Thursday, June 18, 2009

Around Town: Our Gunny

There was a similarity to the family gatherings. The weather would be hot. The beer would be cold. The houses sparkled with the preparations. Casseroles, prepared by the women. Enchiladas. Chilaquiles. A barbecue staffed by one of the men. Babies. Toddlers who stared wide-eyed at the big kids who plotted and played.

This was a family with more women than men. More sisters than brothers. More daughters than sons. Yet, at each gathering, the male cousins invariably would gather.

Each one was a Vietnam veteran. Some had started their families. Some had not. Some had been wounded, but others had not. Some had stories to tell. Others were silent.

In their center was their uncle, the Gunny.

“Uncle Tony” Mendoza, the youngest of five sisters and one brother, was a World War II hero. Barely 17 when he enlisted, he was badly wounded at Iwo Jima, but lived. He came home to recuperate, a celebrity within the family. advertisement

No surprise that most of his nephews enlisted in the Marine Corps.

We did not often talk about Vietnam at our house. At the family gatherings, our young son would gravitate to the group that sat with his great-uncle Tony. There was talk of battles and hardships, of lost comrades and joyful homecomings, and of weapons and ballistics.

I will probably get in trouble for repeating this, but part of Uncle Tony’s particular charm was that he openly described how, during peacetime, he got busted down to the rank of private. The subtext of the story was the corporate culture of a peacetime military.

Our son loved that story.

Uncle Tony worked his way back up to his old rank just in time for Korea. In 1950, he fought in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. There, under freezing conditions, 30,000 U.N. troops under American command faced off in violent, small unit fighting against 120,000 Chinese soldiers. Uncle Tony was wounded. The injury dogged him for the rest of his life, a fact which he did not advertise. The warrior did not want a medical discharge.

In 1963, Uncle Tony retired from the Marine Corps and joined the Barstow Republican Club. He liked the desert. He hiked and became a rock hunter. Lots of us have necklaces that he made. He also taught me to shoot, for which I am grateful.

Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of D-Day, Uncle Tony died. He was 82. He left his wife, Mary; children, Anthony, Kathleen, Jennifer and Peter; eight grandchildren and 10 great- grandchildren. And many nieces and nephews. All the nephews are vets.

The song says that the streets of Heaven are guarded by United States Marines. Right now, I reckon, Heaven is pretty safe.


ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. E-mail her at La Cañada Valley Sun: La Cañada Flintridge, California

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