Vickroy: Before surgery, father-in-law shares stories
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy September 23, 2013 9:58PM
Homer "Vic" Vickroy with the railroad watch he bought in 1947. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 25, 2013 6:21AM
As Homer “Vic” Vickroy lay recovering from frostbite at a field hospital near the German border, his comrades in arms were being pummeled with artillery.
Over the next week, nearly all of the men in his company in the U.S. Army’s 290th Engineering Combat unit would either be killed or captured by the Germans.
Among the dead, his closest friend, David Rishel.
“They said it was the coldest winter in (recent) European history,” Vic said.
Without warm, dry clothing to change into, the men on the frontlines near Saint Marie-aix-Mines, France, simply endured the brutal January 1945. The group of bridge builders had been sent there to relieve the 28th Division after it experienced heavy casualties. World War II was en route to winding down in Europe, but the enemy was determined to go down fighting.
By the fourth day in their foxholes, the men were nearly frozen. Their lieutenant ordered them into a nearby farmhouse to warm up.
Inside, Vic pulled off his boots and watched as his frozen, blackened feet swelled so quickly that it became impossible to get the boots back on.
“When the lieutenant saw my feet, he became furious,” Vic said. “He didn’t want to lose another man from the frontlines but he didn’t have a choice. He ordered me to the field hospital.”
It would be months before Vic would learn that as he was praying for color to come back into his feet, the men he’d trained with, patrolled with and joked around with for months were enduring constant enemy fire. Rishel, who Vic had met and befriended during basic training, would be among the unfortunate to earn a Purple Heart during the onslaught.
“My platoon was wiped out,” he said. “Having frostbite saved my life.”
And a miracle saved his toes. By the time doctors returned a few days later, the color had come back and the decision to amputate was repealed.
A confluence of storms
Fast forward 68 years and once again, hell is breaking loose just outside Vic’s door. Inside, there is a quieter, yet equally life-threatening storm approaching.
September brought heavy rains to much of Colorado, sweeping away lives and homes. The TV news gives round-the-clock coverage to the disaster. Meanwhile, Vic is facing a dark cloud of his own: A surgeon is about to remove a swollen, bleeding, possibly cancerous kidney that stopped working some time ago. But at a weakened age 88, doctors are not bursting with confidence that the operation will go according to plan. They warn of possible stroke or heart attack.
At best, the plainspoken surgeon said, he has a 50 percent chance of surviving.
On the nights leading up to the day of surgery, family members gather in Vic’s Aurora, Colo., home and do their best to comfort him and show support. They hang out and watch football. They eat cake and talk about the godawful weather.
My husband and I are among them.
Finally, either because this is in my blood or because I am no good at this cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof thing, I suggest Vic sit at the kitchen table and tell us his stories.
Not everyone is comfortable talking about themselves. Many people go to their graves with their tales of adventure, heroism or remarkable endurance stowed neatly inside themselves.
I’ve learned that with a little coaxing, you can extract those anecdotes so that they can be relived and shared. History books can only provide a backdrop to the way life was. It’s the personal stories that establish understand across time and space. They connect us and transcend generations, enabling us to live for a time in someone else’s world.
En route to the kitchen, Vic stopped only to grab a lock box from a cabinet. It contained milestones — his Army discharge papers, his railroad engineer’s watch that he bought in 1947, his original Army pocketknife.
For the next two hours, Vic talked about growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, about walking 3 1/2 miles each way to school every day, about milking cows and shelling corn so they could burn the cobs for fuel.
We chatted about his Army days; how he came to live much of his adult life in Oak Forest, where he raised his three children; how he would outlive all six of his siblings; and how, unbeknownst by much of his family, he would go on to become a world traveler, stepping foot on every continent except Antarctica.
The quiet explorer
There’s not much left to fear in life once you’ve been through the horrors of war. And so Vic lived with the kind of stoicism that only the truly fearless can master — knowing he could handle whatever fate threw his way.
After the Army, he enrolled in the University of Illinois’ then-new pre-veterinarian program, only to learn two years into it that the school was giving preference for the 20 coveted openings to kids from Illinois. Because his family had moved to Indiana when he was in high school, he knew his chances were nil. He switched and earned his bachelor’s in agricultural sciences.
In 1947, he landed a temporary job with the Union Pacific railroad. After he was laid off, he headed to Decatur, to look for work with the Wabash railroad. That company offered him work in Chicago.
He liked Chicago, the group of guys he worked with, the money he was making.
Eventually, he married, had three kids and built a small home in what was very rural Oak Forest at the time. He stayed there after his divorce, until he retired. By the end of his career, he was engineering the Metra commuter train from Orland Park to Chicago. He also had acquired his options trader license.
Though he lived frugally, his one indulgence was travel. He wanted to see the world. And that he did.
He’s been to South America five or six times — one time catching and eating piranha along the Amazon. He’s been to Australia six times and once to China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
He tented three nights on the Masai Mara game reserve in southeast Africa before heading south to see Mount Kilimanjaro and spend a lavish night at William Holden’s Treetops Resort.
Because his mother often talked about the time she witnessed a solar eclipse, one year, he headed to the Atacama Desert in Peru to watch an early morning eclipse.
Among the more memorable trips, he said, were the ones he made to Machu Picchu in Peru and to Epinal Cemetery in France, where David Rishel is buried.
“The only regret I have is that I didn’t see Easter Island,” he said.
During his travels, he took special note of Carson City, Nev. “I just loved that climate and the mountains nearby,” he said. So, after he retired, he moved there and stayed for many years, until his older brother convinced him to move closer to him in Denver. Robert Vickroy died soon after.
The story continues
Much to the amazement of the surgeon, Vic sailed through the operation. That evening, after he regained consciousness, he complained of being hungry – a good sign indeed.
He is on schedule to turn 89 in a few weeks. There’s still a long road ahead, but he doesn’t seem worried. If there’s one thing Vic doesn’t shy from, it’s a long road.