Over the weekend this country lost another American hero from World War II and my family lost a dear friend. Joseph Weiner was 17 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. From there he fought his way across Europe and in the process was awarded two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars.
I first met Joe when I was still in high school. What I remember more than anything else was his friendly personality and especially his sense of humor. Joe always had a smile on his face and his jokes were the life of the party. I will never forget him asking me to think about the theme of a local shopping center that somehow managed to include a BJ’s, Siemens, and Dicks.
Like most kids growing up along the Jersey shore, I spent most of my free time during the summer months on the beach. Growing up in a beach community you eventually learn where to look for certain people and Joe was no exception. I could always count on Joe sitting in the same spot with his wife Esther, his step-daughter Janeen and often with my parents as well. My favorite days, however, were when Joe was alone and we had a chance to talk. During my high school years it was the war in Europe that held my interest and imagination. I knew that Joe served in the war and that he took part in the Normandy invasion. I wanted nothing more than to talk with Joe about his experiences, but early on I understood that this was not going to happen. He offered little more than a short list of battles he had taken part in and I did my best to respect his privacy. Even after Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released Joe showed no interest in revisiting his past.
The one exception took place on the beach years later after Michaela and I had met. It was just the three of us. Perhaps it had something to do with Michaela being German. Joe talked for what seemed like and hour about a weekend furlough in Paris in late summer ’44. It certainly wasn’t the kind of war story that I had anticipated as Joe described spending the weekend above a bakery with two young French girls. At one point a woman seated close by, who was previously occupied by a magazine, desperately strained herself to pick up every last detail from Joe’s story. It was that good. In that moment Joe was 17 years old again.
Later my wife thanked Joe for his service, not simply for helping to liberate her country, but for making it possible for the two of us to meet. I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment over the past two days. Regardless of how Joe remembered his experiences in WWII, I hope the thought brought him some comfort.