The Passing of an American Hero Who We Don’t Deserve


For those who might remember, I wrote a post four years ago about a patient of mine who was there when Mussolini died.  If you don’t recall, check out the post — he had an extraordinary life story.  Absolutely extraordinary.  I attended his 100th birthday party and brought my youngest daughter.  She was a sophomore in high school at the time and wasn’t thrilled about spending the evening with a bunch of old people.  I told her, “You will tell your grandchildren that you shook the hand of someone who was there when Mussolini died.  You’re not missing this.  Trust me.  You’re going.”  She grumbled as only a teenage girl can.  But she went.

And she was fascinated by his depictions of WWII – she thought of it as something like the Peloponnesian War, something in the gauzy distant past not relevant to modern intellectuals like ourselves, and was dazzled to talk to somebody who was actually there, wearing uncomfortable boots and trying not to get killed.  She had learned about Nazis in school.  But he talked about crummy weather and broken down Jeeps.  It made it more real to her.  Plus, he hired a big band for the event — it was a great party.  She actually liked the music of his era.  Although she still prefers Pit Bull and Eminem.  Which is fine.

Mr. Tony Cocchini died yesterday, two months short of his 104th birthday.  He was an extraordinary man, who led an extraordinary life.  Godspeed, Mr. Cocchini.  It was a privilege to know you, and an honor to care for you.  I thank you for educating my daughter.  And for educating me.  And for educating anyone who would listen.  Lord knows, you did your best to share what you had learned.

We humans make the same mistakes over and over again.  It almost gets boring, it’s so predictable.  Perhaps, just perhaps, if we listened to those who had experienced these very same mistakes, we might be able to avoid them ourselves.

Or perhaps not.  We don’t listen.  My teenage daughter listened, after some paternal nagging.  Most of us lack the curiosity even of a teenage girl who knows everything (as I knew everything, when I was a teenager).  I pray that we can awake from our egomaniacal slumber.

I doubt that we will.  But I admire Mr. Cocchini’s optimism.  He kept trying.  As best he could.

If we allow Western Civilization to be destroyed by tyrants, we will not be able to blame the like of Mr. Cocchini.  He did all he could.

He tried to explain how Mussolini and Hitler were just there to help the unfortunate, and how a decent person would naturally want to support them.  You wanted to help the unfortunate, right?  Once you realized that giving them power may involve some risk, it was too late.  By the time you realized what the game was, you had already lost.

Mr. Cocchini spoke of the leaders of various Italian villages who were amazed that Mussolini was not as interested in their well-being as he had presented himself to be.  He really seemed to care.  How could they have bought into his propaganda?  Mr. Cocchini didn’t understand at the time.  But he did later.  And he resolved to teach the rest of us what he had learned.

My daughter learned in school that Nazis were simply evil.  Mr. Cocchini helped explain how it wasn’t always entirely clear who the bad guys were.  At least, not at first.  But those bad guys tended to want power.  And that alone should make one cautious.  Regardless of their apparent compassion.  Feigned compassion, as he learned, was easy.  What came next was rarely easy.

But on the front end, everything seemed so nice.  So compassionate.

The FBI raid of a former President’s home shocked me.  But it probably would not shock Mr. Cocchini.  He had seen this sort of thing before.  And he told us about it.  And we didn’t listen.

Because we lack the curiosity even of an egomaniacal teenager.  And Facebook’s ‘Fact-checkers’ backed us up.  And not all of us have a nagging Dad, dragging us to go meet this old geezer, who knows more about the world than we will ever understand.  Like, whatever, dude.

Which is our fault.  Not Mr. Cocchini’s.

Thank you, Mr. Cocchini.  Thank you for trying to explain human nature to my daughter, and to me, and to everyone else.

I hope to see you again one day.  Under better circumstances.

Godspeed, to an American hero.

Mr. Cocchini’s daughter (who is in her early 80s) is in contact with me.  If you wish, I will pass your comments along to her.  She understands the significance of her father, and is comforted by the impact he left on the rest of us.

Godspeed, Mr. Cocchini.  I can’t thank you enough.

And neither can the rest of us.

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  1. Red Herring Coolidge
    Red Herring

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    What neither of them knew was that I was rolling tape on most of it. I slid my phone out and hit VIDEO and caught a lot. She was always annoyed when I just had to take video of things, but someday she’ll find this, and I think she’ll be grateful. It’s proof: she not only met a hero, he knew her, and loved her. It’s one thing to consider the people who made your world possible, but it’s another to hug goodnight, and say thanks.

    My daughters often mention how much they enjoyed my Dad’s stories and wish they had heard more. Smart move to record that

    • #31
  2. J Ro Member
    J Ro

    In a way, it’s been a privilege to be a Boomer, to have had opportunities, as a child, to meet that house mover who had a strange number tattoo on his forearm, or as a man, to shake the hand of the aircraft commander who delivered ‘Little Boy’. In college there were professors who commanded a tank in the Battle of the Bulge, or a ship in the Battle Off Samar. Later, what an honor and a joy to fly with Vietnam vets, like the CO who spent years in the Hanoi Hilton. Even if he never talked about ‘Nam, he was really enjoying his freedom.

    And these mentors sometimes told stories of their connections with older heroes who inspired them. One who fought Chinese soldiers in Korea recalled his meeting with his mentor who had personally blasted open the gates of the Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion!

    Here’s a marvelous eyewitness account of the Battle of Waterloo, by someone who went out of his way just to be there:

    • #32
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