Category Archives: Westport life

Bill Vornkahl’s Memorial Day: The Sequel

This might have been a lonely Memorial Day for Bill Vornkahl.

As “06880” reported this morning, the 90-year-old Korean War veteran recently lost his wife of 65 years.

And this year — for the first time in the 50 years he has organized Westport’s annual parade and tribute to fallen service members — the entire event was canceled, due to COVID.

But his family arranged a socially distanced cookout in the driveway of his Cross Highway home.

And in mid-morning — just like every year at Town Hall — Vornkahl heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps.”

Nick Rossi sings the national anthem.

The national anthem was sung stirringly by Nick Rossi. The 2019 Staples High School graduate — now a student at Boston College — is a veteran of Veteran’s Green. He played and sang at last year’s ceremony.

The mournful brass notes were sounded by Sam Atlas. The 2018 Staples grad is a trumpet major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she plays in the orchestra, wind ensemble and chamber groups.

Sam Atlas plays “Taps.”

It was a fitting tribute for the man who is Westport’s “Mr. Memorial Day.” And he responded as any soldier would:

(Photos/Janine Scotti)

Memorial Day 2020

Around this time every year, I post photos from that day’s Memorial Day parade.

The collection shows so much of what makes Westport a community: a parade filled with kids and parents, cops and soldiers and fife-and-drummers; a meaningful ceremony on aptly named Veteran’s Green; flags, fun and a history-themed Y’s Men float that always wins the grand prize.

This year’s Memorial Day is different. A global pandemic — the worst since influenza ravaged the planet during World War I — has forced us apart. There will be no Little Leaguers (or Little League) today. There are no big parties. There’s no a grand marshal, no reflective speech, no moving, mournful “Taps.”

Next year we’ll again come together to honor our war heroes, and celebrate our history. In the meantime, let’s reflect on the meaning of today.

And look back on Memorial Days in Westport, from the past.

(Photo/Carminei Picarello)

The 2019 Bedford and Coleytown Middle School bands, (Photo/Sarah Tamm)

The reviewing stand. Last year’s grand marshal Nick Zeoli is at far right. (Photo/Dan Woog)

A Myrtle Avenue home honors the holiday. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Ed Vebell was one of Westport’s honored — and few remaining — World War II veterans. He served as the 2016 grand marshal.

Westport’s state champion 10-and-under softball team, and the 12-and-under runners-up, in 2016.

The dougbhoy statue in Veterans Green honors World War I service members. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

RTM member Andrew Colabella

Longtime parade organizer Bill Vornkahl talks with a veteran. (Photo/Kat Soren)

Alex Merton is captivated by a fife and drum corps. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

A Staples High School bugler plays “Taps.”

Troop 39 Boy Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2016, rain forced the ceremony indoors, at Town Hall.

.2015. (Photo/John Hartwell)

(Photo/Pam Romano-Gorman)

Staples High School band, 1971,

1st Selectman Herb Baldwin (far right) during a Memorial Day parade, in the late 1960s or early ’70s. Also in front, from left: John Davis Lodge, a Westporter, former governor of Connecticut and ambassador to Spain Argentina and Switzerland; U.S. Congressman Stewart McKinney.

A scene from 1962. The young man in front with the camera is future 1st Selectman (and CBS news correspondent, and WestportNow publisher) Gordon Joseloff. He ws covering the event for the Westport Town Crier newspaper.

Girl Scouts, 1955.

Leonard H. Gault driving fire truck in a 1920s parade, by Willowbrook Cemetery.

Bonus feature: One of the best Veteran’s Day speeches ever was Howard Munce’s. In 2008, the grand marshal said:

(Hat tip: Ellen Naftalin)

There’s No Parade. But We Still Have Bill Vornkahl’s Poem.

For decades, Memorial Day in Westport has meant one thing: Bill Vornkahl.

For half a century, he’s run one of our town’s most beloved traditions. Now 90 years old, he spent 14 months in Japan during the Korean War as a high-speed radio operator.

He joined Westport’s American Legion Post 63 in 1953, and the Westport Veterans Council a few years later. He first organized the parade in 1970. In 2013 he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.

From 1996 to ’99 he was treasurer of Westport’s War Monument Committee, helping place memorials to various wars on Veterans Green.

Bill Vornkahl, at last year’s Memorial Day
parade. (Photo/Carmine Picarello)

Today has always been the most important day of the year for Bill Vornkahl. This year, it’s especially tough. Instead of a community-wide parade, Westporters are forced to remain apart.

