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Veterans and stars of screen are heroes of July Cruise

Commonwealth Journal - 7/24/2022

Jul. 24—Optimus Prime and "the Bandit" are all fine and good. But if there were any heroes at July's Somernites Cruise, they were the U.S. military veterans in attendance — and the memory of one very special service member from this area.

The late First Lt. Garlin Murl Conner who served in the U.S. Army in World War II was honored posthumously at July's Cruise on the Fountain Square in downtown Somerset, with his wife Pauline and other family in attendance.

With a large American flag suspended over the square from the boom of a Somerset Fire Department truck serving as a backdrop, the American Legion Post 38 Honor Guard presented Mrs. Conner with a flag and a framed picture celebrating her late husband's actions which ultimately made him the second-most decorated soldier of World War II.

Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de guerre and four Silver Stars for his actions in Italy and France, Conner, of nearby Albany, was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration for valor, in 2018 by President Donald Trump, given to Mrs. Conner, who still resides in Albany.

Despite the hot temperatures that made Saturday's Cruise a scorching affair, Mrs. Conner sat under a tent that provided shade, surrounded by members of the Honor Guard, and reflected on her husband's achievements and initial unwillingness to boast of his heroic actions in the midst of battle that were worthy of so many awards.

"It's just a great honor, it really is," said Mrs. Conner, who told the Commonwealth Journal that she'd prepared a long speech the night before but decided to scrap it considering the weather conditions.

"For 22 years, (various people) worked to get the medal for Murl," she said. "His commanding officer who was from Somerset, General Lloyd Ramsey, tried for year to get Murl to ask for it and apply for it and he wouldn't do it because he said people would think he was bragging.

"It means a lot to me, but I wish Murl could have been here," she added. "He always said he wanted to live to be 100, and he died when he was 79 years old. Here I am now, 93. I'm going to beat him."

Master Sergeant Steve Albritton told the crowd how six years after after Conner's passing in 1998, researchers found affidavits by some of Conner's fellow soldiers "describing how he had beaten back waves of attacking Germans in 1945, and it was because of this that these affidavits made it to the White House. ... The commanding officer had put Murl in for the Congressional Medal of Honor immediately following the battle, but it was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, which is still an award that very few people receive.

"He went that way for many, many years, and was such a humble person, he never changed anything about it, just accepted what was given to him and moved on with his life," added Albritton. "That life had to do with helping his fellow veterans. Pauline and Murl spent many years helping veterans get their benefits."

Albritton also asked to recognize all other veterans there in the Somernites Cruise crowd around the square on Saturday. It was a solemn and reverent presentation on what was otherwise a day full of silliness and fun at the custom and classic car show, now in its fourth month of the 2022 season.

The sixth-annual Somernites Cruise "Truckin' Nationals," sponsored by Auto Kustoms, co-sponsored by LMC Trucks, took place this weekend, featuring trucks as all kinds as the showcase vehicle. Despite the heat, a total of 759 vehicles came out on the day, about half of which were trucks, according to Cruise Executive Director Keith Floyd.

Some of the most famous trucks in popular culture were present for the occasion. The 1977 film "Smokey and the Bandit" inspired a tribute group called East Bound and Down, which bringing replicas of the "Snowman" semi, the "Bandit" Trans Am, Sheriff Justice's car, and the Foxx Hunt Ford from the movie.

They also brough actors playing characters from the film, so fans could interact with the likes of Bo "Bandit" Darville and Sheriff Buford T. Justice up close and in person. They also took chase around the Fountain Square, the sheriff trying to catch the Bandit — and possibly a Somernites Cruise team member in a golf cart as well.

The other famous truck there was a semi designed to look like the alternate form of Optimus Prime, heroic robot from the "Transformers" cartoon, toy, and film franchise. The truck, bearing the design from the "Transformers: Age of Extinction" movie, sat on the north side of the square, headed directly at the "Snowman" semi in front of the courthouse. It was joined by the Transformer Bumblebee Camaros and other related vehicles.

Joe Fiduccia out of northeast Pennsylvania brough the vehicles as he does to a number of booked events, and also spreads a positive message for kids against bullying. He was also willing to take plenty of photos of fans standing in front of the one-of-a-kind truck.

"The whole idea behind this build was to inspire my son and motivate him to take a leap of faith in life and not be afraid to stand up to the bullies in his life, and just do his own thing," said Fiduccia. "That's kind of the message I impart to anyone that I meet. In addition to doing events, I go to schools and I do full bully-awareness presentations about how I conquered the bullies in my life and how they should rise up and do the same alongside Optimus Prime."

Far from a longtime builder himself, Fiduccia called the truck probably the biggest leap of faith he's ever taken.

"I did not have experience with any of this," he said. "I could maintain a car, but I had never driven a truck in my life; I got a Class A CDL (commercial driver's license) just to drive this. There were about 25 people involved in the build, all different walks of life. We got legal permission from Hasbro to build it, which is really cool to say."

And while this version of Optimus Prime didn't turn into a robot at Somernites Cruise, Fiduccia designed the truck to certainly make a convincing case that it could, like having it speak in the familiar deep voice of Optimus Prime, shooting C02 gas out of its exhaust stacks, and the ability to open certain panels to make it look like he's getting ready to transform.

"I always tell the kids he's a robot in disguise," said Fiduccia. "He's maintaining his disguise. ... There have been both children and adults that are just like little kids again (on Saturday at the Cruise), and there are actually several people that said they came just because we were here. It's very heartwarming to see all these people coming together around such a motivational character and it's an honor for me to share it with them."


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