Local View: Think on the price of freedom this Fourth of July holiday

For Joe Pletzke, it's simple: July Fourth is about soldiers. Through all our history it's been the military that fought for our freedom. And freedom is what the day is all about.

For Joe Pletzke, it's simple: July Fourth is about soldiers. Through all our history it's been the military that fought for our freedom. And freedom is what the day is all about.

Then again, for the 77-year-old retiree, pretty much every day can be dedicated to the armed services. An Army veteran from a family of military men and women, he is a member of the municipal Veterans Commission and of the local American Legion. He's also in the Honor Guard, serving at nearly 4,000 military funerals. And he designed and maintains a Homeland Heroes wall, a photographic memorial to local veterans.

Full disclosure: Pletzke is a distant cousin of my mother, Gertrude Cichoszewski. But I never would have understood who he really is if not for getting to know my Ojibwa neighbors at the Lac Court Oreille Reservation outside of Hayward. They host the Honor the Earth powwow every July, which we attended most years with our three children.

Considering the history of Indian people, whose culture and land were appropriated over the previous several centuries, I ventured to ask Ojibwa poet Eddie Two Rivers several years ago if he celebrated Independence Day. He laughed.

"Aren't we Americans, too?"


He explained Ojibwa celebrate freedom and love of the sacred land on July Fourth. Among his ancestors were warriors who fought to protect the land against invaders; and those warriors' descendants, in turn, fought in World War II and Korea and Vietnam, each time for freedom and for the land of America.

But there is more to it than that. The Ojibwa word for warrior is "ogichidaag," which means, "helper of the people." Ojibwa-warrior culture is not just what most think of, which is the warring and aggressive aspect, but a vocation and a life of selfless commitment to all brothers and sisters. That is why the veteran contingent is among the most highly honored at the annual powwow.

That is the approximate feeling you get from talking to Pletzke: pride in country, of course but, also, like the Indian-warrior culture, an unquestioning acceptance of responsibility to all American brothers and sisters. It's like it's his job, one he seems to love.

And it begins to make sense when you learn that Pletzke began "service" to others when he was 7 years old. It was 1941, and his father, who was a neighborhood Air Raid Warden, would take his young son along as he patrolled their neighborhood, knocking on doors to make certain everyone cooperated with the defensive blackout, dousing all lights and drawing all dark curtains.

Seventy years later, Pletzke still marvels at the country's unity back then.

"Everyone was very patriotic and cooperated fully," he said. "The kids in the neighborhood collected papers, metal and rubber for the war effort. On every street corner there was what they called a 'Victory Garden,' where the neighborhood raised vegetables; and every corner had flag poles with plaques with the names of local boys in the war.

"My mother sent me to the butcher shop with bacon grease to be used to make ammunition. I remember the butcher shops with sawdust on the floors," he said.

So when Pletzke came of draft age in 1958, there was no debate where his life was headed. After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he spent six years in the Army repairing tanks and trucks. Though never in combat, his unit trained around the clock to be at the beck and call of the Pentagon, ready to go anywhere in the world.


"Always in the boonies, sleeping in tents, supporting the training of troops in war games every day. We would get tear-gassed every day while trying to keep the tanks running during their war-games training,"

Pletzke said.

Today, Pletzke may technically be retired, but he still eats, sleeps, walks and talks the military. Like the "ogichidaag," he connects with a warrior clan that includes his father, Joseph Sr.; his brother, Dan, who served in Korea; his Aunt Anne, an Army nurse; his Uncle Bernard, an infantryman in the Normandy invasion; Uncle Anthony, a stretcher bearer; Uncle George, who was "torpedoed twice while in the Coast Guard (and who) spent some time in the water with the sharks;" and a cousin, Jerry Frost, who was wounded twice in South Vietnam.

When I asked Pletzke what I thought might be a superfluous question about his reason for lifelong service of veterans, he told the story of a recent visit to the Veterans Administration hospital. While eating in the cafeteria, he was stunned by the sight, across the room, of a beautiful young woman with a Hollywood smile. She was among the many aged and infirm men. And then he saw she was seated in a wheelchair, both her legs amputated.

It's the price of freedom that we have occasion to contemplate on July Fourth.

And which Pletzke thinks about the other 364 days.

David McGrath of Hayward is the author of the novel, "Siege at Ojibwa." He can be contacted at .

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