His wife died a short while ago too, just before what would have been their 66th anniversary.

So as we think of all our veterans, let’s give special thanks to Bill Vornkahl. And what better way to honor him — and all service members — than with the poem he always recites at the Veteran’s Green ceremony after the parade.

It is the soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of press.

It is the soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

(Poem by Charles H. Province. Hat tip: Janine Scotti)

 

Staples High School bugler plays “Taps.”

Memorial Day: A Service Member Speaks

Justin Polayes is a 2004 Staples High School graduate. Unlike many of his classmates, he entered the military. This Memorial Day, he reflects on that life — and this day.

As a kid in Westport, Memorial Day was a great time. I walked in the parade as a Little Leaguer, Boy Scout, Bedford Middle School band member, what have you.

The holiday was the start of when dinners moved to the back yard, and life happened at Compo Beach. It was a safe, happy, relaxing day, without much thought of its origins.

A classic Westport Mmeorial Day photo. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

In college the holiday was much of the same. It was about summer starting, and usually a road trip home for cookouts and to see family and friends. As a young adult I became a bit more aware of what Memorial Day means. I saw wreaths being laid, tributes on TV, and more on social media.

But it wasn’t until 2 years into my military career that Memorial Day really meant something for me.

My first holiday came in the middle of grueling training and selection. I used that extra day to sleep and rest some injuries.

However, by that second Memorial Day as an active duty member I had already lost friends in combat. It was like a light switch flipped. The entire meaning of the holiday changed. Cookouts and beach lounging were replaced with visiting graves and “memorial workouts” to honor my fallen brothers and sisters.

Justin Polayes (left) spent one Memorial Day on duty in East Africa.

While living in the United Kingdom, the difference between our Memorial Day and their Remembrance Day was noticeable. I lived in a great little town surrounded by families with little children. All the kids wore red poppy pins on their shirts. On Remembrance Day, most families without any military affiliation went to a national military cemetery or war memorial. At the very least almost everyone watched the queen lay a wreath at the Cenotaph (war memorial in London). Once their respects were paid, cookouts and garden parties could begin.

For the last 5 years I’ve been based in Washington D.C. I live only a few miles from Arlington National Cemetery. My Memorial Day tradition now isn’t parades or beach cookouts; it is paying respects to friends.

In lots 62 and 65 alone, my wife (who also served) and I have 19 friends and fellow service members laid to rest. Walking those hallowed grounds on Memorial Day is a true pleasure, something everyone should experience in their lifetime. Politics go out the window. Petty gripes and complaints about daily life mean nothing. You feel small in the face of so many white marble headstones.

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo/Justin Polayes)

There is nothing wrong with how Westport celebrates Memorial Day. However, as a former resident looking inward from afar it does seem the celebrations are more about what we have and not about what we lost.

Westporters have given their lives in service for this country since the founding of our country. A handful are still in harm’s way today. Please take a moment to remember those heroes this Memorial Day.

And please teach the younger generation why.

Youngsters play at Veteran’s Green, after Westport’s 2018 Memorial Day ceremony. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

Tomorrow’s Virtual Memorial Day Parade: The Back Story

Yesterday, the town announced a special virtual Memorial Day celebration for tomorrow (Monday, May 25).

At 9 a.m., a 17-minute video will be broadcast on Cablevision channel 79 and Frontier channel 6020. It will be posted later on the town’s Facebook page.

But hey: Want a sneak peak? It’s already on the Town of Westport’s YouTube channel!

It sounds like our middle and high school bands were captured live. But the story is far more complex — and difficult — than that. 

One screenshot from Westport’s virtual Memorial Day parade …

Bedford Middle School band teacher Lou Kitchner takes us behind the scenes:

Due to the COVID-19 school closure, Westport students have been unable to participate in traditional school experiences that were a significant part of their daily activities — like music classes.

To address this problem, and also honor Westport’s fallen heroes and veterans, grade 6-12 band directors James Forgey, Gregg Winters and Phil Giampietro and I designed a way for students to share their musical talents via a digital performance.

Clockwise from upper left: Gregg Winters, Lou Kitchner, Phil Giampietro, James Forgey.

We created and posted a play-along audio track, with an embedded metronome click, on their class websites. Students practiced their individual parts by playing along with the audio accompaniment.

