Friday, January 14, 2005

Rally 'round the troops

Light display keeps hopes up in neighborhood By Dennis McCarthy "From the time the boys were 7, they were playing soldier. Now they are soldiers." -- Maria Spirtos Christmas is taking its sweet time leaving the house on Long Valley Road. No one wants to see it go.Motorists driving along the main road in the gated community of Hidden Hills still slow down at night to take an appreciative look at the red, white and blue lights that form an American flag on the steep front lawn of Maria Spirtos' home. They still honk their horns and wave at her as they pass the white lights that spell out "Support Our Troops." Dozens of Maria's neighbors -- people she never knew, even though her family has lived here since 1968 -- have called to thank her for the patriotic display. "Everybody knows Maria now," says her neighbor Jill Rosenberg. "Everybody knows the wonderful family story behind that message." The display was put up a few weeks before Christmas by Maria's oldest son, Sakellanios, 22, and his friend, Lee Blumenfeld. Sake, as his family and friends call him, was home from West Point, where he'll graduate in May as a first lieutenant, assigned to a Black Hawk helicopter unit. His widowed mother hadn't planned to decorate the family home for Christmas. Her son, Michael, 21, who'd enlisted in the Army in 2003, was serving in a combat unit in Iraq, and she didn't feel much like celebrating. "They are so close. From the time the boys were 7, they were playing soldier," Maria said. "Now they are soldiers." She e-mails the mothers of other soldiers serving in Mike's unit, expressing her fears for their safety. When one mother hears from her son that everyone is OK, she contacts the other mothers. When the news is bad, the e-mails slow to a crawl. Sake understood his mother's feelings, but he knew Mike would never forgive him if he didn't put a smile on their mother's face during the holidays."One night Sake said, 'Mom, come outside, I've got something to show you.' When I saw what he had done on the lawn, I asked him why he did that? He said for Mike and our troops. I started crying and hugged him." By the time Sake and Maria got back inside the house that night, the phone was already ringing. People who had driven by the Christmas display were calling to say thank you. "I was stunned and touched that so many people I didn't even know were calling me and stopping me on the street to ask if there was anything they could do," Maria said. There was, she said: Support our troops. In a recent e-mail to his mother, Mike asked her to thank all the Hidden Hills residents who had sent packages and cards of support to his unit."There were just so many cards and gifts, mom," Michael wrote. "It was wonderful." What would be wonderful is if Mike could make it home by May to pin those first lieutenant's bars on his brother's shoulder when he graduates from West Point. "My husband would have been so proud of his boys," she said, looking out the window as another car slowed to take a long look at the holiday message shining brightly on her front lawn.

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