By Tessa Raebeck; photography by Michael Heller
In annual Veterans Day celebrations this week, Sag Harbor residents recognized that honoring village veterans is a year round duty, not a daylong event. Whether by visiting a monument, putting up a plaque or rubbing a gravestone, veterans and community members work to celebrate our heroes throughout the year, and those efforts were officially recognized with commemorative events Monday.
From Cub Scouts to World War II veterans, troops in uniform kicked off the holiday at the annual Veterans Day Parade through Sag Harbor Village Monday morning. After the parade, government officials and honored servicemen gathered outside the American Legion Chelberg and Battle Post 388 on Bay Street. Following speeches, about 40 residents headed over to the Ferry Road Cemetery in North Haven to hear village historian Joe Zaykowski present a lecture on the cemetery restoration and the lives of veterans resting there.
At the American Legion Hall, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9082 Commander Roger King, who served two terms in Iraq, spoke of veterans’ “sacrifice for the common good,” and the symbolic significance of this year’s restoration of the federal holiday to November 11.
Veterans Day is always observed on November 11; however, in 2012, for example, the official federal holiday fell on November 12 because it was a Monday. King recognized the significance of the holiday returning to November 11 as it coincides with Armistice Day, which marks the settlement signed at the end of World War I on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.
Post Commander Marty Knab said the day’s events were intended not only to thank those who fought in battle, but also to thank and honor all who have served honorably in the military in any capacity, be it wartime or peacetime. While recognizing the ultimate sacrifice of those killed in battle, Knab hoped to also underscore the fact that all who served have made huge sacrifices for their country.
“Not all veterans have seen war,” Knab told the crowd. “But a common bond that they share is an oath in which they express their willingness to die defending this nation. Perhaps most significant in preserving our way of life are the battles that America does not have to fight, because those who wish us harm slink away in fear of the Coast Guard cutter, the Navy aircraft carrier, the Air Force Fighter Squadron, or the Army soldier on patrol.”
“Our country finds these men and women in the many small communities around our country, like our own Village of Sag Harbor,” he continued.
Local writer and World War II veteran Robert Riskin, whose officer encouraged him to pursue a writing career, spoke of his visit in September to the World War II monument in Washington, D.C. Riskin’s trip was facilitated by the Honor Flight Network, an organization that honors veterans by transporting them to visit their memorials.
“I was not very excited about going,” admitted Riskin. “And then I thought, ‘Well, it’s free…so what the hell? I’ll try it.’”
Accompanied by Knab, Riskin enjoyed a motorcycle escort, bagpipe serenade and a welcoming reception from Naval Academy plebes on the daylong trip to Washington.
“I almost broke down, it was just such an incredible feeling of love,” he said, adding, “the memorial itself is just about one of the most fantastic things you’ll ever see … the emotions that it brings up are very, very strong.”
After the veterans’ speeches, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. presented a proclamation, “the state’s highest honor,” he noted, to Sag Harbor Village Mayor Brian Gilbride and dockmaster David Thommen commemorating Sag Harbor’s heroic moment in the War of 1812. Two hundred years ago in July 1813, British troops stationed off the Long Island coast attempted to invade and pillage the small seaside village of Sag Harbor, as they had done to countless towns across the island. Greeted by a group of residents and militiamen on shore, the British quickly retreated, recognizing that whatever goods they could plunder were not worth a battle against the spirited community.
“We repelled the British. They never returned again until the British invasion of 1964,” Thiele joked, referring to The Beatles.
The assemblyman spoke of his own childhood playing around the old fort on High Street, but he never knew the story behind it.
“We all know it today and it’s because of the single-handed volunteer efforts of David Thommen,” said Thiele of the village dockmaster, who revitalized the fort – and the community’s knowledge of its own heroism — by dedicating a plaque and raising a flag there last July.
“This is about the veterans from the first militias in 1620 to the returning soldiers today,” said Thommen, accepting the proclamation.
Following the ceremony, North Haven Village Historian Joe Zaykowski gave a presentation to a crowd at the Ferry Road Cemetery on Route 114. Zaykowski successfully restored the gravestones there and, in doing so, unearthed the stories of some of North Haven’s earliest residents.
Zaykowski spoke of the life and lineage of John Payne, Sr., a veteran of both the colonial French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, who died 200 years ago in November 1813 and was laid to rest on Ferry Road. Payne’s gravestone was ineligible, cracked and scattered until Zaykowski’s restoration.
Zaykowski spoke extensively on the history of North Haven, with specific knowledge of lineages, burial techniques and even houses — several of which remain in the village today. His brother-in-law, Philip Reynolds, played period music from the Revolutionary War era on his saxophone.
In 1781, Payne received nine pounds, 19 shillings and one penny for his service in the Revolutionary War, according to Zaykowski.
“I cannot tell you that John Payne was a so-called war hero,” Zaykowski, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the crowd. “That’s not important; He served his country, served it well I’m sure.”
In attendance to hear Zaykowski’s talk was Alexandra Binder, who lives on Shelter Island with her fiancé Beau Payne, a direct descendant of John Payne. Eager to learn more of her new family’s extensive local history, Binder was ecstatic to have the aid of Zaykowski, who has traced the Payne’s lineage all the way back to England prior to the colonization of America.