AZTEC — Good fortune, friends and family have made the difference.
That's the assessment of two Aztec veterans who reflected on their careers and current situations on Veterans Day.
PETE PALKO, AIR FORCE
For Pete Palko, flying more than 1,100 hours in Vietnam as part of a 30-year career in the Air Force is a source of pride. What he values most, he says, is the health and happiness of his wife and four grown daughters, his friends and living an honest life.
The son of immigrants from Poland, Palko, now 82, has flown to every continent but Australia. Not too shabby for a guy whose first job was in third grade setting up pins at a neighborhood bowling alley in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa.
"We worked till 11 p.m. at night and walked home," Palko said. "And my parents expected As and Bs, which I got. My parents were proud of who they were and hard work was part of that."
Palko went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and, spurred by the draft, joined the Air Force ROTC, eventually flying supply planes and managing more than 700 employees at Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque. He earned a master's in education and taught ROTC classes while in the service rising to the rank of full colonel in 1978 before retiring in 1984.
"I flew supplies on C-47s, which were small -- could only hold 9,000 pounds -- in Vietnam, from Saigon, landing in every base in the region," Palko said. "I guess the bad guys were only interested in the bigger targets because I never once got shot at or had a scrape at all."
Palko figures he spent more hours in the sky each year than a full-time worker does on land.
"The best part of my career was flying," he said. "But it was all possible because of (my wife) Jo, raising our children, making sure our family was cared for while I was away." Palko and his wife have been married 57 years, a number he beams with pride to note, even more than the medals, awards and dog tags he has collected in a shadow box frame that hangs on the wall of their hilltop apartment at Good Samaritan Society - Four Corners Village.
MERLIN "MERLE" SORENSON, MERCHANT MARINE
Merlin Sorenson shares Palko's appreciation for what matters most, and is thankful for getting through an often perilous life as a merchant mariner unscathed. His mother died when he was 1, and his dad spent two years at Folsom State Prison. Sorenson was taken in by a Wisconsin family, rescued, he believes today, from a tyrannical aunt who once withheld all food until he could tie his own shoes at age 3.
Sorenson, now 89, remembers the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was a student at Susan Miller Dorsey High School, in South Central Los Angeles.
"The next day, all the nisei and sansei (children of Japanese immigrants) were gone, like that," Sorenson said. "Nobody thought about it. We were an integrated school, but it was a stark change in the normal routine. Life had changed."
Those families were taken to interment camps.
With the draft, Sorenson and a friend thought enlisting in the U.S. Merchant Marine would keep them in the area, at a training facility on Catalina Island, right off of the California coast.
"We were told to board a train at Union Station, in downtown Los Angeles, and we thought we'd ride as far as Long Beach or San Pedro and take a short boat ride over to Catalina," he said. But before the two California kids knew it, they were more than 2,700 miles east, rowing in whale boats in the dead of winter at the U. S. Maritime Service Training Station at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.
"Before long, we set sail in one of the biggest convoys of hundreds of ships across the Atlantic," he said. "I was an able-bodied seaman then when we docked in Casablanca after it was taken." The ship he was on took German and Italian prisoners to Baltimore, Md.
Sorenson rose to officer before the end of the war.
Once, on board a ship, Sorensen was interrogated by the FBI, questioned about his biological surname, Hubler.
"The guy asked me, 'Hubler, that's a German name, isn't it?' And I said, 'Yeah, so's Eisenhower.' That ended that conversation right there," he said, chuckling.
"I loved being a seaman and would have stayed longer had I not been so happily married," he said. Sorenson was married to his wife, Gloria, from 1945 until her death three years ago.
"The life on the sea, and all the flotsam and jetsam of the many people on the crews. Many of them griped and complained and fought, but I had a blast. You can make your own fun in life."
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.