Over the Hill

Veterans Day sparks memory of a fallen classmate

I’m writing this on Wednesday. Today is the holiday that’s called Veterans Day in the United States. It’s called Remembrance Day in Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth of Nations. And it’s known as Armistice Day in Belgium, France, New Zealand and Serbia.

When I was a boy, we Americans also called it Armistice Day. It commemorated the armistice that ended World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. But by 1954, we had also fought World War II and the Korean War. So Congress and President Eisenhower changed the holiday’s name to Veterans Day to honor the veterans of all our wars.

Whatever it’s called, it’s the day when I usually remember Mario Pomponio. He was the valedictorian of the graduating class of 1944 at Fairport High School in New York state. I was a freshman there.

America was then fully engaged in World War II. Food, gasoline, tires and more were rationed. Millions of young men enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces. The president and the vice president of our high school’s Student Association were both drafted before they could graduate.

They must have been older than Mario. He managed to finish his full term as Student Association treasurer and to graduate before entering the service. He probably never noticed me. He was a prominent member of the senior class. I was just a little freshman who wore bow ties.

But I noticed him, particularly one day when some boys playing softball asked him to umpire. He reluctantly agreed. They were soon arguing with him noisily over his calls, but he stuck with his decisions. I noticed, however, that their criticism troubled him.

Mario graduated that June and soon became a soldier. The following January Private Mario Pomponio was killed in France. Could he have become a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or a scientist? We’ll never know.

Another thing to think about on Veterans Day is what happened after World War II. It was entirely different from what happened after World War I. After that first war’s armistice in 1918, the victorious Allies demanded that Germany pay billions of dollars in war reparations.

That added to the German people’s humiliation and anger. It may have contributed to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his leading Germany into World War II.

Compare those World War I peace terms with America’s Marshall Plan after World War II. The United States provided $13 billion to some of its allies and former enemies for rebuilding. (The Soviet Union and its satellites rejected American help.)

Conciliation seems like the intelligent way to foster peace. Remember what President Lincoln did as the Civil War was ending. On the day after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, Lincoln asked a band at the White House to play “Dixie.” If only he’d lived to guide Reconstruction. We might be a less-divided nation.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.