After a week or two of practice, 165 students recorded their individual performances, just as professional studio musicians do. They used whatever technology they had available: a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

All 165 submissions were then imported into multi-track music software by the teachers. Next the band directors aligned and edited them in time with the song’s tempo, and mixed them down into a single ensemble performance track.

The individual mixes — 6th, 7th and 8th grades, and the combined Staples High School bands — were then combined into one complete grade 6-12 performance. I am so proud of these kids! It sounds like they were all together, in one room.

To complement the audio, we asked students to submit photos of themselves holding or performing their instrument — in school or town- related attire if possible (school closure prevented them from accessing uniforms or school-specific parade t-shirts).

… and another.

Staples media teacher Geno Heiter then spent hours merging all the photos with the final ensemble mix to create the final product: a virtual Memorial Day parade!

Westport has won 7 straight “Best Community for Music Education” awards, from a national foundation. After this effort, they should just name it after us and retire it forever. 

No Memorial Day Parade? No Problem! Town Sets Virtual Celebration.

On Monday we won’t see military veterans, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, politicians, Little Leaguers, Suzuki violinists, or the Y’s Men’s fantastic float.

We’ll miss crowds along the parade route, a grand marshal waving to crowds, stirring speeches and mournful “Taps” across from Town Hall.

COVID has knocked out Westport’s Memorial Day traditions.

That’s okay. We’ll have a virtual Memorial Day parade and ceremony on Monday anyway.

At 9 a.m., a 17-minute video will be broadcast on Cablevision channel 79 and Frontier channel 6020. It will also be available on the town website (westportct.gov), and posted on the Town of Westport Facebook page.

The video will loop all day on TV after its 9 a.m. debut. It will be available on Facebook forever too, it seems.

..A classic scene from Westport’s Memorial Day parade. (Photo/Dayle Brownstein)

1st Selectman Jim Marpe thanks the Bedford Middle School band and town band teachers, Police Department Honor Guard, and artists and crew for making the production possible.

He adds:

As Memorial Day weekend arrives during this difficult time, it is as important as ever to take a few moments to remember those servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.

Obviously, the current conditions in the world dictate how we memorialize and honor those veterans. In the upcoming days, I encourage everyone to reflect and give thanks to the men and women who served and continue to serve in the military. We cannot celebrate together, but we can collectively in spirit celebrate their heroism in our own individual ways.

Two years ago, grand marshal Larry Aasen spoke about the horrors of war.He’ll join many Westporters on Monday, honoring the holiday virtually. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

Everyone Into The Pool!

It’s something I’ve noticed on my daily bike rides around town: Lots of people are building swimming pools.

Ginia Bellafante noticed it too. The New York Times‘ “Big City” columnist jumps in to the phenomenon in a story for this Sunday’s edition.

With camps closed, and many people realizing they’re not going anywhere for summer vacation, the itch to swim has skyrocketed.

After noting the beach turf wars between cities and suburbs, Bellafante turns trenchantly toward pools.

Throughout Westport, backyard pools are already open.

You know what’s coming.

Midway through the story, she writes:

Traveling farther down the coast to Westport, Conn. — Cheever country — the pool obsession is no less frenetic. If you want a pool in Westport, you need a permit from the town’s building department. The number of requests has jumped this year, with 10 coming in just the past two weeks. Michele Onoforio, who works in the department, found herself really taken aback when she got three separate calls about aboveground pools recently.

Were people really that desperate? “I hadn’t seen one of these requests in 10 years,’’ she said. “I didn’t even know the protocol.’’ An aboveground pool in Westport is like a bag of Sun Chips on a table at Per Se.

Westport is one of many aesthetically pleasing places where affluent New Yorkers fleeing the infection have decamped. Some have chosen to move permanently. “The New Yorkers all want pools, and the inventory is very low,’’ Suzanne Sholes, a real estate agent in town told me. The houses that have them receive multiple offers both on the rental and sales sides despite the catastrophes afflicting the economy.

Just thing, for New Yorkers looking to leave the city.

To the rest of the country, Westport is now the town with a super-spreading party, drones that almost picked out social distance cheaters, and now a swimming pool shortage.

Something to think about, as you lounge by the water this holiday weekend.

(To read the entire Times column, click here.)

These Questions Have Absolutely Nothing To Do With The Coronavirus …

… nor are they particularly important.

But — with time on our hands during the pandemic — why not ponder them?

Alert “06880” reader/longtime Westporter/concerned citizen Arlene Yolles took these 2 photos the other day:

So, she wonders: Which is it? South Compo Road, or Compo Road South?

