Ray Prozinski, a WWII and Korean War veteran, came to visit and reminisce — and sing!
Ray Prozinski, a WWII and Korean War veteran, came to visit and reminisce — and sing!
This seems to be the summer for longtime friends to visit Lanesboro. That makes it the best kind of summer, in my opinion.

Our latest guest was a friend from the Twin Cities whom I have known for about 30 years. We met because he is a good singer and I am a good listener. Back then there were a lot of sing-along establishments; I had discovered those were friendly places, perfect spots to meet people of all ages and all walks of life. The common thread was that everyone there loved music.

Our visitor this week was typical of others who had found "homes" in one or more of those places. Ray had a repertoire of songs that he liked to sing, and the piano players - some better than others - soon learned who wanted to sing solos, what they wanted to sing and in what key. Some sang at many of the places, going from one to another in an evening.

Because I did not sing, on my occasional nights out, I frequented only one such place. And that is where I met and got acquainted with Ray. He was known as the Polish Lamplighter, because with the last name of Prozinski, the Polish handle is obvious. At that time he was working in the lighting industry, thus the lamplighter part. I think I even heard him sing "The Old Lamplighter" once or twice.

Ray has another claim to fame besides being a good singer. He was a tail-gunner on a B-17 plane during World War II, having made 14 successful bombing missions over Germany; he was just 19 years old when he flew his first mission. A full tour is 30 missions, but the war was over before he got those completed.

After his military service he worked for a while until a friend talked him into going to school. At the University of Minnesota, he joined ROTC, and got a commission in the Reserves when he graduated. Then he learned to fly, and actually piloted the first American jet fighter. One of the photos he brought along was of him with that jet. He was an officer when he went to Korea for two years during that war. After that he did nine years as a pilot in the Air Force.

One of the articles that Ray brought along to show me was from a suburban Twin Cities newspaper, the occasion being when he finally, 49 years late, was awarded the Purple Heart. He had been injured by flak on his 13th mission, but even though he was bleeding, he did not go to get medical treatment. While his pilot had recommended him, it was right at the end of the war and everyone was in a rush to get home, so nothing came out of it.

Years later, in 1981, he decided to pursue it. At first his request was rejected because he did not have medical records. Finally, he got a statement from a doctor testifying to the presence of clear physical evidence of the wound. Eventually, in 1994, he received his Purple Heart.

Ray meets weekly with his Air Force buddies, and also speaks at various events. At one of those, he was showing someone his list of successful bombing missions. That person pointed out that he should have gotten one more medal: one of those 14 missions was actually to France, which means the French government would give him a medal. So, he is now pursuing that one to add to his broad collection.

Another document Ray brought along to show me was a piece he had saved relating an experience he'd had in 1994 at an 8th Air Force Symposium in Arkansas. He had been interviewed by a reporter from the local television station and was asked the question, "How do you think today's youth would perform in a comparable situation?"

His answer: "I fear a growing number would not be up to the task because until you learn the sweat and toil of weeding onions or carrots in the full sun of Brooklyn Center, until you learn the back-breaking toil of picking potatoes or asparagus in Brooklyn Park, until you learn the 120-degree sweat at the end of a rotary oven at Regan's Bakers, until you learn the attention to duty and comrades of a B-17 tail-gunner over Germany, until you learn the necessary training to fly the first American jet fighter, then tell me what is wrong with the youth of America. Then tell me what today's troubled youth is missing that will produce a better citizen. Some may say I'm only waving my personal flag....I don't wish to be a flag waver, only a flag saver."

Ray is still a singer. One of his favorite pastimes is to sing his own version of "God Bless America." He changes the "I" to "we," and the "my" to "our," as in "land that we love," and "our home, sweet, home." He loves to perform that at veterans' gatherings, Memorial Day services, funerals and memorial services, conventions, school events and anywhere he can.

At our house, he and I were sitting inside reminiscing, and he sang that song. Later, we moved out onto the front porch, and when it was time for him to get back on the road, he said he felt moved to sing that song again. He said, "This time I will really let go like I do when I am singing for a crowd."

He did, and even the cattle in the field on the hill across the road paid attention. At 87, he has lost neither his voice nor his stage presence.