By Ron Hayes
At 3:45 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, two SUVs pulled out of Briny Breezes onto a dark and deserted North Ocean Avenue, bound for Fort Lauderdale International Airport.
The Hyundai was driven by Marla Guzzardo, a former flight attendant who retired after 38 years with American Airlines.
The Toyota RAV4 was piloted by Cynthia Smilovsky of Key Largo, also a former flight attendant, also a veteran of 38 years with American Airlines.
Flight attendants are trained to react in an emergency, and this was the final act in a crisis that began a month before.
“I had just recently joined the Florida Keys Quilting Association,” Smilovsky explained, “and they put out a call for members to participate in an annual project.”
Smilovsky thought it would be nice if the association quilted blankets for every veteran on board the next Honor Flight South Florida trip to Washington, D.C., a daylong visit to the capital’s military memorials, a gesture of gratitude to the dwindling World War II generation.
But the Keys association had “already adopted the Wounded Warriors project,” she discovered. “I’d put the cart before the horse.”
She’d bit off more than she could quilt.
“So I called Marla.”
Guzzardo, former flight attendant, is now the vice president of the Briny Breezes Hobby Club.
“How many blankets do you need?” she asked Smilovsky.
“Well, we can’t possibly make 76 quilts by Oct. 17,” Guzzardo said. “How about fleece?”
And so the call went out.
At 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27, nine women converged on the town’s hobby club.
Susan Cooley, another retired flight attendant, came up from Boca Raton and brought her friend Betty Sierra. Linda Guzzardo, Marla’s sister, and Linda Allen, a high school friend, drove over from Leisureville, and with hobby club members Sandy Dietzel, Brenda Dooley and Sunshine Miller, the Briny Blanket Brigade set to work.
“Rosie The Riveter had nothing on us,” Smilovsky crowed. “We got in there and did an assembly line.”
Marla Guzzardo scissored the sheets of blue fleece into blanket-sized squares. Cooley, Dietzel, Smilovsky and Linda Guzzardo cut out military insignia for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and pinned them to the fleece. Then Allen, Dooley, Miller and Sierra sewed them onto the blankets.
“We rotated jobs to keep it interesting,” Marla Guzzardo recalled, “and by 6 p.m. we’d made 76 blankets in one day.”
Left: Marla Guzzardo and Cynthia Smilovsky cut fabric for blankets to be completed by the Briny Blanket Brigade.
ABOVE: Sunshine Miller and Linda Allen press the military insignia that will be stitched to the blankets.
Vets greeted with gratitude
When the two cars pulled to a stop in front of the baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale’s Terminal 2, those 76 blankets, neatly folded in large plastic bags, filled the back of Smilovsky’s car.
Inside, Honor Flight volunteers scurried about. Gift bags of sunblock, pads and pens were waiting to be distributed. Homemade posters emblazoned with “Thank You For Our Freedom” and the lyrics from the Marines’ Hymn (“From The Halls of Montezuma” and official song of the U.S. Air Force (“The Wild Blue Yonder”) waited to greet the vets. A photographer stood before a large banner that promised “One Last Mission,” waiting to photograph the vets and their guardians.
Guzzardo and Smilovsky stacked the blankets on a folding table by the check-in desk and waited, too.
At 5 a.m., they began arriving — 30 U.S. Army veterans, 19 Air Force, 12 Navy, nine Marines, four Coast Guard and two from the Merchant Marine. Seventy-six old Americans here to be thanked for what they had done as young Americans.
Smilovsky and Guzzardo moved among the wheelchairs, handing a warm blanket adorned with the appropriate insignia to each vet, followed by an even warmer thank-you for their courage all those years ago.
Herbert Chauser, 95, a retired dentist from Boca Raton, received a Navy blanket.
“Thank you, I’ll need it! It’s going to be cold up there,” he said. “This is unbelievable. The amount of work they’re doing, and all the smiles and happiness. I appreciate it very, very much.”
Grace Lesperance, 93, of West Park in Broward County, was 21 when she served as a nurse with the Army Air Corps, prepping hernia patients in Texas.
“We had 26 on the ward, and that’s where I met my husband,” she said. “I haven’t been to Washington in — oh, it must be 50 years ago! I’m just so excited about being here I’ll take whatever they give me.”
Effort is volunteer-driven
Greeting the vets, George Ferguson knew what they would be given. A retired deputy with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, he founded the Honor Flight South Florida chapter in 2012.
“We just tell them we’re taking them to D.C.,” he said. “They don’t know it’s a big celebration.”
When the vets are wheeled upstairs to the jetway, they’ll be met by an honor guard and active members of today’s military, and when Honor Flight 1017 rolls onto the runway, fire trucks will spray the passing plane with a “Fireman’s Salute.”
In Washington, they’ll be bused to the World War II Memorial on the Mall, lunch with the Knights of Columbus, attend the changing of the guard at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and pose for photos at the cemetery’s Iwo Jima Memorial.
Gratitude is not cheap. Chartering the plane costs about $90,000, Ferguson said, plus an additional $500 for each veteran and accompanying guardian.
“And we try to do that four times a year with no government money involved,” he added. “We have about 300 volunteers on flight day, and not one of us gets paid a penny.”
Like the Briny Blanket Brigade, rushing to finish 76 fleece blankets, all those Honor Flight volunteers are also pressed for time. According to the Veterans Administration, about 492 World War II veterans die each day. Of the 16 million Americans who served, only about 850,000 are still with us, and most are in their 90s.
Joseph Mazzucco of west Boca Raton was 19 when he flew with the Air Force on Guam and Saipan in 1943-45. Waiting to fly again this morning, he’s 92.
“And I take no medication,” he said. “I take two beers every afternoon and some wine at night and I bowl and golf.” He held the blue fleece blanket in his lap, grinning with excitement. “I’ve heard so much about these flights from my neighbors who went on one.”
Bernard Gladstein of Boca Raton was 24 when he served in the China-India-Burma theater. He’ll be 100 next March.
“It’s clean living,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve heard a lot about this, and my son Geoffrey wanted me to go.”
Geoffrey Gladstein, who would travel with him, pushed his father’s wheelchair over to the “One Last Mission” banner so they could be photographed together.
Guzzardo and Smilovsky stayed until the line of vets waiting for pictures was down to eight or 10.
“We gave away every blanket,” Smilovsky said.
Outside, the sky was starting to pale as they found their cars. On I-95, one former flight attendant drove south toward Key Largo, and the other headed north to Briny Breezes.
Before they were home, a chartered Eastern Air Lines 737 was climbing overhead, bound for Washington, D.C., with 76 American heroes and 76 blue fleece blankets on board.