Memorial Day was founded as a day to honor Americans who died fighting for their country. But somewhere along its nearly 150 years of history, the holiday got a second meaning. It became a long weekend to celebrate America's unofficial start of summer, a meaning that's especially popular in our South Jersey shore towns, among other summer resorts.
But both meanings of the holiday were important to Mitch Szymanski of Wildwood, who was 95 when he died last month.
That was almost 70 years after Szymanski went to Europe in World War II as a U.S. Army staff sergeant in Gen. George Patton's 702nd Tank Battalion - nicknamed the Red Devils. Mitch was a tank commander who went through some of the war's worst fighting, his family knows now.
But they didn't know that until after he died, because Szymanski never talked much about what he did in the army - although friends said he could be brought to tears, even decades later, remembering friends and fellow soldiers he lost as his Red Devils fought their way through France, Luxembourg and Germany.
So his daughter, Joann Szymanski, also of Wildwood, said her dad always made it a point to observe Memorial Day in the traditional way, by going to a solemn ceremony honoring his country's war dead. His favorite service was in North Wildwood.
But Mitch - who was also known as Mike, or Mick or Mickey, or Poppy at different points in his life, and who worked as a freight conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad - had a second career that also made this holiday weekend a big time in his life.
When he retired from the railroad, he started working for Mariner's Arcade in Wildwood, in 1979 or so. Then he kept working there until he was 93, just two summers ago, his boss marvels. And somewhere over his three decades at the arcade, Mitch earned yet another nickname - Mr. Skee-Ball.
The summer crowds were obviously important to Boardwalk businesses, and Mitch always enjoyed it when this weekend came and the people came back to the boards with it.
"He couldn't wait for it," said Joann, 70, who lived with her dad in recent years - she was the only child of Mitch and Bertha Szymanski, who died in 1997. "It was extremely exciting for him to get to see everyone and meet the kids - he just loved working with all those kids from different countries. ... Memorial Day was the big weekend when everything opened up."
So last May, when Mr. Skee-Ball had to admit he couldn't do his job anymore, "I noticed he was a little depressed," Joann added. "He didn't even want to go up to the Boardwalk."
For decades before that, though, Mr. Skee-Ball was a fixture of summer on the Wildwood Boardwalk, Mariner's Arcade manager Jeff Verzella said.
"He called himself the banker. He sat behind counter and made change for the customers," Verzella said, but it was another duty that earned him his special title.
"We do a Skee-Ball special every hour, and he was like our Harry Kalas announcing it," Verzella said, meaning the late, beloved voice of the Philadelphia Phillies. "He would draw out that word, 'Skee-Ball' - he could hold it for like five minutes. We recorded his voice, and we still have it playing. And I still smile when I hear it."
So Mr. Skee-Ball was a huge hit with everybody in his arcade - workers, customers, bosses and more.
"He was everything you could hope to be at that age," said Verzella, who knew Mitch at least 25 years and is honored to call him "my second father."
Mitch was also a hero in his own family, which includes a great-grandson, Tim Leaf, of Springfield, Pa. But his family had no idea how much of a hero Mitch was until after he died, and Leaf e-mailed Terry Janes, a historian who wrote a book telling the Red Devils' story.
"You asked for details of what he did in the war," Janes answered. "Tim, the answer could fill a book. In fact, it fills a large part of my book, 'Patton's Troubleshooters.'.... He endured ... roughly nine months at the front lines of General Patton's Third U.S. Army. ... Everywhere they went, they were surrounded by the smell of death, from the millions of dead people and animals. ... And in the meantime, they faced the very worst of what the Germans could throw at them. That your great-grandfather could come through that with any shred of human decency speaks volumes about what kind of man he was."
The historian added lengthy details of how Mitch and the Red Devils survived the Battle of the Bulge and more of a miserable war - including, for Mitch, one of his soldiers actually dying in his arms. His battalion liberated two Nazi death camps, hunted and captured German war criminals and did much, much more, Janes wrote.
"It was a miracle to hear," the great-grandson said this week. "I was really shocked. I never knew my Poppy had done so much. He was truly an American hero ... and it made me so proud just to be part of his life."
The high-school senior knew Mr. Skee-Ball well - Mitch liked taking the boy to work with him. But his great-grandson never knew, never saw, the sergeant/warrior his Poppy had been all those years earlier.
"He was always so kind to people. I never saw him in a bad mood," Leaf said. "Especially with what he went through, hearing the stories I heard ... for him just to walk around being so joyful, always with a smile on his face, was really amazing."
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