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Jack Zaleski, Published May 30 2010

Zaleski: Dad, uncles rarely talked about war

When I was young, Memorial Day weekend meant either a trip to Connecticut beaches or to one of the state’s forested inland parks. But one year my father and his brothers, all veterans of World War II or Korea, decided to gather the family at my Uncle Stan’s farm for a picnic and target shooting against the mountain that rose up a couple of hundred yards behind the house. It was a departure from the usual holiday routine, and, as I recall, the only time all my uncles were together at a family event that did not collapse into nasty arguing or a drunken brawl.

I was about 14 years old. My dad and his brothers started talking about their war experiences, something I’d never even heard from my father. They were lubricated by Rheingold beer and Canadian Club whiskey, which had been provided by Uncle Al, who owned a liquor store.

Sitting against the big stones of Uncle Stan’s barbecue pit, a sweating bottle of Moxie in my fist, I listened. Dad, the lone Navy veteran, had seen action aboard ship in the north Atlantic. Ships sunk near his. Maimed and burned sailors hauled aboard his ship, where he was a pharmacist’s mate. Explosions, burning oil all around. I was awed by his casual tone.

Uncles Al and Stan were infantry soldiers in Europe when Germany fell. They both spoke Polish, so were taken from their unit for translator duty in liberated Nazi concentration camps in Poland. Al, the emotional one, shed tears as he and Stan described what they saw when they entered the camps.

Chester, the youngest, was in Korea and suffered a shrapnel wound in his lower back during fighting at Chosin Reservoir, where, he said, “I’d never been so cold.” He was evacuated to Tokyo, recovered and spent the rest of the war working for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.

It was so matter-of-fact. They didn’t boast or claim to have been special, although every one of them had a box of medals for valor in battle (something I discovered after my father died). They weren’t joiners – never active in veterans’ organizations. I don’t remember them going to Memorial Day ceremonies. I asked Uncle Chester about it years later. “Just leave it alone,” he said. “Don’t want to stir it up.” And that’s all he’d say on the subject.

I often think of that one time so long ago when they were all together, talking about war. As the beer and booze took hold, their conversation slowed, eventually trailing off on the breeze beneath Uncle Stan’s ancient apple trees.

Dad and uncles are gone now, like so many of their generation. But when I close my eyes and retrieve the memory of the stories they told that day, I understand who they were: heroes.

Contact Forum Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-242-5521.