Today’s the day

When I first learned of the Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight project early last December, I could not have imagined that within a span of less than five months, the first flight would be taking off from the Sioux Falls Airport filled with 110 World War II veterans and 52 guardians, staff and press people.

Yet here we are … today is a big day. It’s a big day for the men and women who selflessly served their country in its time of need. This Honor Flight came about not only as a way to get our World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial built for them, but as a way for us here in southwest Minnesota to say thank you.

Thanks to all veterans, we have the freedoms we enjoy today.

Attending the pre-flight banquet Thursday night in Luverne, I got teary-eyed more than once as I saw our local heroes arrive. Having had a chance to interview about one-fifth of the contingent going on this inaugural flight, I know how much they have been looking forward to this day.

It has been such an honor to interview these men and women over the past 19 weeks and share their stories with our readers. I have learned so much from them … not just about geography (only a couple veterans chided me when I had to ask where islands like Tinian and Roi were located), but about life in general.

To hear how these men and women lived through the war, came home and made a life for themselves and their families is truly inspiring.

I have wonderful memories of the people I’ve met in the past five months … chatting with Jake Dekker at his dining room table, interviewing Art Broekhuis over the telephone because it was blizzarding outside (he was the only veteran I didn’t interview in person), sharing homemade cookies and tea with Johnny Johnson, being scared of Elgie Rachuy’s big German shepherd (I stayed in my car until Elgie came out of the house and called his dog away from my car door), laughing with Don Moffitt and his wife (she was quite the jokester … telling me they had "five kids, I think" only to be corrected by Don that they had three!), and last, but certainly not least, seeing the love that Hooley and Lorraine Huehn have for each other after all these years.

To share a love like that (I noticed this in several of the couples I met) … that’s what life is all about.

I know I’ve left people out and I apologize for that. It’s late, we have a busy two days ahead in Washington, D.C., and ultimately … I just want to say thanks for the memories and I look forward to making so many more on this journey with our southwest Minnesota heroes who truly are part of the greatest generation.

Busy day

It’s been a busy day at the Daily Globe today so I don’t have time to write much for a blog. Please watch for tomorrow’s newspaper, in print and online, for the final World War II veteran feature prior to the inaugural Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight. This week’s feature is a husband and wife – he served in the Marine Corps and she as a Navy Nurse – during World War II. They are Clifford "Hooley" and Lorraine Huehn of Round Lake.

Also, I’ve spent most of today tracking down results from the area FFA chapters that competed at the Minnesota FFA Convention earlier this week in the Twin Cities. Region VI is proud to have two of its members elected to positions on the Minnesota FFA officer team for 2010-2011.

Anyway, I better get back to work. Have a great day … if it weren’t for the wind, it would be perfect outside!

Special series drawing to a close

This afternoon I will complete my last interview with a World War II veteran (actually it will be two veterans) taking part in the inaugural Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota trip this Friday and Saturday.

The special series began on Dec. 24, 2009, to honor our World War II heroes and build momentum for the roughly $136,000 that needed to be raised for their trip to see their memorial in Washington, D.C. Amazingly enough, the people of southwest Minnesota opened their wallets and their checkbooks and the money came pouring in. Not only did we have enough money for the first flight, we are well on our way to collecting the funds for a second flight this fall.

Of the 19 World War II features published in the Daily Globe since Christmas Eve, I have written 18 of them. I can honestly say the men and women I’ve interviewed along the way have been truly inspirational. Their stories have been fascinating to hear, and their war memorabilia truly amazing. (I had chills up my spine while holding the pocket watch Don Moffitt lifted off a dead German soldier.) I hope I was able to write their stories in a way to not just inform our readers, but give them a sense of pride for the men and women who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.

I am so proud of these veterans … the struggles they endured at war, and – for some – the struggles they endured when they returned to life and family here in southwest Minnesota. I know firsthand how appreciative they are to the people who have made this inaugural flight possible for them.

On Friday, I will accompany the 110 World War II veterans and dozens of guardians on the flight to Washington, D.C. My job will be to capture the scenes, the emotion, the comments and the stories in print, while Daily Globe photographer Brian Korthals will record the moments in pictures. Certainly, this is an amazing assignment for both of us … one that we do not take lightly. The images and text of our trip will be compiled in a special tribute that will publish in the Daily Globe on May 8.

While part of me is a bit nervous about the days ahead, the excitement is building. I’m sure the same is true for our veterans!

My hope is for sunny skies, good health among our veterans and a two-day trip that produces memories of a lifetime. It looks like the weather may already be in our favor … the forecast is for sun and 80 degrees on Friday, and partly cloudy and 72 degrees on Saturday.

The family tree

It has been a long-running joke in the Daily Globe newsroom that I’m either related to, went to school with or just plain know everyone there is to know in this town I’ve called home for most of my life.

