The timing was good for a cruel mistake.
On Christmas Eve 1941, the little Giovenazzo house in Silvis erupted in joy.
Mike was alive!
In the days following the attacks by Japanese forces on the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor, George and Concetta Giovenazzo took receipt of a terrible telegram.
The Navy wrote to inform my great-grandparents that their son, Michael, was missing. He had been aboard the USS Arizona when the Sunday morning strikes of Dec. 7 sunk the giant battleship.
Mike was just 20 years old and is believed to have spent the evening prior to the bombing writing letters to his big Italian family. On Jan. 3, he was to come home.
Two of the 12 Giovenazzo children were based at "The Pearl." The oldest, Joe, had been assigned to the USS Vestal, which was moored alongside the Arizona on Dec. 7.
But Joe had been lucky. He was in his apartment with his wife and baby that morning. I don't know whether he ever felt lucky.
When the bombing started, sirens wailed and radios directed all naval personnel to return to their duty stations. Joe got a ride from a neighbor and headed for the harbor.
The brothers had spent the evening before the attacks at Joe's apartment. Mike declined an invitation to spend the night. He was to be on duty aboard the Arizona at 0800 hours, and he wanted to get those letters written.
'Horrible comedy of errors'
Historians say eight bombs struck the Arizona.
Initial news of Mike's likely death had delivered a profound blow to the Giovenazzo house, too.
But the news on Christmas Eve had been a gift from God.
"I knew there was sadness in the air," said Dorothy Giovenazzo Mann, my great aunt and the youngest — and only surviving — member of the Giovenazzo children. "Suddenly, everyone was so happy.
"Everyone was hugging and saying, 'He's alive! He's alive!'
"It was just a horrible comedy of errors."
Our family's best guess is that the Navy saw that Uncle Joe had signed in at the safety station after the attacks. When they saw the name Giovenazzo, they must have assumed there could be only one.
A third telegram delivered the final truth: Mike had gone down with the ship.
A Gold Star was placed in a window at the Giovenazzo house, signaling to neighbors and passersby that George and Concetta had given a son.
"I felt sad, but I didn't have the pain the others had, because I was too young," Aunt Dorothy said last week. "Later, I felt it everywhere. The heartache I saw with my mother was ongoing for years."
She had been just 5½ years old when her brother died. She grew up with the grief.
"He became a poster boy for war bonds," she said. "I remember my mother giving a picture of Mike that was in a full-page ad in the newspaper. That picture was in a window of a store downtown, too, advertising for war bonds.
"My dad was really troubled. He said, 'What's the use of raising a boy to 20 — to adulthood — only to lose him to war?'
"He just carried the hurt."
Meanwhile, another of the Giovenazzo boys, 17-year-old Sam, carried the rage. Just days after learning Mike was missing, Sam dropped out of high school to enlist.
"Sam was going to conquer the (Japanese) for what they'd done," Aunt Dorothy said. "When he got over there, and they found out his parents already were a boy short and that Joe also was serving, they assigned Sam to the commissary."
But he would get his chance to avenge his brother's death.
Back to 'The Pearl'
On the 45th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1986, seven of the Giovenazzo siblings, including my grandma, Teresa, flew to Hawaii to lay eyes on the underwater ship in which their brother is entombed.
"It was all so reverent and quiet," Aunt Dorothy said of the visit to the Arizona's memorial.
Running a finger over her own name on a badge, made by the keepers of the memorial, she laughed at the memory of seeing herself on a Honolulu TV station one night, during a segment about the anniversary.
"One of my sisters called the hotel room and said, 'Did you see yourself on TV?'" she said. "I remember being aware that tourists were not permitted that day, but some of the media was there. I didn't remember anyone putting a camera on me, but I was so caught up in just being there."
Five years later, Uncle Joe went back to The Pearl for the 50th anniversary, and Aunt Dorothy planned a get-together at her house in Silvis.
Most of the remaining siblings, seven of them, collected around a table in the basement, and Aunt Dorothy brought out a cassette recorder. She asked that each of the Giovenazzos speak into the recorder, telling what they remembered about Dec. 7, 1941, and what they remembered about their brother, Mike.
The week before the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Aunt Dorothy and I sat on her couch and listened.
"I knew I loved him, and I knew I was sad," her voice began on the 25-year-old tape. "But I didn't know what kind of man he was."
The old tapes
Aunt Rose Orendorff started. Within seconds of hearing her voice, I was in tears. She died in 2003, and her voice and the familiar inflections of those long-gone around her made me simultaneously happy and achingly sad.
She had been at Mass at St. Anne's, Aunt Rose said. At home, the news came over the radio, and family gathered around.
She told of Mike's "compassionate and loving" nature and told how he would buy ice cream for his beloved dog, Scotty, which he wasn't permitted to bring in the house at "Ma and Pa's."
Aunt Angie Schold came next. And the tears ran like water from a spigot.
"Mike was loved by everybody," she gushed. "I especially loved him, because he was my buddy. I just loved him so much."
She told how she had been married just three weeks and was living with Aunt Mary when Pearl Harbor happened.
"Mary and I just couldn't believe our ears," she said. "... of all the ships in the Navy, why the Arizona?
"My heart was broken for a long, long time, and I'll never get over it."
Next, it was Uncle Sam's turn with the recorder.
He said he'd been thinking about joining the Navy after high school, but Pearl Harbor cinched it for him.
"I quit school then and there," he said.
He could talk to his big brother, Mike, about anything. When he sees old news clips or movies about The Pearl, he doesn't fall back into grief.
"Instead of getting teary-eyed, I still want to fight," he said.
After just seven days of boot camp, Uncle Sam arrived in the Pacific Theater before the beginning of 1942. Though the Navy put him in a commissary for longer than he cared to recall, he ultimately maneuvered a change-of-orders trade with another sailor and found himself where he wanted to be all along — in the fight. From his battleship machine gun, he fired at the Imperial Japanese Navy during battles at Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
He told his siblings how a kamikaze pilot, swooping in to crash into the U.S. ship just ahead of his, waved to him from the cockpit. More than a dozen American sailors died in the attack, but so did the Japanese pilot.
Uncle Sam said the death of the pilot gave him satisfaction. But he also said, "I've often wondered who his parents were."
Aunt Janette Kelley must have known Aunt Dorothy would be pumping them all for information, because she had a little speech prepared.
"I was 10 years old," she began. "I remember it as a very sad and somber and confusing time for my family."
She paused, clearly emotional, and said one word, "Gulp."
I was grateful for a little laughter between tears.
"I couldn't concentrate on school for a long, long time," Aunt Janette continued. "(Mike) was so terribly handsome. He was a superhero to me.
"I always had images of him, coming back with amnesia. I hated the idea of him being buried at sea.
"I hope and pray this is the end of wars."
When it was Grandma's turn to speak, I braced myself. She died almost 20 years ago, and the missing is sometimes harder now than it was in the beginning. That's the thing about mourning: It ebbs and flows like a pounding, then merciful, tide.
The Giovenazzos knew all about it.
"Joyce (Grandma's daughter) was about 2, and Bob (my dad) was 5," Grandma began. "I was frying chicken."
When she heard the news on the radio of an attack at Pearl Harbor, she stopped what she was doing and ran to the neighbor's to use the phone. She called her parents to ask whether they'd heard. Then, she said, life changed.
There was sugar and gas rationing, and she had to go to work. Then, she was done talking. I could hear in her voice that she wanted someone else to take the recorder before she even said it.
"I remember real, real well," Grandma said. "We had that beautiful Christmas."
Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org