During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on July 20, 2011.
When I was a young boy and our extended family gathered to celebrate holidays, it was common for the adults to congregate in the dining room and play pinochle while we kids romped around the yard or (when it was raining) watched The Hopalong Cassidy Show on our 19” DuMont TV console.
But not always. Sometimes my uncle Vic would break away from the adults and teach me a trick or two. It was Vic who showed me how to press two fingers to my lower lip to create a wolf whistle. It was Uncle Vic who taught me how to tie a cat’s cradle, how to spin a button on a string, how to make a coin disappear, and dozens of other childhood tricks and games.
I often wondered why my uncle so readily slipped away from the rest of the adults—just to spend time with a kid. One day, long after he had passed away, I asked my mother why Uncle Vic was as likely to spend time with me as he was to mingle with his peers. Vic’s actions were particularly curious given that his wife, my aunt Mickey, was such a vibrant, vocal personality. I couldn’t imagine how she ever ended up with such a quiet man.
“Don’t you know what happened to your uncle?” my mother asked. “When my sister first met Vic, he had been the life of the party, oozed confidence, and looked the part of a movie star. Why, when he and Mickey walked into a restaurant, the crowd would hush and stare at them. It was as if celebrities had entered the room.”
“And then what happened?” I asked.
“World War II.” She explained. “It happened to all of us—only more so to Vic. You see,” Mom reluctantly continued, “your uncle joined the Army and was immediately sent to the Philippines where he was put in charge of a platoon. It was the job of Sergeant Victor Veloni and his platoon to clear the remote islands.”
“Clear them of what?” I asked.
“Of enemy soldiers who stayed behind to cause havoc with the American troops and Philippine civilians. Surely you’ve heard about them. You know, the soldiers who perched in palm trees—some for years—waiting for a chance to shoot anyone who came into view. Your uncle Vic and his team would land on an island and then do whatever was required to remove the tree-dwelling snipers.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
I could tell that Mom didn’t want to talk about the details.
“Vic and his team would police the island until someone would shoot at them, and then they’d deal with the sniper.”
“They walked around until someone shot at them!” I exclaimed.
“Mostly,” Mom replied. “It was the best way to draw the enemy into the open.”
I could hardly imagine trudging around a steamy, tropical island in full military gear, while waiting for a bullet to pierce my helmet. It’s beyond comprehension.
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” I asked.
“Dangerous?” Mom continued, “Vic ended up losing every single man in his platoon and half of the replacements. One by one, he lost his dear friends and comrades as they fell prey to sniper fire. Our prayers were answered when Vic came home alive, but he never forgave himself for doing so.”
“And that’s what changed him?”
“When the war ended and your uncle returned to Seattle, I hardly knew him. He was the same handsome man who had gone off to war, but the vibrant, fun-loving Vic that used to live behind that chiseled face was no longer there. The horror of watching his friends die, the tension of waiting for the next bullet, the self-imposed guilt for not taking one of his own—it killed the Vic we knew and left behind the quiet, withdrawn man you grew up with. Not everyone who survived the war actually survived the war. Vic went off to battle, but somebody else came home.”
I had no idea about any of this. I was just glad my uncle Vic had spent time with me. I just wanted to know why he had always been so kind, gentle, and attentive.
Earlier this month, as teenagers from the local Boy Scout troop posted a flag in our front yard to help celebrate the Fourth of July, my thoughts turned to the scores of people—like Vic—who have sacrificed in so many different ways, so that you and I can enjoy our many freedoms. As the scouts unfurled the flag, my mind turned to an earlier day with a different group of scouts I had taken to a military cemetery. As these young men and I gathered on a grassy hillside just outside San Francisco, we stood by the graves of decorated soldiers and read aloud the detailed stories of the selfless acts that had earned each fallen soldier both his medal and his grave.
Today my thoughts turn to not only these young men and others who have fallen in the field, but also to those who have returned home—many injured, all affected, and some, like my uncle Vic, transformed into a completely different person. When TV news commentators talk of the number of wounded and killed in current battles, or when statistics pop up on the screen to summarize what’s happening overseas—I don’t see the numbers. I don’t think of the statistics. Instead, I see an image of my uncle Vic. It’s not the image you might imagine. It’s not of a crowd gathered to pay homage to his sacrifice. It isn’t of a general draping a medal around his neck. Nor is it of a band trumpeting his glory. It’s far more humble—and more important—than any of that. It’s the image of a little boy holding a cat’s cradle string, and sitting on the lap of a true American hero.