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D-Day vet bonded with 9-year-old through the magic of music

By JERRY CARINO | Asbury Park Press | Associated Press | Published: June 7, 2019

BRICK, N.J. — The music was playing and Mario Sorrentino was singing.

As the big-band classic "All Or Nothing At All" piped into Sorrentino's headphones, the longtime Brick resident was no longer a 96-year-old battling dementia.

He was 20, an Army combat engineer heading across the English Channel to invade France in June 1944. The music, supplied by 9-year-old Kenley Chambers of Toms River, was jogging his memory.

"I've heard the same stories for years, but now there are more details," Mario's son Lou Sorrentino said. "Something is clicking in there."

This was in early May. Kenley and her mom, Katie Chambers, had been meeting with Mario monthly as part of a program pairing kids and senior citizens, with old-school music as the backdrop. "Connection Thru Music," sponsored by the interfaith nonprofit Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey, has gotten remarkable results.

"This is not an anomaly, this awakening," said Fran Pannella, who runs the initiative. "Music lights the human brain up. Now, when he's talking about the music and the time it came from, his memories are going to be there."

Those memories are an important piece of history, worth telling and preserving as the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Memories of Utah Beach

Mario Sorrentino was among the first of the combat engineers, specifically trained to blow up or build roads, bridges, buildings, whatever was needed for the U.S. Army to advance on Berlin. His 294th Engineer Battalion was aboard the commandeered cruise liner Susan B. Anthony when it hit underwater German mines and sank during the English Channel crossing. Incredibly the entire battalion was rescued, and they came ashore at Normandy's Utah Beach on June 7, 1944 — D-Day plus one.

Since all their baggage sank with the boat, the soldiers had to take supplies and equipment from the dead on the beach and the wounded who were heading to hospitals.

"We got across and landed in France, and up in the mountains there were Germans and they would shoot the hell out of us," Sorrentino said. "You had to keep going, even if the five guys behind you got killed. It didn't matter. Finally we won because they saw they couldn't stop us. They picked up their rifles and ran."

Sorrentino fought in the Battle of the Bulge and said he was in the first wave of Americans who entered the fallen city of Berlin in 1945.

"In the dark of night, at 2 in the morning," he said.

'A beautiful, moving experience'

At the other end of the headphones sat Kenley Chambers, a fourth-grader from Walnut Street School in Toms River. The precocious 9-year-old volunteered for the Connection Thru Music program with the help of her mother, Katie Chambers, a hospice worker.

Kenley brought the iPad and cued up Mario's favorite music. Between songs, they talked.

"It's been such a beautiful, moving experience for her," Katie Chambers said, "being exposed to elders, being exposed to music she would not generally know, and the history she's hearing firsthand."

The typical youth volunteer for this program is a bit older — middle-school age is ideal — but Kenley is a mature 9-year-old who did the necessary training on empathy, brain function and dementia.

"Ultimately it's about connecting with another human being a little deeper than finding out their favorite music; music is the bridge," Pannella said. "This is a unique opportunity for a young person, for a parent-child team. It's not just going for your (community-service) hours. This is a little bit more."

The sessions last for about an hour.

"It makes me feel happy because I love music and I also love helping people," Kenley said. "I can't get over the fact that music from earlier in his life brings back memories a hundred years later. That's pretty cool."

Mutual bond

Mario Sorrentino died May 25 — on Memorial Day weekend.

His children, Lou Sorrentino and Lucia Parisi, were grateful for the Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey's work with him. In addition to the meetings with Kenley, Mario received visits from Afghanistan veteran Frank Pirozzi of Brick as part of the organization's Veterans to Veterans program.

It made the challenge of dementia just a little bit easier.

In their final get-together, on May 7, Kenley played Frank Sinatra on her iPad and Mario was crooning away:

"Even when I'm old and gray"

"I'm gonna feel the way I do today"

"Cause you make me feel so young."

Asked what he thought of Kenley's visits, Mario looked her way and replied with an old soldier's charm.

"You're going to have a lot of guys after you," he said with a chuckle. "That's all right, you'll control them, I know."

The bond was mutual.

"I hope I'm him when I'm old," Kenley said later. "That's a person you want to be."

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
 

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