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November 3, 1944, 11:30 p.m., off the Philippine Islands. The torpedo hit the cruiser broadside. Machinist mate 1st Class Paul Sokalski was in a compartment below deck. Metal shards from the explosion blasted into his legs, chest and face. There were 40 guys with him -- guys he played cards with, joked with, ate with. He and two others got out. Thirty-seven others didn't.

There was a primary election Tuesday. In Buffalo, four citywide Council seats were up for grabs, plus eight district races and the comptroller's contest. The city isn't doing too well; a lot of people complain about the politicians. Yet fewer than one of three registered Democrats bothered to vote.

Don't say it was just a primary, it didn't matter. Democrats rule Buffalo. You win the primary, you breeze in November. That's what almost always happens.

Something is wrong. Very wrong.

Freedom Isn't Free. That's what the big sign says outside the Veterans Hospital on Bailey Avenue. That's where Paul Sokalski was Wednesday. A lot of the guys who limp through the doors, or get wheeled through, know what the sign means. Freedom cost them a leg or an arm or their eyes. Freedom to, among other things, vote.

Sokalski is a tough, wiry cord of a guy with an anchor tattooed on his forearm. He walks like he's got a stone in his shoe. A few months after taking shrapnel, a kamikaze pilot bulls-eyed on his cruiser. Flaming gas and oil leaked below deck, scalding Sokalski's head and back.

He came out of the war with bum legs, burns and nightmares -- and a good idea of why he got them.

"That's what we fought for, so you could vote for who you want," he said, "and not somebody they just put in there and you have no say."

In East Timor, people voting for independence get hacked with machetes. In Iraq and other dismal outposts, a voice raised in protest gets you a bullet in the head. People there are dying to vote. Most of us can't be bothered.

It might be that way here, the law of gun and machete, if Sokalski and millions of others hadn't done something. The rest of us paid $6 to see carnage from a cushioned seat in "Saving Private Ryan." Sokalski got a first-hand look.

"Young people don't know what liberty is," he said, standing in the hallway as guys with white hair creeped by, some steadied by younger arms. "It's a TV and computer world. The war was over too long ago. It's still fresh in the minds of people like me, but we're dying off."

We're too soft, too easy, too used to what we've got to care about it.

I'm the first guy to complain about politicians whose only principle is survival. About machine politics keeping fresh blood out of the system. About elections where the "choice" is between Career Hack A or Trough-Feeder B.

I've heard all the complaints -- my vote doesn't count, all politicians are the same, the system stinks.

I still haven't heard a good reason not to vote. Not from somebody who's young enough and healthy enough to get to the booth.

Some politicians are better than others. Anybody who pays attention, who reads the newspaper and believes what's in it knows who the better ones are. It's not a huge mystery. But when two out of every three people registered don't show up, a lot of the bottom-feeders -- because they're backed by a party machine or rode somebody's coattails -- stay in office.

If your vote doesn't count, why will Dennis Gorski spend a million dollars to get it?

Until they stop counting every vote, every vote counts.

Here's the rule: You don't vote, you can't complain about what politicians do. Simple.

This isn't really about Ms. LoTempio or Horrigan, Franczyk or Pitts, Nanula or Bellamy. Not really. The names, in a sense, don't matter. It's bigger than any candidate. It's the concept. People died to make sure the Nanulas and Franczyks would someday have a right to run, that we would always have a right to choose.

To ignore that or throw it away or say you don't have the time is a slap in the face of Paul Sokalski -- and hundreds of thousands of others not as as lucky as him.

Sokalski saw a psychiatrist Wednesday at the VA hospital. The nightmares, they never stopped: The sound of the kamikaze bearing down on the ship, the stink of burning oil as it coated his body. When he smells popcorn popping in oil, or hears a single-engine plane, the horror reel plays again in his head.

He's still paying the price for freedom. Most of us don't even know what he bought.

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