PEPPERELL — His selection as grand marshal of this year’s Independence Day parade is a mixed bag for VFW Post 3291 Quartermaster Tony Saboliauskas.
On the one hand, it’s an honor. On the other, it’s a day of lingering memories, of a six-day running battle in Vietnam in which 200 of his fellow Marines, many of them his buddies, lost their lives.
To Saboliauskas, redemption comes in the faces of the children and the sense of community engendered by the day’s events.
“It’s already such a meaningful holiday, to begin with the biggest battle I was in,” the triple Purple Heart recipient said. “July 1967 was as low as a human being can go, impossible to go lower. Now, it’s the peak.”
Saboliauskas’ community involvement with schools, Flag Day, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day and as a guest speaker and amateur historian have endeared him to many residents, despite the fact he is far from being a native son of Pepperell.
Born in Fort Bragg, N.C., as the son of a World War II and Korean War Army sergeant, Saboliauskas graduated from high school in Valley Forge, Pa., after living in Clearwater, Fla., and New York City.
He enlisted in the U.S. Marines upon graduation.
When his parents died, he moved to Chelmsford to be near his grandparents, then bounced from Lowell to Cambridge, Somerville, Lexington, Boston and West Concord. He’s worked at Nuclear Metals in Concord and Merrimac Paper in Lawrence before badly fracturing an ankle and retiring.
Saboliauskas met his wife, Sarah, while studying behavioral psychology at Northeastern University and working at the Fernald School in Waltham. They moved to Pepperell in 1982 and have two children, Zachary and Erica.
He spends time talking to high-schoolers about Vietnam and a favorite subject, Col. William Prescott. He’s quick to point out to students the falsehoods they’re being taught about the Vietnam conflict.
There was, he reminds them, a two-year gap between the signing of the Paris Peace Accord and the evacuation of embassy personnel in Saigon, which is often seen as the official U.S. retreat.
Except for embassy guards, “there were no combat troops in-country for two years, until the North Vietnamese decided to do elections by tank (advance) — expected to be a light, but unanimous turnout,” he said with irony.
“I show some slides about (Vietnam) protests. I explain these are Americans with different viewpoints. But how did the U.S. buy into that as legitimate dissent? It was almost a carnival. What on earth was Woodstock about? It was a self-indulgent exercise for youth,” he said.
“I was a kid in the 1950s. All the kid’s dads were World War II and Korea. We loved picnics and said words like swell, gosh, golly. Leave It to Beaver was high drama. Now we have to have an edge to everything.
“I’m still a kid from the ’50s,” he said. “That’s how I can talk in schools. The Fourth of July was the height of the summer season. Now we need an edge.”
Saboliauskas said what strikes him most these days is to be part of a community and that people appreciate what he instills in them about where they live.
“It’s the continuity of community. Every day, to me, is astonishing. It’s a gift. I never get away from (the battle knowledge) I could be gone in 10 seconds, although I try. I gradually developed a layered view that includes kids, schools, grandchildren,” he continued.
“Ya gotta fit Col. (William) Prescott in here. It’s total serendipity for someone with my outlook to move here not knowing he was here. He’s such a large part of U.S. history. It’s exciting to be where there is so much history.”
Pepperell’s history symbolizes what’s most important to Saboliauskas, a return to a sense of community and family rather than people knowing their town because it’s where they pay their taxes.