When you reach out he takes your hand and you touch more than history. You get to go back in time with him.
Richard Abeles' handshake is firm and steady, even though 70 years have passed since the sun-drenched Sunday morning dubbed forever the Day of Infamy. He was at Wednesday with a handful of other Pearl Harbor survivors, the honored guests of hundreds of Long Islanders who came to pay tribute to these men and all the others who served their country.
But Abeles, 91, was also with the U.S. Pacific Fleet the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, where most of its warships rested at anchor, sitting ducks for a massive aerial assault that was about to ensue, a surprise attack that launched the United States into World War II.
He still remembers it all. And the whole time he talked, he never let go, a grip that could last a lifetime.
"I was on The Dale," he says, without prompting, still grasping the listener's hand. "It was a destroyer, you know. I looked up and saw the (Japanese) plane. It was coming this way, right at me, and then he turned left.
"And I saw him drop the torpedo into the water" he said. "I think it hit the Arizona. They were going after the big ships."
At the same time, Michael Montelione heard shouts at Schofield Barracks. "They came out of the north, over the mountain," he said. "I felt the bullets whizzing by."
A Japanese "Zero" was closing in, low to the ground, preparing to strafe the airfield. It was heading straight at Montelione. "I could see the pilot. He had goggles on," he said.
"And I think he was smiling at me.
Montelione continued: "I felt the bullet as it went right past me. I'll never forget that. I guess I was lucky I didn't get hit. I don't let it bother me much."
Montelione became a staff sergeant and served the Army making training films. He would marry his wife, Ida, in 1946, and they settled in Farmingdale. He was a grip at Paramount studios in New York, hauling heavy equipment around film lots. The calluses on his hand have been worn smooth. He too, made a handshake last a lifetime.
Abeles spent much of the war in the South Pacific, performing as a communications specialist in a variety of support roles. He married Elvia and they moved to Brentwood.
Wednesday's ceremony, sponsored by the Long Island Chapter of the Air Force Association, was held at the at Republic Airport in Farmingdale. Hundreds of veterans and the public attended.
Veterans groups from around Long Island, including a color guard from post, participated in the event, along with politicians, dignitaries and the marching band, which provided patriotic music.
The ceremony traditionally concludes when a vintage aircraft takes off for the Statue of Liberty, dropping roses in the water in remembrance of the dead. Seventy roses, one for each anniversary, were joined by one white rose, the latter to symbolize those lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
Wednesday's fog and rain grounded the flight. Instead, the roses were driven to lower Manhattan and taken aboard a Staten Island Ferry, to be dropped in the waters off Liberty Park. A color guard accompanied the roses, which left from a slip resting in the shadow of the new World Trade Center, now being built at the site of the old one.
Abeles understands the connection: "The only thing that has to be told is we can never be caught (off guard) the way we were: completely unaware," he said. "We have to be able to answer the call when the time comes.
"It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is," he said.
Finally he let go of his grandfatherly grasp, but not the grip it held.