The best story I never reported — sadly, too, because it was right there in front of me for many years — was that of my Uncle Isaac Martinez. Friends, family and even journalism mentors often urged me to report and write this story. But I couldn’t.
I liked Isaac and his brother, my Uncle Frank, too much to dig relentlessly into a great but personally sensitive story that I felt would do little more than open a wound from which he spent most of his life trying to heal.
Isaac was my father’s stepbrother from my grandfather’s second marriage, and he had maintained his original surname though Frank had taken on that of his stepfather. And, though neither Isaac nor Frank were related to me by blood, they were closer to me than some of my uncles who were. How close were they? Well, in the mid-1950s Frank gave me his entire baseball card collection, which included several Mickey Mantles. Among them were no fewer than four Mantle rookie cards whose value I would not realize until many years later.
And the story about Uncle Isaac that I refused to explore?
In 1950, several weeks before his 18th birthday, Isaac Martinez walked into an Army recruiting office and enlisted for military service. He was sent to Korea as part of the 2nd Infantry Division and there, six weeks after his arrival, Isaac was captured at a place called Kunu-ri. He was a prisoner of war at the Ch’ang-Song POW camp for almost three years.
My memories of Isaac’s POW experience were the tearful letters that my parents received and that my mother read to us. I remember little about the letters themselves except the complaints about the food. Mostly I recall the impact those letters had on my family and on his mother, Doña Isidra, who developed Parkinson’s disease and almost died. I remember those years as if they were years of mourning. Our home was filled with burning votive candles, and much of our time was spent not only at Mass on Sundays but also at rosaries and other prayer meetings on weekday nights.
Then one night in 1953, it was as if the mourning suddenly ended. Someone in an Army uniform visited our house to tell us that Isaac was coming home. Later that day there was a flood of telephone calls and strangers with notebooks and cameras. My father’s picture appeared in the Waco News-Tribune the next day with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on his face, beaming at the telegram the soldier had delivered. Isaac’s release changed life at our house.
His mother had been living with us since the tornado, and Isaac joined us when he finally arrived home amid fanfare and a hero’s welcome. The city and Baylor held a big reception for him at Waco Hall on the campus of Baylor University, and pictures of Isaac ran in the newspaper for several days. A local Chevy dealership gave him a beautiful new canary yellow convertible. Other stores sent him new clothes and shoes. He was introduced at a Baylor home football game, and he was given season tickets to the city’s minor-league baseball team.
Isaac was a war hero. I would later learn that he had helped keep alive several fellow POWs in a concentration camp known officially as Camp 5 Pyoktong and called “Death Valley” by many who were incarcerated there.
But I also learned there was a price to pay.
There was an Air Force base then on the outskirts of Waco, and every time a plane passed overhead or could be heard even at a distance, Isaac would run out of the house to see it and identify it, no matter what time of day or night or what he or anyone else might be doing. Isaac was now home, but a part of him was still a POW.
My father complained that Isaac was not good company, and sometimes he and my mother were understandably embarrassed. Once, when our parish priest joined us for Sunday dinner, Isaac reminisced about the food he had been forced to scavenge for in the concentration camp. Worms, ants, weevils, bugs and even maggots. Those who didn’t scavenge, he said, died. As kids, of course, we got a child’s delight in hearing these kinds of stories and others that Isaac told. For adults, I imagine they wore thin after a while.
It was almost as if the adults failed to consider the full experience Isaac had endured. Had they forgotten the horrible conditions and the suffering he had endured as a POW, including the battering inflicted on him with clubs, rifle butts and pistols? Often he had been left unconscious and near death. Somehow we forgot. Eventually, Isaac married a beautiful woman from Waco who evidently understood and loved him better than his own family. The first thing she got him to do was to buy a farm near Rosebud and move out to the country.
My mother visited him often until her death in 2011, and she once mentioned that Uncle Isaac had asked her for my address and might write to me. He sent me birthday and Christmas cards. I sent him copies of some of the books my friends had written. Then one day he asked if I would send copies of my own books. I did but told him I didn’t want him to think I was trying to get him to talk about his life.
“You know my life,” he wrote back. “I just wanted to be like your daddy. To go to war and return a hero. But it didn’t really work out that way for me.”
“Dad had a great war,” I said to him. “You had a horrible war.”
Those were stupid lines, I know, and I half expected him to write back telling me so. Instead he wrote back, saying, “All wars are horrible.”
He was right, of course.
Uncle Isaac died May 22. He was 87.