THEY KEEP COMING at you. Pick up the phone and someone is asking for another story about Pvt. Eddie Slovick, actually about his widow, Antoinette, the one everyone feels sorry for, the one no one can do anything for. Everyone agrees. She's really the one being punished. Not Eddie. Eddie's dead.
The latest call is from Louis DeFinis. I tried to brush him off. I've already written about Slovik, the only American since the Civil War executed for desertion. Just a sad case. A sad man. Something of a simpleton. He admitted he deserted. He admitted he was a coward. He signed all the forms and wrote all the letters - put it all on paper and the Army let him have it by firing squad. Jan. 31, 1945. Eddie Slovik was shot in the snow.
DeFinis is on the phone. Like all the others, he wants another article. Like all the others, he does not offer a solution, does not say how to get around the fact that the law said no insurance settlement for the widows of soldiers shot for desertion. Sure, it applies only to Slovik. Sure, it's unfair. Sure. Antoinette Slovik is 62 years old and in a wheelchair and impoverished and sure, just for for the record, this is an insurance settlement we are talking about - insurance that Slovik paid for. Just so you know, nobody is asking something for nothing. Seventy thousand dollars in insurance - that's the issue.
DeFinis tugs with his voice: "The poor widow is dying . . . All she wants is the insurance money. . . She's a human being too . . . For crying out loud . . . A loyal American . . . May God, our Creater . . ." He's calling from Philadelphia, he says. Coming to Washington the next day. Can he call? How do you say no? Sure, call. He's pleased. "God bless you, Richard." he hangs up.
The next day, he calls. He's in Washington, he says - in the lobby of the building, actually. I dap my forehead. Oh my God. I forgot he was coming. I never told him that I didn't want to do another column. It's a lost cause. Give it up, Lou. The voice once again is very earnest. He's come from Philadelphia, he says. Can we talk? He has a statement to give me. No one is in Washington has been willing to see him. Can we talk? Mr. Cohen. Can we talk? Ricard. We go for lunch.
DeFinis is short and wears a shiny navy blue suit, a shirt that looks too big on him and shoes that are purple and black. It's hard to tell his age - maybe fortyish, maybe older. His shirt pocket bulges with orange business cards that say, "Lou DeFinis. Talent Scott Shows - Theaters - Benefits." That's in the middle. Towards the top left of the card, it says, "Richard Promotions, Talent Coordinator, T.V. Productions." All this is what DeFinis does for a living although at the moment he says he's in advertising. That's what his brother Robert does. It was Robert DeFinis who first took an interest in the Slovick case. It was with Robert DeFinis that Antoinette Slovik lived for four months recently. It is Antoinette Slovik who has compelled Louis DeFinis to come to Washington. He is a religious man. He has a message for the media. He takes it out and shows it to me. It begins: "Hello my dear people."
I hold the letter. DeFinis tells me that I'm the only one in Washington who has paid him any attention. "God bless you, Richard." he says. "You have a big heart." He says he arrived at Union Station around 8 that morning and started to make phone calls from a pay phone. He called the television station and the radio stations and a network and the newspapers and, of course, he got to speak to nobody.
"I just spoke to the secretaries." he said. "I couldn't talk to the people I wanted. The secretaries had no authority to do anything for me. I humbled myself, Richard. What else could I do? You know, what else could I do? I used a coin box in Union Station. I found it's 15 cents. I had to get $3 worth of coins. Thank God. I got the coins. I spoke to one person who said I ought to picket the White House. I would picket and they would film me. I don't want to do that, but look, any kind of new coverage I get on behalf of Mrs. Slovik would be great, whether it's the media or television or what."
Then he tells what it's like working out of a phone booth, how it gets awkward when some secretary asks you for your phone number and you don't have one. I see him there in my head and he is giving his speech, the one about the poor widow and injustice and everything is punctuated with God-bless-you and you know the secretaries are rolling their eyes towards the ceiling and saying, yes, they'll tell someone and yes they'll get back to him and now. Mr. DeFinis, just what is your telephone number? He says he'll callback.
Where are you going now? I ask.
"I'm going to see a priest," he says. "I'm a religious guy. i've already been to my priest. He gave me the name of a priest down here. I want him to bless what I'm doing. It makes me feel good." He gave me a piece of paper with the name of a priest on it and we went to a phone booth and he called. I could not hear all of the conversation, only what DeFinis said, but it was the same spiel all over again - the cause, Mrs. Slovik, the poor widow, justice. There was a pause. "Yes, father. Yes, father. I understand, father." Then silence. DeFinis came out of the booth.
"He was busy, you know. He was leaving. He had to go to some embassy. He blessed me on the phone. Just as good. He said it was just as good. He blessed me on the phone."
Then we walked across the street together and I went to the bank and when I came out DeFinis was still standing on the corner, looking up and then around, wondering where to go next. He was holding his briefcase and his pockets bulged with change and later, he told me, he got on a train and went back to Philadelphia - just another man trying to do something for the widow of Private Eddie Slovik.
They keep coming at you.