A Veteran’s Memory

A Veteran’s Memory

This weekend we will observe a Federal holiday, Veterans Day, November 11. For generations we have honored  veterans of WWI and WWII, and then Korea, Vietnam, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today is another significant date: November 9, the day when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It marks a milestone for veterans of another significant conflict, the Cold War. It was a war without bombs and bullets. Its victory was earned by the resolve of two generations of forgotten patriots, many drafted, who served in uniform. They are often overlooked, but they numbered in the millions over that long Cold War period. 

By Harry Puncec

Perhaps you’ve noticed him taking his morning walk around the neighborhood.  He takes the same route at the same time every day, clearly a person schooled in schedule and routine.  It’s easy to ignore him as he and his walk have been a fixture for as long as you’ve lived nearby.  There he goes again you might think, and wonder just what is his story.

You don’t know much about him as he’s quiet and stays near home.  He and his wife drive off for a few hours occasionally, visiting the grandkids probably, but are always home before dark.  His yard looks good as he’s often out trimming the shrubs and pulling weeds.  When you pass by on your run he looks up, smiles softly, and nods.  Not much of a greeting but friendly enough.

He has those specialty plates, “Honorably Discharged Veteran”, on his car and you wonder when he served and if he saw action.  It’s hard to imagine him lasting 5 minutes in combat but he must have been young and vital once.  Regardless of when and where he did his military duty he seems to have come home in one piece, not like those broken soldiers often featured in news stories, thank God.

His story is less – and more – than you might imagine.  He was a Cold War warrior and never heard a shot fired in anger.  His unit was always on call of course and he could have been pulled into a perilous situation overnight, but after a couple years of field training he adjusted to the tiresome routine of being ready but never sent.  During those years he never forgot that his enlistment demanded total commitment until discharge – or until that last full measure of devotion he offered was redeemed.

What he never completely adjusted to in the military was the total immersion it required.  As a child he was the center of a family’s affection and lived for its holiday rituals.  In the service he vanished into the unit, an insignificant strand in a massive cable.  He spent his birthdays, Thanksgivings, and Christmases in a foreign land within a randomly assembled troop of strangers.  After a while they became family, one with branches in every race, cultural background, and regional distinction.  Some he didn’t care for much, but most were solid guys who could be counted on in a pinch.  A few even became close friends – buddies – who he knew would get him safely back to the barracks after a night of satisfying excess.  They were still close a half century later.

The customs of the military became second nature.  He liked to stand at attention and salute the flag, a flag he now understood, and he found that being part of the unit had its own special satisfaction; his company was the best in the battalion, the battalion kicked ass, and his army still unconquered.  His bonding reached its emotional peak when he put on the history-enriched Class A uniform, an act of belonging that fired an intense pride he hadn’t expected and cherishes still.

As the years passed he changed, and he rather liked the man he became.  Acceptance of austere conditions and stern duty drove an emerging adulthood while a quiet focus replaced his teen drift.  His buddies, he learned to his intense pleasure, sensed this maturity and trusted him.  He vowed that unto death he would keep that confidence, not as a hero but as a man devoted to his own.

After discharge, as he raced to catch up with old classmates who had ducked service, he completed the education he now embraced and landed a job that supported a good life with wife and kids.  It was an agreeably comfortable life, for which he was grateful, but one without the adventure and intensity of the military.  No matter as he never forgot what once was.  Now when he takes that walk in retirement, nodding to neighbors and smiling at the kids at play, he knows that in a tiny way in that time long, long ago helped guarantee the security of this day, and reserved his honored place in it.

Harry Puncec served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962. This essay was first published in the Denver Post online edition on November 10, 2009.

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Connections Run Deep

Connections Run Deep

My wife Stormy and I are visiting a special friend this week, with such an unusual connection I wanted to share part of the story with you. I say part, because the story is still being written with each passing day. How is love expressed, and what does it do? Deep and lasting connections are what make communities strong. We value our Southern Gables friends and neighbors, and families everywhere do the same – in rich countries, poor countries, in deserts and jungles and war zones, it’s true: people making connections is how love comes into being and makes the world a better place. 

This story started when Stormy and I were working in the Peace Corps, learning the language in our initial training… 

Dani, one of my Bulgarian language teachers from pre-service training in the Peace Corps, grew up in a town called Lucky, in the beautiful Rhodope mountains. The Bulgarian place name “Lucky” (really Лъки, or you can spell it Laki) doesn’t mean lucky; it just sounds like that to our English ear. She lived in a big house shared with several generations of her extended family. The house itself was built by, added on to, and passed down by the family through the years. By the time we met Dani she was an adult of course, working on her own in a different city, but her childhood memories were tied together with cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents who gave structure and meaning to everyday life and learning.

Individual families had their own space in the big home, but the overlap and shared spaces of the family home brought a kind of closeness that is hard to imagine for those growing up in a “single family” residence….

Most homes are two or three stories, with two or more generations living in the house. It’s usually one generation per floor: newlyweds on the top, parents and grandparents below. From generation to generation, down and out….

When we visited the home of our friend Miladin’s sister in Velingrad we saw the same pattern in a big old family home, feeling the many-layered ebb and flow of life with members of three generations, sharing hearty meals and long conversations…

The house was in the traditional style with the different generations each living on their own floor. Each floor was, or could be arranged to be, a separate apartment. Grandma and Grandpa lived on the ground floor. Over the generations people grew up and moved down…  As more and more people found jobs in distant places, it seemed the pattern of passing family homes along in the traditional way would gradually become less prevalent.

Living close together with different generations gave depth and dimension to the meaning of family, putting down roots that held firmly. That was one of the traditions and ways of living that we admired about Bulgaria.

Well, we’ve been back in the States for some years now, but memories of the deep ties coming out of those big family homes came back to us recently. Dani, our former teacher, told us about her cousin Elena. She had grown up with her in that big house in Lucky. A close connection.

Elena had moved to the US and become a citizen, was living and working happily in DC, had come to Denver for a vacation and was injured in a terrible accident. She had been in a coma for weeks when we heard the story. We got permission from her family to visit her in the hospital, since Elena didn’t know anyone else out west.

We were happy to be a part of her recovery, at first only offering words of support and comfort and not even knowing if they were heard or understood since she was heavily sedated. As she gradually awakened over a period of weeks and learned who we were, we were thrilled to witness her progress as days turned into weeks, then months. She regained her ability to communicate by nods and gestures at first, sometimes a treasured smile, then by writing, and finally a voice. As she worked to regain mobility, painfully and slowly, it brought back memories of struggles and triumphs of our own, when friends and family members supported and cheered us.

We’ve grown to think of Elena like a niece, maybe a little like a daughter, someone with a deeper connection than just that of a mutual friend. We experienced joy with every advance in her therapy, and we rejoiced when she could get back to her real life. “Everything starts with friends” – remember that concept? Put that together with the idea of that big extended family house that she and Dani grew up in, and the connection reaches across the miles and years to always.

This story was first published in and is reprinted with a few updates, with the permission of… me. Our “honorary niece” Elena recovered from her injuries and we are looking forward to seeing her again after all these years. 

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