their beloved Brooklyn, they swore to each other to visit each others families to let them know how things were going, and that they were doing fine. Sebby's parents were easy, they were living in the same Beadle St. tenement house, and Anthony and Sebby were like cousins, growing up playing stickball on the streets and eating dinner at each others houses as regularly as their parents would play Pinochle or Canasta.
Joey's family was a different story, as he lived way across the borough in the summer playground known as Coney Island. Joey's father, a barber, had died when Joey was just 19, and that left a heavy black mark on him. But he had his brothers on whom he could rely. Frankie, younger by a few years was also in the service, preparing for war. Lenny was barely a teenager when his father suddenly suffered that fatal heart attack in his shop. At the time of his father's death Lenny was a student at Abraham Lincoln HS where he excelled in Math and Sciences and answered with no pretense when asked what he'd do with his life, "I'm going to be a medical doctor!" he'd exclaim proudly and confidently, without forgetting where he came from. Len never let any obstacle stand in his way, and by the time war was on, he was a young graduate of John Hopkins Medical School practicing medicine on Park Avenue, to the wealthiest New Yorkers, fulfilling the dreams of an entire family. Then there were the three angels who were the apple of their father's eyes. Rose was a young wife who lived nearby with her husband, a doctor to whom Lenny looked up to immensely. Margaret the middle daughter, was an spunky blonde bank employee whose love for the New York Yankees was bested only by the love of her country and sense of independence. Finally there was young Vivian, a beautiful vivacious woman who inherited her grandfather's red hair and fiery personality, who just happened to be there EVERYTIME handsome young Anthony came over for dinner, to fill in Joey's mom Carmela on what was new with her son. Vivian and Anthony struck up a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. After Anthony's final visit before being shipped off to war, Vivian had asked the strapping young soldier to write to her from the front, and write he did. Letter after letter came in the mail for young Vivian detailing for her the horrors of war, and the longing of young love. In those letters Anthony professed his love to Vivian and promised that when he returned they would marry and have their own family. But first, Anthony needed to survive.
Anthony began his campaign landing in Southern Italy, almost in the exact same location from where his parents left to immigrate to the country he was now fighting for. Fighting their way northward through Rome and Venice to the Austrian border, Anthony learned quickly how to dig ditches and cover his head from oncoming fire. He learned how to shoot without looking at what he was targeting. He learned how to keep from getting hurt, and most vitally, he learned how to stay alive.
As Anthony and his troop advanced through the mountains of northern Italy and Austria, his superiors had warned them that the Germans were getting desperate, and seeing that the war may be coming to an end, would try and inflict as many Allied casualties as possible, and that some of the ways they did this were not seen as within the rules of combat. Knowing that American troops were in usual need for some of the creature comforts of home, the Germans would set booby traps: carts, filled with American comfort foods like Hershey's chocolate bars and Coca-Cola were set up along the sides of major arterial roads from which the Nazi's retreated and their enemies in arms followed. As well as filling these carts with the delicacies that Yankee soldiers long wanted, they were rigged with explosives, so as soon as one of the goodies was removed, a massive explosion would immediately kill whoever lifted it, then sending shrapnel rocketing through the immediate vicinity taking out as many enemy combatants as it could. Anthony was smart and too determined to fall for such false temptation. His friend though, and brother in arms Sebby, wasn't as disciplined. With Anthony looking on in horror, Sebby approached what he thought was an oasis of American goodies in a European wasteland. He shouted for him to stop, to remember what they were told. Sebby either didn't hear, or didn't have the will to fight a minute longer. While his best friend, Anthony, watched, Sebby blew himself to bits reaching for the sweet taste of home that he missed so much. Anthony witnessed his best friend lose in a game of Nazi Roulette at the tender young age of 26. Anthony's eyes saw what could only be the tales of our worst nightmares and had the courage to walk farther, fight harder, and to love deeper. He lived the rest of his life with that incident emblazoned in his mind, yet his tenderness wasn't calloused a bit by this horrific, real experience. He had something more to live for.
As the war wound down, Anthony found himself in the forests outside Berlin. Marching in line with his battalion toward the burning capital, his Lieutenant spotted a corps of Nazi soldiers walking in the opposite direction, about one hundred yards across the lifeless, leafless woods. With the taste of death on his palate, and the smell of gunpowder in the air, Anthony gripped the trigger of his standard issue Army rifle, and watched as the soon to be defeated Nazi soldiers starred right back down their barrels at their American counterparts. They eventually walked their separate ways. Both sides knew that the end was near, news of Hitler's suicide had already begun spreading throughout the ranks of both armies, and with a peace just hours away, both sides carefully danced the dance of life, through the forests of death. Perhaps the Germans had their own beautiful red heads at home waiting for them. Perhaps that glimmer of hope, of a love put on hold, saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers on both sides, forever changing their places in the book of destiny. Perhaps the Nazis were out of ammunition, we'll never know. What we do know, is that this was reality. Death was a constant reality for Anthony, be it his own, or someone else's at his own hands.
Once the war did end, Anthony's work was far from done. He, along with hundreds of thousands of other American soldiers, had the responsibility to take prisoner any defeated German servicemen they could find. The Germans made no bones about it either, they were certainly looking for their former enemies turned savior, the Americans, to take them. This was because their other option wasn't an enticing one. Still stinging from the heavy losses suffered at Leningrad and throughout the Nazi advances into Soviet territory, Russian troops wanted blood. German foot soldiers were routinely executed by Soviet troops at their surrender in and around Berlin, and the Germans were running to American troops throwing themselves at their feet, begging for them to take them prisoner and accept their surender. Anthony knew what the deal was, and he saw the look in the eyes of his Soviet allies when Americans began to take Germans as prisoners. The look was one of real hate, real disgust, and ice cold vengeance. The problem was, Anthony and his American brothers were unable to accommodate all of those surrendering Germans and he regretfully turned many of them over to the Soviets, fully knowing the fate he had unwittingly sealed for them.
All of these were the real experiences of a "real man"; a Brooklynite, a truck driver, a lover, a fighter, a son, a brother, a husband, a father and MY grandfather. He was a real man, an American hero and a role model. My grandfather, Anthony Nunziata, son of two Italian immigrants, a distinguished US Army veteran, helped save the world. He wasn't a moneyed businessman. He wasn't a well connected politician. He wasn't a Hollywood celebrity. He wasn't a pampered professional athlete. He was a man, a real man, like me, and many of you. He is my flesh and blood, and my hero. He was a man, who put real life and real love on hold to do what he had to do and make this world a better place, a safer place for me, a real grandson, who he hadn't even met yet. He did it for my children, my little girl and my little boy who carries his name proudly.
In my own small way, I try to do the same thing through the young minds and young lives I help mold each and every day. I try to teach them the realities of war, of love, of life and of death, so that one day when they are the "real men" and "real women" of this world, they can make the real decisions so others won't have to put their lives on hold, or prematurely stop them to make it a better place for their children. So yes, I'm honored that Esquire magazine's editors think I'm stylish, but I'm more honored and humbled that they think I'm "real". My grandfather, even 25 years after his death, continues to teach me what being a real man is all about. A real man is about life, he is about love, and he is about family. A real man works hard and does what is right and what is needed of him not because he has to, but because he wants to. You taught me that through your life, and your legacy, and you led by example. So thanks for everything papa, but most importantly, for being real. Really.