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STAFF SERGEANT IRVING ZIFFER
a/k/a Ziff the Sniff
a/k/a Uncle Icky
July 3, 1918 – November 21, 2008

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Irv Ziffer, the LAPD narcotics detective in my books, is named after my uncle, a decorated WWII combat veteran, the most selfless person I ever knew, and unquestionably one of the Greatest Generation’s greatest heroes.

In my books he is known as Ziff the Sniff.

In life everyone called him Uncle Icky.

He was born and raised in a tough neighborhood in upper Manhattan. He was an outstanding athlete, a devoted son and brother, and a true patriot. At 18 he enlisted in the NY National Guard. In 1940 his unit was federalized. A year later came Pearl Harbor, and he was in the first wave of troops to be sent to the Pacific.

He spent the next four years in combat.

If you asked him where he was stationed, he’d just smile. He was never stationed. He went from island to island to island. He was a moving target. One day in Saipan, he didn’t move fast enough. He was shot.

They told him at the hospital that he needed six months to recover so they could get the shrapnel out. Then he’d be shipped back to the states. He said no. He was a platoon leader. He wasn’t going home while his men were still on the front lines. He went back into combat.

Over the course of the war, he was offered two battlefield commissions, but he turned them down, because that might mean he would have to operate from behind the lines, and he wanted to be on the front with his men.

Then he got wounded again. Okinawa. Artillery blast. He recovered from his wounds and went back into combat until the war ended.

He spent a total of five years and five days in service. I once asked him if he were brave, patriotic, stubborn, or stupid. His answer — all of the above.

I don’t think so. There are no stupid heroes.

Uncle Icky was a Staff Sergeant with Company A, 102nd Engineers, 27th Division. He was a distinguished Member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, receiving two Purple Hearts, as well as the Presidential Unit Citation, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Campaign Medal with Bronze Star, the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross and Star, and many other citations for his bravery, leadership, and patriotism.

The photo above was taken at the Veteran’s Day Parade on November 11, 2007, by Craig Ruttle, a photographer for The Associated Press. Within minutes it was on the home page of Yahoo, Fox News, and countless other news websites. While I have never met Mr. Ruttle, I would like to thank him for capturing the image of a true American hero that has become deeply meaningful to our family, and a fitting public tribute to be shared with the world.

Heroes have their human side, and Uncle Icky was as human as the rest of us. He drank scotch, he shot craps, he told dirty jokes, and he played the horses. And yet, his generosity, compassion, positive attitude, humor, and humility made him a role model to every person he ever met.

He never married. He lived a simple life. He was a traveling salesman, and as a teenager I got to take some of those road trips. He taught me how to drive, how to read the racing form, how to bet, and most important, how to shrug it off when your horse loses. And he had the gift of spontaneous humor and perfect timing that endeared him to everyone. In his last year, with numerous hospitalizations, he always had doctors, nurses, and hospital personnel making extra trips to his bedside simply because he could raise their spirits, make them laugh, and brighten their day.

At the age of 70, Uncle Icky developed macular degeneration and became legally blind. The effects of the artillery blast took a permanent toll on his hearing. But nothing stopped him. He got a job working at his friend Tommy McAllister’s newsstand in Queens. With his red-tipped cane, and two battery-operated hearing aids, he traveled by subway until he was in his late eighties, and the family finally laid down the law.

On Sunday, May 25, 2008, his six semi-legitimate children — five nephews and a niece — threw him a 90th birthday party at The Turf and Field Club at Belmont Racetrack. Friends, relatives, and a handful of surviving comrades from his war days — a hundred and twenty people — flew in from every corner of the country to celebrate the life of this incredible old soldier.

Everyone knew it was his last hurrah, and it was a day to remember. One he got to anticipate, to experience, and to cherish. It overwhelmed him, and I know it sustained him in his final days.

On Sunday, November 23, 2008, Uncle Icky had a true American Hero’s Farewell, complete with a military Honor Guard, a bugler sounding Taps, followed by the precision folding of the United States flag that draped his casket. Thirteen folds, representing the 13 original colonies, leaving only a triangular blue field with white stars — the shape emblematic of the tri-cornered hat worn by the Patriots of the American Revolution.

And finally, the flag was presented to the hero’s sister, my Aunt Pearl, with those heart-wrenching words, that you hear in movies, but rarely get to experience in life:

This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as an expression of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.

It was a touching private tribute to a great American. But I’ve decided that the old soldier deserves a public tribute as well. And so, I’ve posted this page.

At heart, I am a private person. This website is my concession to the fact that I have a public side. People read my books. They want to know something about me, and so I have the requisite author website.

This entry will probably be as deep into my private life as I ever go. I share it with you, because Uncle Icky was a man who put his family and his country above himself. Which means he lived his life as much for you, as he did for me.

So, I guess he’s not just my Uncle Icky. He’s yours.

You're invited to sign Uncle Icky’s guestbook at legacy.com.