Today is Veterans Day and naturally my thoughts are about my dad who served in the Army Air Corp. He was 20 years old at the time he enlisted in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I wrote about his service and what little I know about it in a 2016 blog post called “Remembering A Veteran.” In that post I referenced wanting to share a little about my dad through the letters of a few of his high school classmates.
When dad died on June 1, 2001, my mother and I were going through some of his paperwork and keepsakes when I came across something interesting. I found the program from his Carlsbad High School’s 50th reunion complete with addresses of his classmates listed. It piqued my interest and I wondered what would happen if I wrote to his classmates and asked them to share a story about my father with me.
Right after dad passed, it was wonderful to have people I hardly knew share stories about my father with me. Dad wasn’t able to communicate verbally for about a year and that was difficult. We always think we have all the time in the world to ask our parents questions about their past – how they were raised, what their school experiences were like and what they loved most about their lives. In my dad’s case, he shared a few things over the years but I wanted to know more. I especially wanted to hear more about his experience playing football as one of the only Mexican’s on the high school team and later, how he learned to fly planes and eventually went into the Army Air Corp. I began piecing stories together from what people were sharing with me and that’s when the letter to his classmates began to form in my mind.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I mailed the letters on September 3, 2001. Dad was 79 when he died and it had been 61 years since he graduated from high school. Some of his classmates had probably passed on too. I checked the mailbox everyday and was getting a little discouraged when many were returned to me marked “not deliverable.” But every now and then, I would get a response and my heart would jump with anticipation to read it.
Each letter I received held a glimpse into my dad that I loved reading about and in many cases, there letters confirmed for me the man he had always been. Four letters were from former football teammates. Jack, who ironically lived in Huntsville, AL when he wrote, recalled the time he and dad were in a football scrimmage and he tackled dad. Jack landed on his chin and split it open and he said “I carry a scar from it to this day!” He said dad could fire the ball in a bullet pass hitting his target. He also included a Xerox copy of the football team that I had never seen with dad on the third row. Bob, who signed his letter Rear Admiral, USN Retired, said my father was a steady friend who was always ready to help with whatever was needed. He added that he was an outstanding athlete but never one that sought the limelight, letting his actions speak for themselves. This is so true of my father.
Another classmate named Bob had apparently been in touch with dad three years prior to his passing. He said he always considered my dad a good friend and they played a lot of football together. He added that he wasn’t very big but made up for it with speed and determination. (Dad was about 120 lbs. at the time!) The part that really struck me was when he said there were few Hispanics who went on to high school in Carlsbad, New Mexico. “He was one of the exceptions which tells its own story,” according to Bob.
A lady named Nadine wrote that she and dad had a good friendship although he was shy with girls. They used to walk to classes together and she went on to talk about how much he was liked by peers and teachers, how good he was at football and what a great attitude he always had. The cute part was when she said “If I make him sound almost too good, he played practical jokes, had a twinkle in his eyes and was lots of fun in a quiet, very likeable way.” I loved how she described my dad…she added, “He wasn’t as handsome as some but better looking than most. Did he become tall? Did he keep his curly hair – it was thick and attractive.” As she ended her letter, she mentioned they had a great high school class and many of the boys ended up on Bataan in the Death March as they were with the New Mexico National Guard. I really teared up at this letter.
I’m so glad I sent these letters. Even now when I read them, they make me feel closer to my father.