Monday, March 31, 2003

War images intrude on bowling alley

This is the first story of an occasional series examining the impact of war on the Tristate.

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

GREEN TOWNSHIP - The echo of friendly chitchat and scrambled bowling pins put a thin sheet of sound over nearby TV war coverage. If only for these few hours.

Western Bowl, one of those enduring local symbols of Western life, seems a million miles from Baghdad. But it's not.

Larry E. Spille, 88, of Delhi, talks with his son, Larry L. Spille, 58, of Monfort Heights at Western Bowl.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Some stopped and watched the TV images. Many didn't. One couldn't.

Adam Brzeczka of Delhi Township, like many Americans, had been carefully watching war coverage since bombing began. Then he saw footage of an American prisoner of war; that vacant, scared look.

In the young man's eyes, the old man saw his own.

"I go to bed, try to sleep, dreams," Brzeczka, 85, said in a Polish accent smoothed by 53 years in Cincinnati.

He stopped, stared down, cleared his throat. "... and I'm trying to escape again."

Brzeczka spent six years as a prisoner of the Germans in World War II, beginning on Sept. 9, 1939 - his 22nd birthday. He was in the Polish Army Reserves and an electrical engineering student at Warsaw Polytechnic when German soldiers took over.

A German officer grabbed his books - one on physics, the other spherical engineering - and announced, "You won't need these."

Brzeczka, a Catholic, lived on a daily ration of three potatoes and two pieces of bread, as No. 752.

Today a retired engineer of the now-defunct Penker Construction Co., he points to that number engraved on his purple bowling ball.

To never forget.

"How many Kurds he killed?" he asked of Saddam Hussein, moments after President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair answered questions at a news conference on a TV Brzeczka avoided.

"If it's true, then the whole world should unite and go," he said. "Show him."

Tuning out

Brzeczka had a pacemaker installed last month, after fainting at Western Bowl with a pulse of 38 beats, he said. On Thursday, he bowled a 457 series. The previous day, he had two teeth extracted but passed on pain pills. Said he didn't need them.

Fellow veteran Jim Sprague, knowing of Brzeczka's recent illness, came by.

"How you doin' Adam?"

Sprague, 70, of Cheviot, served in the Army, 1952-54, Korea. He later taught at the Dater School.

"It's either now or later," he assessed. "The guy's no different from Hitler or Mussolini and all the others who came before him."

He doesn't watch war coverage. "I got ticked off when they interrupted Wheel of Fortune," he said brusquely.

Brzeczka's Rascals team took two of three Thursday.

Teammate Jim Winningham is what you call straight-back military. He served as an Army artillery man in Korea, 1950-53, then in the inspector general's office and the I-Corps in Vietnam.

The military, he said, is "asked to do too much nation-building and not enough fighting. I'm too old to worry about it."

That's pretty much Larry Spille's take.

Spille, 88, of Delhi, was an Army Air Corps ambulance driver in France in 1944 when he looked up to see a British Lancaster, sputtering. It was carrying 30 British and American prisoners of war.

Seconds later, it crashed. Spille - whose last schooling was eighth grade at St. Aloysius in Delhi in 1919 - got an education. He was the first "rescuer" there.

"I'm tellin' ya," he said, "they were burnt, just terrible."


As he spoke, blue and green neon signs behind him made their pitches. The Addams Family pinball machine was silent, though there was a guy over on that simulated-motorcycle ride.

On each wall running the length of the 68 bowling lanes are murals of American Indians.

The TV is on MSNBC. War coverage.

Lorraine Graf, 82, of Westwood, was a new bride in 1944, six years removed from graduation at Western Hills High. Her brother, Richard Sparnall, and a brother-in-law served overseas in World War II. Her husband served stateside.

"Oh, I watch quite a bit" of war coverage, Graf said, keeping score for the Hoinke tournament. "Several neighbors have sons over there, so I worry."

Of today's youth, she fought tears that welled up in her eyes but didn't fall.

"They don't know," she said. "It's kind of tough for me. I know how many we lost then. And it looks like we're losing them again now."

None of these stories was told in support or in opposition to the war in Iraq.

The tellers just want the picture to be an accurate one. The former soldiers used to be gung-ho men. Now old men, they have a heart for today's gung-ho young men.

Willing to serve

"If I had to go, yeah, I'd go," said Tom Middendorf, 27, of Mack, as he watched the Bush-Blair news conference with his Cleveland Browns cap on backward.

His friend and fellow Oak Hills grad, Lucas Angelo of Bridgetown, feels the same way.

"I'd jump on it, they ask me, I'm over there," said Angelo, 23. "I wake up every morning thinking about it. They're saying months, maybe years."

He's got wedding plans. He and his fiance, Brandy, have picked March 13, 2004.

To them, it's not just a number.

Like the 752 on the former prisoner of war's bowling ball.


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