by Ron Gold
Leo Small became a legend in our town. Ask the slightly balding Parks Department worker what he did and he'd smile and call himself a "diamond cutter". Leo was correct, literally. He pushed the lawnmowers that tidied the baseball diamonds. And, he chalked foul lines, cut and marked football gridirons and raked our running tracks.
Cutting, chalking and raking was only part of Leo's responsibilities. He also planted and pruned trees and grew and transplanted flowers. But the job he cherished the most was printing panels for our civic honor roll with the names of local youngsters who entered military service.
Leo, who worked neatly, had a great sense of space. After all, Joe Jones and Carmine Santo Dominguez had to fit on the same size panels. Leo made all names readable. He received the names of new inductees the same day the draft board and military recruiters approved them. The names were lettered and quickly tacked into position with the utmost care.
The same day the War Department released its Killed In Action lists, Leo sadly went to the honor roll and painted a gold star on the dead service person's panel. Each hand-painted star seemed identical in size and brightness. Our downtown honor roll was quietly beautiful; the flowers, like the panels, were meticulously maintained.
Leo, who moved down to Connecticut from Maine in the late 1930's, seemed to keep his job forever: World War II, the Korean Conflict, Viet Nam, various incursions and holding and policing actions and, just before he retired, the Gulf War. It was more than a job. It was Leo's obsessionLeo'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 say "Don't worry. God is on our side. 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. He watched them graduate, head off to college and work in our hometown.
On those days he had to paint gold stars, he'd make compassionate house calls to share the family's grief. He brought the ceremonial gold star flags for their widows and parents to display on the front door or in the front window. Each badge of honor was moist with Leo's own tears. He also brought a white rose from a city greenhouse, a well-meaning, thoughtful gesture that would eventually threaten his job security.
When Judson McComb, the Parks Commissioner, heard that some roses were missing, he discovered Leo was the culprit. They confronted each other in McComb's office in a closed-door meeting. The pot-bellied Commissioner and the wiry, suntanned diamond cutter rarely made eye contact. Leo stared up at his boss's forehead while McComb stared down at his desk pens.
"Who do you think you are? Robin Hood?" McComb asked.
"Who are you, sir", Leo asked 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 sputtered.
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 Mr. Small," Leo said with a grin, extending his hand. The commissioner shook Leo's hand and smiled. 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." And the boys would order another round of beers and talk high school football. Or Leo would say, "Mary Ann McKenzie just joined the Woman Marines." And one fellow guzzler would say, "I can't picture a pretty girl like Mary Ann hiding those good looks in a uniform." The boys would toast younger women, and then toast the Marine Corps for another round or two.
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. The boys toasted Carl's memory somberly, reverently and often.
"I'll be visiting the Paine home tonight. Anybody care to join me?" Throats cleared--then silence.
Though Leo Small never married, he had thousands of kids, most of who returned home from their battle-stations. When he finally retired, Leo was asked to run for Mayor. With his personal following, he probably would have won. But Leo 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. He volunteered to update the reverence roll as only he couldneatly and with great love, talent and affection. And he'd also cut a white rose when he lost a kid.
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 nameall of them."
Ron Gold can be reached at email@example.com Ron enjoys writing inspirational stories, mostly about his youth. He is the creative director for two major motivational agencies.