One day, he was walking down Bremen Street in Eastie when his eyes fell on the most beautiful creature he had ever seen: Grace DeStefano.
“Hi, how are you?” Tony the Kid said. “What’s your name?”
“Grace,” she replied.
“Oh, yeah?” he said, pointing. “I live over there.”
Grace eyed him up and down, warily, and nodded up the street, saying, “Well, I live right there.”
Grace was sweet 16 and Tony was smitten from the get-go. Tony had an old Ford, with a rumble seat, and Grace fell in love with the car and then she fell in love with Tony Barrasso.
Tony joined the Army in 1941, but Grace couldn’t bear to be separated. She followed him around the country, to various bases. In 1942, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was sent overseas, Tony and Grace got married at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Gove Street. They had to walk three blocks to the church.
When Tony sailed away from New York City on the Saturnia with the rest of the 101st Infantry of the 26th Infantry Division, Grace was on the pier, crying. And pregnant.
The Yankee Division, as Tony’s unit was known, landed in France and started fighting the Germans almost immediately. They chased the Nazis across Europe. General George S. Patton led them and the rest of the Third Army, and Tony got a big kick out of seeing Patton drive by a couple of times.
“He was standing up in a Jeep,” he said. “That’s how he rolled.”
In December of 1944, Tony and his unit found themselves pinned down in the Ardennes, as the Germans made one last push on the Western Front: The Battle of the Bulge.
“It was so cold,” Tony says, sitting in his easy chair in the house on Bremen Street. “I was in a foxhole with my buddy Andrew Brown, from Illinois. We got snowed in. We were in that foxhole for 12 straight days.”
At night, he and Brown would spoon with each other, so they wouldn’t freeze to death.
After 12 days in that deprivation, in his desperation, scared out of his wits, Tony thought he saw a column of German soldiers advancing on them. He counted nine of them.
He told Brown that the Germans were sneaking up on them. Brown peered over the top of the foxhole.
The guys in his platoon called him Bambino because of that baby face, and Brown said, “Bambino, I don’t see nobody.”
But, in his delirium, Tony swore they were there, inching closer, now just 10 feet away.
From another foxhole, the Polish kid everybody called Sokol called out, “Bambino, Brown’s right. There’s nobody there. Stay down.”
But Tony Barrasso couldn’t stay down. He was convinced he and his buddies were about to be slaughtered. So he jumped up and started firing.
He fired into thin air. There was no one there.
Brown pulled him down, just in time, because the Germans across the field unleashed a volley of machine gunfire.
Tony and his buddies fired back and when the smoke cleared, Adam Sokol, the Polish kid, and their lieutenant, an Italian kid from New York named Tiziani, lay dead.
Tony Barrasso always blamed himself, because his firing had given away their position. He thinks of Sokol and Tiziani every day and dreams about them every night. He never forgave himself, but he also vowed that if he was lucky enough to survive the war, he would go back to Grace and live a good life to honor all his buddies who didn’t make it back.
And he did make it back, the Nazis defeated, four battle stars and assorted ribbons on his uniform, which only reminded Tony of those who gave all.
He ran to Grace when he got back to Eastie and held her for what seemed like forever. Then, for the first time, he got to hold 13-month-old Janice, the daughter who was born while he was at war.
He got a job at the Old Mr. Boston distillery in Newmarket Square and Grace went to work for the Boston Public Schools.
One night, they were talking to a woman who said she wasn’t going to be able to take care of her baby, so Tony and Grace looked at each other and nodded. They adopted a little girl and named her Denice.
Tony would sit in his big easy chair and Grace would sit on the arm of the chair and they would hold hands and watch TV together. Whenever they had glasses — whether they held water or orange juice or a little red wine — they’d clink them, like they did at their wedding. Sometimes, they’d nip around the corner to Santarpio’s to sample the best pizza in Boston.
Tony was a song and dance man. He became friendly with famous entertainers because his uncle Joe DelGrosso, who raised him after Tony’s mother died when he was 3, ran a nightclub in Revere called the Open Door. He counted the comedians Pat Cooper and Norm Crosby as friends. The singer Neil Sedaka visited him at the house on Bremen Street. They’d all ask Tony to sing a song and he never said no.
Tony and Grace had a house in Florida and they used to go there on vacation, and after they retired they went there even more.
Six years ago, Tony and Grace were at Mass at Our Lady Queen of the Apostles in West Palm Beach when Grace bent down slowly at the waist. Tony thought she was reaching for a tissue in her purse on the floor.
But she was gone. Right there in the pew. Just like that, Grace was gone.
She was three weeks shy of her 90th birthday. They had been married for 70 years.
“I never saw my father cry until my mother died,” Denice was saying. “Now he cries every night, for his Gracie.”
Tony knows Grace is waiting for him, somewhere, in a realm much different than this. In the meantime, he keeps on truckin’. He’s still sharp. He still loves to sing.
“I wanted to be a tenor,” he jokes, “but now I sing for five.”
So, I’m sitting on the couch of the house on Bremen Street the other day, and, out of nowhere, Tony just starts singing.
“Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.”
He’s still got the pipes.
Age is cruel. When he’s in bed, half asleep, grieving for Sokol and Tiziani, pining for Grace, Tony hears the planes landing and taking off from nearby Logan Airport and imagines they are the bombers he saw lying on his back in that foxhole in the Ardennes. He’ll wake with a start, sweating.
He likes to go back to his old stomping grounds in Revere, where Denice’s friend, Gina Castiello, makes him home-cooked Italian meals and gives him a small glass of red wine.
Denice takes him to his appointments at the VA, and sometimes it drives Tony crazy.
“They ask me if I’m suicidal, if I want to hurt myself or others,” Tony says. “I tell ‘em, what are you, nuts? I survived a war, why would I want to kill myself? The only people I ever wanted to kill was Hitler and the Nazis.”
Tony drove until he was 97. He’s still mad they took his car keys.
Next week, Tony will turn 100. They’re going to have a big time for him up at the veterans center next to the Madonna statue in Orient Heights. It won’t take much to get Tony to sing at his own party.
He stayed in touch with the other guys from his unit who made it back home. But every year, sometimes it feels like every month, there’s fewer of them.
“It’s whittled down to nothing,” Tony says. “They’re all gone.”
Death doesn’t scare Tony, not like it did in that foxhole in the Ardennes all those years ago. As much as he doesn’t want to leave his daughters and his four grandkids and six great-grandchildren, Tony understands more than most that death is a part of life, just as peace always follows war. You can’t have one without the other. And he says that you haven’t lived if you haven’t loved.
Tony Barrasso, the balladeer of the Greatest Generation, was sitting there in his easy chair as the fading light seeped in from outside on Bremen Street, talking about mortality.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “I’ll be with Gracie again.”Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org