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VILLAGE TOUCHED BY GRIEF
CELORON HAS LOST TWO OF ITS OWN TO A WORLD OF TERROR, ONE TO THE 9/11 ATTACKS AND NOW A SECOND TO WAR IN IRAQ

There's no traffic light in this Chautauqua County village, only stop signs. There's not even a diner where everyone can gather. The center of town boasts a post office, Celoron Grocery, Village Hall -- and a tiny park that hugs Chautauqua Lake.

Celoron has only 1,295 residents, just 526 households in a working-class village tucked between Jamestown's hustle-bustle and the lake's serenity.

But twice, the world of terror has knocked on Celoron's door.

First, on Sept. 11, 2001, flight attendant Amy R. King, 29, was killed when United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the World Trade Center.

Then, last Friday, Sgt. James C. Matteson, 23, was killed in combat, struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Fallujah.

Both grew up in Celoron and graduated from Southwestern Central High School, which includes students from working-class families in Celoron, farm families in Busti and upscale families in Lakewood.

So now, the village best known for the laughter spread by another native, Lucille Ball, has made its mark in a more somber way -- another small town that has given more than its due to the war on terror.

One analysis of soldiers killed in Iraq found that close to 44 percent hailed from small towns with populations of fewer than 20,000 people.

If the City of Buffalo lost the same proportion of residents as Celoron did on Sept. 11 and in Iraq, it would be mourning the loss of 452 people. Instead, Buffalo has lost fewer than 10.

"I've lived here 52 years, my entire life, and I don't ever recall any tragedy striking the village as hard as this has," Mayor Rick Slagle said. "It seems as if this village has paid more than its share in the last three years."

To an outsider, Celoron seems caught in a time machine, no luxury condos or upscale developments intruding on the lakefront setting. The modest village center sits across from Lucille Ball Memorial Park, site of an amusement park that closed in the 1960s. And the Pizza Hut-McDonald's world on Route 394 in Lakewood seems farther than 1 1/2 miles away.

The tragedies that have taken the lives of two natives shattered any sense of security in this small town.

"It's very scary," said Cathie Kasperek, a village resident and retired Williamsville teacher. "When you're in an area like this, so serene and near such a gorgeous lake, you think the world is peaceful, but then the terror from the outside world comes crashing in."

The tragedies of New York City and Fallujah -- hundreds and thousands of miles away -- have hit home here.

"Give me the ball"

As tearful friends armed with food paid their respects in James L. Matteson's home earlier this week, Matteson flashed back to the Southwestern High School football banquet in his son's senior year.

Coach Chris Krantz had told about the Dunkirk game, when a bruised and bloodied J.C. Matteson, the undersized running back -- all 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds of him -- came to him with a simple request.

"Give me the ball, coach," he said. "Give me the ball."

That's how J.C. Matteson lived and apparently how he died.

Matteson, with Task Force 2-2 of the First Infantry Division, was killed last Friday morning while riding in the turret of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle, not in his usual passenger seat.

"He was in the turret, firing an M-2, 50-caliber machine gun, like this generation's Audie Murphy," his father said. "I imagine all hell was breaking loose in a major battle with enemy insurgents, and I can see him taking many of them down until he received a direct hit from an RPG."

Matteson remembered the day in June 1998, when his son, then 17, came home and announced he had joined the Army.

"What?" his father asked.

"I just want to carry on the family tradition," his son said.

That tradition dated back to the 18th century. In fact, J.C.'s great-great-grandfather's hand was blown off in the Civil War.

J.C.'s sister, Spc. Hope Freedom Matteson, spent 11 months in Iraq, was flown out by Medivac with a broken foot and was awaiting redeployment there from Fort Hood, Texas.

"She wants to go back, but her first sergeant assured me that after her brother, she wouldn't be redeployed," her father said. "That took a big weight off my chest."

Besides bearing the pain of his son's death and urging the support of our remaining troops in Iraq, James L. Matteson also sounded frustrated in the delays in getting his son's body returned home.

The soldier's body was flown home Thursday. He will be buried Saturday in Soldiers Circle in Lake View Cemetery, Jamestown, after an 11 a.m. funeral in Christ First United Methodist Church on Lakeview Avenue.

J.C. Matteson served in Germany, Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo before shipping out to Iraq. When he came home for some R&R in July, he told his father his commander wanted him promoted to staff sergeant, but that would have meant transferring to another unit.

"He didn't want to leave his soldiers, because he trusted them as much with his life as they trusted him with their lives," the proud father said. "In the end, he died for them. He died for all of us."

Give me the ball, coach.

Connected in death

It would be hard to find a more peaceful setting than the Amy King memorial at the edge of Chautauqua Lake.

On summer days, the sun sets through a hole in the trees. On a blue-sky day earlier this week, you could sit on one of the two park benches and see the American flag flying limply at half-staff for Matteson, about 100 yards away.

There's no indication that King and Matteson knew each other. They were nine years apart at school, from the classes of 1989 and 1998.

But there were plenty of similarities, besides both being victims in the new world of terror.

Walter Thurnau, a retired history teacher at Southwestern, taught and coached both, King in track and Matteson in wrestling.

Both were dependable, easy-going, likable and team-oriented, Thurnau said. King, the compassionate young woman with the bubbly personality, was a sprinter, but if you needed her to enter the shot put to pick up some points in a meet, she would do it without hesitation. Thurnau also remembered Matteson's tenacity, which helped make up for his lack of experience on the wrestling mat.

"I'm sure the people who flew with Amy and the soldiers who served with J.C. felt very comfortable with them," he said. "They were both very caring, easy-going and loyal individuals."

Celoron residents now are grieving together. In a small town, everyone feels connected.

"We may not all know each other on a one-to-one basis, but when something like this happens, everyone feels the grief and shares the pain," Slagle said.

There was another common denominator between Amy King and J.C. Matteson.

"They were both small-town kids, even though they grew into fine adults," the mayor said. "Inside, they were always small-town kids who never forgot their roots."

The mourning for Matteson still remains a raw pain, just one week after his death.

But Slagle found the bright spot in the village's two losses:

"The good thing is we'll never forget them. We'll never forget those two."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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