It’s a pretty far-fetched joke, but my nieces and nephews who have joined me out and about might agree. With a wave here or some friendly chit-chat there, I’ve been told more than once by the kids that, “You know everybody!”

Between the people I’ve met through work and those I remember from the hallowed halls of Worthington High School, Worthington Area Junior High and West Elementary, it amounts to a lot of people.

That brings me to my family.

A while back, I was talking with my parents about Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight and the weekly interviews I’ve been doing with veterans. My dad was but a child during World War II, but he completed a tour of duty in the Army during peace time.

Now, my dad has a lot of relatives. Oh, he only has one brother and one sister, but both of his parents were from large families. Grandpa Henry was one of eight children, while Grandma Hattie was one of 12. Between the lot of them, my dad has 50 first cousins.

You may think that’s not very many, but there’s a good reason for it. There were three Buntjer kids that married three Aielts kids for, you guessed it, three sets of double relation! My grandparents were one of the Buntjer-Aielts combinations. Aielts, by the way, is spelled three different ways among the 12 siblings and now, their offspring.

Anyway, getting back to the 50 cousins. I was curious about our family’s role in World War II. Mostly, with our German heritage, I wanted to know if we had family that fought against the Americans.

It appears as though we didn’t, thank goodness! Our German ancestors were among those who fled the country for a better life in America.

My dad did, however, have nine of those 50 first cousins serve in the United States military during World War II.

That’s when the story grew interesting.

Of the nine, three are still living … Fritz and David Aielts, and Wilber Jacobs. I haven’t heard their stories of World War II, but I’d sure like to.

And then there are the other six … all of whom I expect had fascinating tales as well. They included Ray Buntjer; Merle Buntjer – he was shot in the arm in the war; Leo Buntjer; Marv Aielts – he lost his leg in battle; and brothers George and Ray Habben – the two that were taken as German Prisoners of War and survived the hell of a prison camp in Africa.

If there’s one thing I’ve realized during these past two months of World War II veteran interviews, it’s that we should be recording and sharing their stories before it’s too late.

It’s too late for me to interview most of my family members who battled for this great country of ours. I sure would have liked to hear their stories.

Geographically speaking

Geography has never been my strong suit.

Oh, I can correctly identify where nearly every state in the United States is (I get a little fuzzy on Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware), but if you ask me to point out Zimbabwe or Uzbekistan, expect a blank stare.

I don’t know what I was doing during geography class, or even what year I took geography in school. Don’t even ask who taught it, I can’t remember that either. It’s obvious to me now that it apparently didn’t mean that much to me while growing up.

Perhaps I thought of it as I thought of Algebra … I’m never going to use this when I get out of school, so why must I waste my time learning about it.

Well, after I grew up, I realized Algebra wasn’t so much about being able to solve complicated mathematical equations as it was learning simply how to solve problems. Algebra taught me to keep at a problem until I found a solution. Some times it takes longer than others!

While I managed to make it through the college-level algebra classes, I’m still miffed at the professor who taught World Regional Geography. There are two very good reasons for my attitude … No. 1 being that he failed me (It was the first class I ever flunked … ever!) and No. 2, my college advisor told me after I failed the class that it wasn’t even required for my major. Chalk it up to a student who thought he’d help me with orientation and signed me up for physics, biology, chemistry and world regional geography all in my first semester at SDSU. It’s a wonder I survived!

Any way, I shall offer no excuses for my big, fat "F" … unless, of course, you want to hear me whine!

What I didn’t learn in World Regional Geography, I’m learning today. Do you suppose I can use that to try and get my transcripts changed? Yeah, probably not.

So, apparently, if I’d applied myself in geography years ago, I would have learned that the Philippines are southwest of Japan, and that the Aleutian Islands are near the Alaska Peninsula.

I’ve learned both over the years in my interviews with World War II veterans.

Now in the midst of a special project to keep the Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight in the news, I’m interviewing a World War II veteran each week and writing his story to share with readers of the Daily Globe. I’m learning all about the places they went, the battles they fought and the triumphs they reached.

But to come back home (I’ve written nearly all of the veteran stories from home because it’s extremely quiet there), and begin to share the story, I’ve had to look up maps and charts on the Internet. The maps were OK, but they focused on a very specific area. I needed something that could show me where the Philippines were, say, in relation to Minnesota. I needed a world globe.

It just so happened that my mom had one … packed inside one of her basement closets … still in the box with the red clearance sticker marking the $5 find.

Though I’m only "borrowing" the globe, I can say that in the few days I’ve had it in my home office, it’s already been well worth the $5 she paid.

I never realized there were so many islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t know the Philippines was just a cluster of land masses. Oh, the veterans have been telling me they are … but I didn’t see it for myself until just a few days ago.

I just may pay my mom the five bucks and keep the globe at my house. Not only is it helping me trace the travels of the veterans I interview, I think it makes my computer room look worldly. It may even make me look smarter.

Oh, laugh all you want … I can’t hear you anyway!