Paul Palazollo was just a kid from the east side of Detroit when the draft caught up with him. After basic, they put him on a commercial flight and sent him to 'Nam. When the plane finally landed, after the shelling stopped at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, he saw one of the flight attendants pull down the curtains.
"She didn't want us to see them loading the caskets on the other side of the plane," he told me the other night. He survived, however, serving from 1967 to '69 during some of the worst fighting of the war.
Eventually, he even got his head clear. Thirty years ago, he and a handful of vets founded Vietnam Veterans of Michigan, Chapter 9. They banded together, helped each other. Eventually, they bought the trashed and run-down old Greenfield's Restaurant building on Woodward at Temple in Detroit.
Paul and his buddies fixed the place up, got baseball bats and drove the muggers and junkies and pimps away. They worked to help homeless vets and to help others get jobs and respect from a society that, too often, after turning against the Vietnam War, shunned a bunch of kids for doing a dirty job their country expected them to do. Men like Paul and his fellow vet Mike Sand, an industrial arts teacher in Fraser, helped get a Michigan Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in Lansing in 2001.
They saw their nation get involved in other wars — Desert Storm, and Afghanistan and the current Iraq war. The Vietnam vets saw a new generation of kids who, many not understanding why, were sent to do the nation's dirty work.
Paul and Mike remembered what it was like when they and tens of thousands of other Vietnam veterans came back. They got very little solidarity from veterans of earlier conflicts — World War II and Korea.
They didn't want the newer vets to go through what they did. "We were determined that never again would veterans of one conflict turn away from other veterans," Mike said over dinner the other night, as Paul nodded.
Nor do they want society to turn away again. They have a couple ideas about how to do that; for one thing, they are trying to foster a common bond and perhaps a new organization linking Vietnam vets with the newer ones, as fellow Veterans of Modern Warfare. They have another dream, too, one that has special relevance as we approach Memorial Day next Monday.
"We want a park that will honor the service of all veterans, past, present and future," Mike said, "and offer a lovely place for anybody downtown as well."
They would call it the Arsenal of Democracy/Veterans Memorial Park of Detroit, Inc. They've got the location — a one-acre plot right next to the Vietnam Veterans headquarters, land that reverted to the city of Detroit long ago.
For nearly 30 years, the vets have watched over it for the city, driving off the scum and even tearing down a couple of dilapidated buildings. They thought they had a deal, too, to build a park there. Maryann Mahaffey was a big supporter. Supposedly, Paul said, an agreement has been drawn up to allow the veterans to develop the park.
With loving care they have raised a little money and gotten architect Charles Merz to design a fairly low-cost park that will be a civic jewel, if the plans I looked at ever become reality. There would be a plaza and water running atop a stone wall, and ivy to hide some of the surrounding blight.
There would be trees and panels telling of the nation's wars, flagpoles and a sculpture, and the immortal words from the Gettysburg Address in stainless steel. The entire effect would be, in the architect's words, to "symbolize the strength, resolution and healing of our veterans and our society."
The veterans calculate the cost of all that at $3.6 million, though they believe an intermediate site cleanup, seeding and irrigation plan with a small plaza could be accomplished for little more than $100,000.
They know the city can't afford that; they intend to raise the money themselves. But suddenly, during the Kwame Kilpatrick era, a man showed up and said his family's company, Prime Parking LLC, had permission from the city to park cars there for sports events. The site is within fairly easy walking distance of Comerica Park and Ford Field.
The veterans don't know what happened to their agreement, which is supposedly somewhere with the Detroit Economic Development Corporation.
What they do know is that Detroit has lots of vacant lots. Detroit, they feel, deserves a patch of green space and beauty on the city's man drag to honor the hundreds of thousands of Michigan men and women who served.
If you agree, and want to help, you could let the new mayor and council know you would like them to clear away the red tape and let this become reality.
And you can send a contribution of whatever size, large or small, to Arsenal of Democracy/Veterans Memorial Park of Detroit, Inc., 76 E. Forest, Detroit, MI 48201, or call 313-833-3042. Contributions are fully deductible.
I have known Mike Sand for years; these guys do what they say, and are men of honor who take care of business, have made a patch of this city a better place to be, and deserve honor from us. Even if you feel, as I do, that Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan were ghastly and largely criminal mistakes, the kids sent there to die deserve nothing but our respect.
Mitch Albom, jockstrap national security expert: Ever wonder how we should decide what the public has the right to know about what our government is doing? Do you feel that the Constitution and the Freedom of Information Act aren't really the best guides to follow?
Well, there is good news for you! We now can replace them with the Pompous Arrogant Columnist Standard, promulgated by Mitch Albom in last Sunday's occasionally delivered Free Press. Albom is, in fact, a very good sportswriter, when he doesn't invent imaginary conversations with athletes who, in fact, didn't really show up for some event.
To be fair, he has done a number of good things for this city, including giving a bunch of money to the veterans I wrote about above. Unfortunately, on Sundays he is allowed to write about general interest issues, and most of the time is about a week late and a parietal lobe short.
This week, Mitch was outraged that the American Civil Liberties Union wants more photographs of prisoner abuse released to the public. Mitch is, you see, an expert on foreign policy; he once interviewed an athlete from Israel.
And having been a bit too young to worry about the draft or Vietnam, he knows that our government always knows what is best. He has long been a big fan of censorship, too, insisting himself, I'm told, that the Free Press refuse to publish a negative review of one of his cloying, sentimental books.
One imagines it is a blessing that his old professor Morrie didn't live to see Albom channel Dick Cheney. "Who the bleep is the ACLU?" Mitch blustered.
Well, here's the answer: People far more patriotic than Mitch'll ever be. Those whose reading extends beyond the Free Press know, of course, that his embarrassing antidemocratic butt-scratching is hardly necessary. The nation already has a far superior locker room philosopher to turn to, one who manages to be both existential and funny. His name is Yogi Berra.
Now back to the dugout, Mitch.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]