I think of my dad every day, but at this time of year, he comes to mind more more poignantly. Frederick V. Pica died in August 2015 at 87. This will be our second Veterans Day without him. Dad was a staunch patriot who loved this country very much. He served as a corporal in the Korean War and was especially proud to be a veteran of the U.S. Army.
How he loved to tell stories of his days in the service! He was assigned to the 809th Engineer Aviation Battalion, a construction platoon, as an electrician.
In later years, many of our family gatherings were blessed with stories about “Swindler” or “Nervous Newman,” some members of his company. He told us how he’d stand out at night in the freezing cold, scared to death, while on guard duty in Korea, or about how proud his mom in Franklin Square was of her son the solider.
When our son and daughter were growing up in East Meadow, they, too, heard many military stories or songs. I think my son was about 3 when he would belt out these stirring lyrics: “The chicken in the Army, they say it’s mighty fine; one jumped off the table and started marking time!”
But none of the stories Dad told elicited more moans and groans from us than the story of the young girl and the candy. It was usually repeated at our house in Franklin Square when my older sister, younger brother or I was being particularly bratty or selfish.
It was Christmastime in Korea, and my dad’s company was on a train traveling to an encampment. The soldiers had gotten a holiday treat in their rations: a few pieces of gummy candy. A crowd of children waited at one station, hoping for a handout from the GIs. Most of the soldiers tossed their treats into the crowd. My dad noticed a young girl standing in the back, unable to get any candy because the older children always got to it first. Leaning out of the train window, he called her over and placed his candy directly into her hand. She smiled at him with gratitude for her treasure. How he loved that story!
As he got older and more reflective, my dad often voiced his uncertainty as to whether his years as a soldier in Korea had served a purpose. He didn’t see much combat, serving more in support roles away from the front lines. “I don’t know how much good we did over there,” he’d say. Or, “I hope we made a difference.”
As a matter of fact, the night before he died, my husband and my father had this very conversation at the kitchen table. We were visiting my folks in Florida, and on Aug. 2, 2015, the family gathered for a wonderful dinner for my mom’s 81st birthday. That night, Dad, Mom and I chatted around the kitchen table while eating bing cherries. (I think I complimented him on the neat little pile he made with his cherry pits.)
Dad was recalling his years in the service and said he hoped his sacrifices served a greater good. Finally, it got late, and he said good night and went upstairs to bed. Ten minutes later, I checked in on him and found him on the floor. Emergency responders found that he had died.
When I think of how he wondered whether his two years in the military had made a difference, I remember the story of the girl who received a precious gift that Christmas so long ago. I like to think that she remembered my Dad’s thoughtfulness and that as an adult, she tried to pay it forward. I like to think that his small act of kindness grew to be quite a heroic deed.
Dad, rest easy, because you did make a difference. You showed us how to be a hero by the power of your heart.
Reader Karen Smith lives in East Meadow.