Everyone loves Westport’s Memorial Day parade.
It’s the one day each year that our sophisticated, hedge fund-filled suburb turns into an All-American village. The parade is filled with countless cops, youth soccer players, Y’s Men, Suzuki violinists, firefighters, library and Westport Country Playhouse representatives, and (of course) military vets and school band glockenspielers.
Everyone else who is not marching is on the sidewalk, enjoying the show.
But when the parade ends, not everyone makes it over to Veterans Green across from Town Hall.
That’s a shame. That’s where the real meaning of Memorial Day takes place. It’s a quick half hour of patriotic music, a few greetings from dignitaries.
And a speech from the grand marshal.
Ed Vebell, in his Compo Beach studio.
This year’s marshal is Ed Vebell. He’s that increasingly rare — but particularly important — American: a World War II veteran.
Ed turned 96 yesterday. He still lives alone, a few steps from the beach.
It takes him a while to get ready in the morning. He’ll get up extra early on Monday. He won’t speak long — his eyesight is going, and he can’t read speeches that well — but, he says, “I’ve got some war stories to tell.”
Does he ever.
Ed joined the Army Air Force in 1942. A talented artist-reporter, he was dropped behind enemy lines in Algiers, Italy and France. He’d sketch enemy equipment and positions, then be picked up 3 days later.
“I was a good target for snipers,” Ed says. “The photographers just took their pictures and ducked down. I had to stand up and draw.”
Of course, he adds, “when you’re 20 you think you’re invincible.”
He had good reason to think that. He tumbled from the Swiss Alps in a Jeep (he landed in snow-covered trees). He was lost at sea for 11 days. A sword pierced his chest. He was hit by a locomotive.
But he survived. And, Ed says, “it was all really something. I was a young kid from Chicago who had never even seen the ocean.”
An Ed Vebell illustration made in Italy, in 1944.
When the war ended, Ed stayed in France for nearly 3 years. He worked for a French newspaper, enjoyed the Folies Bergère, met Charles de Gaulle and Edith Piaf — and covered the Nuremberg trials.
Returning to America, he worked for Readers Digest, Time and Life. He illustrated books and advertisements.
He also represented the US as a fencer, at Helskinki in 1952. (He made the semifinals.)
Oh yeah: A book he wrote about his experiences — “An Artist at War” — comes out soon.
Ed Vebell definitely has stories to tell.
No one should miss them on Monday.
Ed Vebell’s book will be published next month.