Two dads, two paths, one country

It is hard to describe how it feels when you hear your lost loved one’s name read out loud. Tomorrow, many from our community will gather to honor those who gave their lives for our country. And we will honor those veterans that we lost last year. Each has a different story, a different path filled with the joys and sorrows of everyday life. Those families who will be there tomorrow to honor lives lost in 2020 will have an extra layer of emotion. Most of their loved ones were laid to rest without our traditional customs that help us start off the grieving process.

The Memorial Day after my dad died was the toughest my family had experienced. We were still working through the fog of grief. We were also beginning to learn more about the number of Vietnam vets who were dying of the same cancer that took him from us in his mid-50s. It felt tragic. It still does. He enlisted straight out of high school in the Marines to serve three tours in the country. The times he came home for leave, he was greeted by protesters at the airport urinating on him, throwing things at him. He was called a baby killer in our home by a guest who had received a college deferment.

After he was honorably discharged, he came home, got a job and started his family. He was my dad, so I am totally biased, I know. But he was a great man. He took care of his parents, his siblings, his nieces and nephews, friends … he was always generous with his time, talent and his financial resources. He created a home where everyone wanted to be. Our place, Castlen’s Mountain, was his dream. And there was never a weekend without a get-together. Everyone was welcomed; it didn’t matter what you looked like or where you were from. You were invited as long as you were respectful. With a basketball court, horseshoe pit, shooting range, four wheelers, gardens, ping pong, pool, darts … there was no reason to go anywhere else. So we pretty much didn’t. My connection with the outside world was through my teachers, my family and my friends. As I entered high school, I met one of those friends whose house became a second home for me.

Tomorrow, I will be with that friend. Her dad died last year on Christmas Day, 16 years to the day after my dad.

Her father was older than mine, and he arrived in Owensboro as an adult. But like Dad, he spent his childhood working on farms. Dr. Armendarez was the first person with a doctorate I had ever met. Born in San Pedro, California, he was one of 16 children. Along with his family, he worked in the fields, picking whatever was in season. He always valued education and passed that onto his family.

He was a brilliant man, having patents, speaking several languages and doing cutting-edge classified research for the U.S. government. As a US Air Force officer, he was a nuclear science officer at the beginning of the atomic age and traveled around to nuclear sites overseeing detonations. After his service to our country and completing his education, he came to Owensboro so that his beloved wife, Charlene, could be close to her family.

At Brescia, he was considered by all who knew him to be a scientific genius. Therefore, to ensure he would continue to respect me, I did not take any of his classes. His brilliance is not what I remember most though, and I never knew the extent of his service to our country until he passed away.

What I remember most was that he always took time to make me feel like I was welcomed and like I mattered. I was 14 and struggling socially with the whole high school transition. I felt invisible. But there, I felt seen, like I could do big things.

He also made time to sing, to dance, to play guitar for us or to let me play the piano while we all sang show tunes or folk songs. This was an important part of my life. I learned that no matter who you are, it is okay to show joy. Through the years, he would say each time I would see him that he would dance with me at my wedding. And he did. That photo is in my wedding album nearly 30 years later.

While these two men came from different generations, different states, different branches of the service and completely different life callings, they both served our country with honor. They were both patriots that symbolize what makes our United States military a source of deep pride. Joe Castlen and Peter Armendarez, thank you for teaching me what being an American is all about.

Semper Fi


By Candance Castlen Brake