Category Archives: Veterans Day

Letters About My Dad

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.

Dad is the third row on the left end – he is “unidentified” but his teammate wrote his name into the photo from the paper for me.

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.   
  

Honoring One Who Served

My dad, Praxedis S. Zuniga – posing on his plane. (1945-46)

Tomorrow is Veterans Day…a day set aside to honor the service of all US military veterans.  Today I was watching a DIY program and the man in the segment was talking about his father’s service and how when he died recently, he was buried at Arlington Cemetery.  He said just driving through the cemetery and seeing tombstone after tombstone that it really hit him…this is the price of freedom.  All these men and women who have served, and in many cases gave their lives in the field of combat.

I thought about the time I visited Arlington several years ago and remember having a similar feeling as I walked through and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier.  Reading some of the headstones was somber as well…so many young lives.  Their young ages made me think about my father.

My dad was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Army in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His occupation at the time was listed as fountain clerk in his hometown of Carlsbad.  He had already been taking flying lessons and wanted to be a pilot prior to enlisting.  Eventually he became a pilot instructor for the Army.  My mother always had a picture of dad visibly stationed in our home.  It’s a picture of dad in his uniform…you know the old saying – “I love a man in uniform.”  Well, I always loved this photo of my father in his uniform.

Praxedis Sotelo Zuniga – 1945-46

As I got into researching our family tree and history, I was fortunate enough to accumulate some more great photos of dad in uniform and by his plane.  For his memorial service in 2001, I created a scrapbook of these photos along with newspaper clippings that my grandmother had saved all these years from dad when he was star quarterback for the Carlsbad Cavemen football team.  He was so young…and so handsome!  Most of our family had never seen these photos either so it was a great memory to watch everyone’s reaction to them at the service.

I can’t think of a better way to honor my dad on Veterans Day then to share these photos today.  Our family is so proud of his service and how it shaped his life.  Happy Veterans Day.

Remembering A Veteran

My dad...in flight training

My dad…in flight training

Today is Veterans Day.  From the time I woke up this morning to just a few minutes ago, every other social media post today has been about Veterans and remembering their contributions to our country.  It has been a welcome diversion from the recent election and with the divisiveness of what has transpired, it really got me thinking about my dad and his brothers and their sacrifice as Mexican-Americans to our great country.

I don’t actually know a lot about what my dad and his brothers went through when they each joined the service but I do know about the time period when they enlisted and served.  I also know what my dad experienced when he was growing up in Carlsbad, New Mexico through letters I received from several of his classmates/football teammates after he passed away in 2001.  I’ll share those remembrances in another post.  But suffice it to say, it wasn’t all fun and acceptance back then.  My dad didn’t talk much about it, choosing to just tell certain stories without any reference to discrimination or unfairness.  I think that was his way of just working hard and getting ahead.  I admire that in him because later in life, it served me well as I grew up overseas and in Puerto Rico during my formative years.

Dad's Air Force pins an his pilot log books.

Dad’s Air Force pins an his pilot log books.

I wish I knew more about dad’s time in service to our country.  I regret that I didn’t talk to him about this but then again, there is no guarantee that he would have shared anything about this time either.  I’ve heard that sentiment from a number of people who I know.  These are memories that have remained locked away to some of those who served.

I love looking in my dad's pilot log books and seeing his handwriting as he documented his training...

I love looking in my dad’s pilot log books and seeing his handwriting as he documented his training…

What I do have are photos, dad’s pilot logs and a few other artifacts from those years.  I also have two yearbooks from his pilot training in Texas.  One in particular is very touching because dad had placed check marks beside the photos of his friends who didn’t make it back during the war.  I didn’t know what these check marks were until my mother shared that with me several years ago.

One of dad's training yearbooks....

One of dad’s training yearbooks….

So as today closes out, I am grateful for the sacrifices of my dad, Praxedis Sotelo Zuniga, his brothers – Felix and Lorenzo Zuniga – and all the faces in the two yearbooks made for our country.  Some paid the ultimate sacrifice and that is humbling to see in my dad’s yearbook, the faces of those brave young men who did this for our freedom.

On this Veterans Day, God Bless the brave men and women who have served this great nation of ours…

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.