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Those We Lost: Korean War veteran celebrated for his kindness, wit and optimism

Colchester — It wasn’t until late in his life that Carmen Langello talked about his combat experiences during the Korean War.

Even then, it could be a lighthearted tale, which was his way.

“He was on the front lines,” one of his three sons, Stephen Langello, said this past week. “I’d never heard him talk about it until after I came back to the area in 2016. He told me one time how his unit was on the side of a hill and the enemy was across a valley on another hill, or something. He pulled out his harmonica and starting playing. That ticked off the Koreans. He said every time he played, they’d shoot more.”

Carmen Langello, 92, died of COVID-19 complications Dec. 7 at Backus Hospital in Norwich, 11 days after being admitted. He was healthy and vital right up until the disease struck, driving around town, doing the shopping, taking walks — and smiling, always smiling, family members say.

A couple of weeks before he died, Carmen put his wife, Lucy, in an ambulance. It was the last time they’d see each other, though they’d end up occupying adjacent rooms in the hospital. Lucy had gotten COVID-19 first, spent six days in the hospital and recovered.

“Carmen was already sick when I went in,” Lucy said. “He had fatigue and cough but no fever. All he wanted to do was sleep. Then he started to not eat very much.” When Carmen stopped answering Lucy’s calls from the hospital, she phoned Stephen, who lives up the street. Stephen called 911.

Carmen and Lucy married in 1988. For each, it was the second marriage. Lucy had two daughters of her own.

Raised in a tight-knit Italian community on Shaw Street in New London, Carmen played the piano in a jazz band before the Army drafted him in 1950. After Korea, he returned to New London, started a family and took a job as a TV repairman. Later, he worked for the town of Waterford, retiring in 1992 after inspecting the Route 85 water and sewer lines that serve Crystal Mall.

“He was always optimistic and encouraging about things,” Lucy said. “We traveled all over, saw a lot of the country. He went to Italy without me one time, just by himself — I was ill at the time. He toured for 12 days ... Sorrento, the Isle of Capri ...”

Lucy said Carmen did a lot of things she didn’t even know about.

“My father was such a funny guy,” said a daughter, Sharon Langello. “He had a quirky sense of humor. When my two boys, his only grandchildren, were young, we had a big garden. In the middle of a rainstorm, he’d call the kids to ask if they’d remembered to water the plants.”

“He never stopped being a father to us, even when we were in our 50s and 60s,” she said, referring to herself, her two brothers and two sisters.

Eric Brennan, one of her sons, recalled seeing his grandfather for the last time in August when, with the pandemic putting the brakes on gatherings, the family celebrated three birthdays at once — those of Carmen, Sharon and Eric — at Sharon’s home in Quaker Hill.

“He had his wits about him,” Eric said. “The thing was that he was so up to date. At 92, he’d Facetime with me on his iPhone. It was crazy.”

When Eric was young, he learned something about his grandfather’s frugality on a trip to CVS.

“He had a $1 coupon for toothpaste, and he found a tube for 99 cents,” Eric said. “When the cashier asked if he wanted his change, he said he did. He walked out of there with a free tube of toothpaste and a penny. He was very proud of that.”

Richard Langello of New London, Carmen’s oldest son, said his father’s kindness and “warped” sense of humor were on full display when Carmen would drive him to Boston for treatment of his childhood leukemia. It was just the two of them in the car.

“He knew how afraid I was, and he’d make up silly songs on the way up and point out silly things along the road," Richard said. "He’d sit with me at the hospital, making up these silly songs and stupid stories. His efforts to calm me down were really superhuman.”

Carmen told Richard that he and a buddy went AWOL to meet Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, who was visiting U.S. troops in Korea. Carmen told Richard they succeeded, kissed the prelate’s ring and asked him to write their mothers, which he did.

In addition to their fond memories of their father, Stephen, Sharon and Richard are angry about his death. They insist it didn’t have to happen.

“You can say he lived a long life, and that’s true,” Stephen said. “If he was a sickly man and had passed in his sleep, that would be one thing. But he did all the shopping and ran the house. He was independent. ... We have a lot of anger toward (former President Donald) Trump.”

Richard agreed that Carmen’s life was unnecessarily cut short, a sentiment shared, he said, by many families he knows who have lost elderly loved ones to the pandemic.

“There was the mismanagement when COVID started, a sense that the president turned it into a carnival atmosphere — you don’t need to wear masks, it’s a hoax, it’s going to disappear ...,” Richard said, repeating some of the things Trump had said. “My feeling is that if more people had worn masks and the president had taken it more seriously, it wouldn’t have reached this point. My father might not have gotten it."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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