To which I add, what about Morningside Drive (North and South), (North and South) Turkey Hill Road, Maple Avenue (North and South), and probably others as well?

Damned if I know.

But that brings up a related question: Why is one of these streets a “drive,” another a “road,” and a third an “avenue”?

What’s the difference? They all look alike to me.

And don’t get me started on the proper use of Greens Farms and/or Green’s Farms. Even the post office can’t decide:

(Photo/Nico Eisenberger)

What I do know for sure is, this is definitely wrong:

Feel free to weigh in below. If you’re on one of the drives, roads or avenues mentioned, we’re especially interested in where you think you live.

And why.

Social Distancing, Public Shaming: What’s A Blogger To Do?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a dozen or so emails about an important topic. They say things like:

  • “My neighbors let their kids ride bikes and play together in the driveway. They’re all very close together, and the parents don’t seem mind at all. In fact they’re there too, chatting away.”
  • “There was a party down the street yesterday. Teenagers drove over, parked, and went out in back. Here is a photo of the cars.”
  • “People on our road walk every day, with no social distancing at all. It’s the same people, all the time.”

The emails all urge me to write something. And they all end the same way: Please don’t use my name.

Neighbors on Sylvan Road North practice social distancing. (Photo/Nancy Breakstone)

I write back. I say I am happy to post something, but first I need to know: What did you say to them? How did they react?

That’s an important part of anything I’d write: Not just what seems like a disregard for important social norms (and laws), but the story behind it.

Did the neighbor say, “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. It’s just so hard with the kids at home all day, and my husband out of work. I thought just this once I’d give them a treat. But you’re right. Thanks for saying something. It absolutely won’t happen again.”

Or did he say, “Screw you. No one can tell me how to live my life.”

These are the types of photos readers ask me to post. Always anonymously.

Did someone respond, “Yes, we had 3 people over. But they all stayed 15 feet apart — not 6. We asked one not to come, because someone in their house was quarantined. And we made sure the only things they touched were the chairs they sat in.”

Or did someone else respond, “Well, if you walked the right way facing traffic, I wouldn’t have to pass you?”

The reactions of Westporters to requests to comply with the coronavirus rules is as important an element of the story these folks want me to write as the actions themselves.

But when I ask those questions, I never hear back.

This type of teenage gathering has drawn praise — and criticism. (Photo/Kimberly Paris)

I understand the request for anonymity. This is a small town. It’s hard to stand up publicly for what’s right (though we always tell our kids to do it).

What I don’t understand is the unwillingness of people to stand up in the moment — but to then want me to call out others for it.

It’s clear many Westporters are practicing strict physical distancing — and taking it seriously. It’s clear too that some Westporters aren’t.

So what’s the solution, blog-wise? Should “06880” be the repository for my-neighbor-did-this-and-I-want-everyone-to-know stories? Or should people contact me only after they’ve already made their views known, face to face (or at least via email or text)?

I welcome your thoughts. Please click “Comments” below. Be civil. And — of course — use your full, real name.

More social distancing: grandparents stay away. (Photo courtesy of Bob Weingarten)

Despite Pandemic, Westport “Feels Alive”

Like many families, the Harrisons* were attracted to Westport for many reasons.

The arts vibe, Wakeman Town Farm, Saugatuck River, marina, restaurants, stores, the combination of historic and new homes, the beauty — all made it seem like “anyone can find a place here,” John Harrison says.

“People felt calm and comfortable in their own skin. It did not feel like anyone was putting on airs. Westport knows what it is, what it can offer, and is happy just as it is.”

The Westport Library offers a typical blend of curiosity, community spirit and beauty. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

The Harrisons moved here 4 months ago. They had barely settled in when the coronavirus changed everything.

But despite physical distancing, countless closures and overwhelming fear and uncertainty, the Harrisons love the town even more.

When the pandemic slammed into Westport, he says, “so many people wanted to help, without demanding credit. There was such tremendous outreach.”

Walking on deserted streets, with everything from the schools and library to the Y and Playhouse shut down, Westport has seemed empty to me.

Not to Harrison.

“”The town feels like a Hallmark community,” he says. “People just want to do whatever they can for others. The town so feels alive, even now.”

Westporters have expressed their emotions in many ways. Here’s a tribute to first responders. (Photo/Molly Alger)

*Not their real name; they asked not to be identified.