I recently read a fine new book about the Korean war and it occurred to me, with the suddenness of an epiphany, that I have interviewed veterans of every major war in which American troops were involved over the past century.
This ought to make me feel older than I am.
But in reality it is mere happenstance, a coincidence of time, that has afforded me the irreplaceable opportunity to meet so many authentic heroes and to hear their stories, both the horrific and the inspiring.
When I started in the news business in 1992 there were still a relative handful of World War I veterans around, although even then the youngest of that cadre were in their early 90s.
I was fortunate enough, one afternoon in 1994, to sit down in a modest home on H Street in Baker City and listen as one of those men, Herman Steiger, described what he had seen almost 80 years earlier in the mud-slathered trenches of France.
I have never felt as privileged, before or since, to tell anyone’s story as I was to tell even a small part of Herman Steiger’s.
Steiger, who died on June 16, 1997, was a fixture in Baker City, but not because he was a veteran.
Indeed his military service as a volunteer, as commendable as it certainly was, did not define his legacy.
I suspect many Baker City residents did not know Steiger had been a soldier.
Steiger’s greatest contribution, I believe, was his dedication to the children of Baker City. It is a record that when I think of it, more than two decades after his death, still makes my throat constrict and my eyes feel wet and heavy as I consider how immense a man’s influence can be when his selflessness is so consistent, his affinity so absolute for children who are not his own.
(Herman and his beloved wife, Blanche, who died in 1996, were married for 60 years but they did not have children.)
When he retired and returned to his hometown in 1964, Steiger became the most loyal fan of Baker High School athletics — in particular of the football, baseball and wrestling teams.
He attended not only games but also practices, sitting, most days, in a lawn chair he lugged along.
When teams traveled for games and meets Steiger would talk to the coach before the bus pulled out and pass over a sheaf of bills to ensure the kids were well-fed.
He and Blanche left their estate to the Baker Sports Complex, the largest single donation to that excellent facility north of Baker High School. A baseball/softball field there bears his name.
But it is a different sport — football — and a different stadium, that I associate most directly with Herman Steiger.
That’s Baker Bulldog Memorial Stadium. It was dedicated on Sept. 13, 1985, with a plaque honoring two BHS graduates and former athletes — Claude Hines, and Steiger.
I walk past the stadium often and although most times my thoughts are otherwise occupied, occasionally, as I glance at the grandstand on the west side of the field, I remember Steiger.
I remember the one time I saw him there, clad in his red-and-black mackinaw, a slight man, his back stooped with age but his eyes still so bright and so alive as the boys — his boys, his Bulldogs — ran onto the green field below.
I remember, and I think that when fall comes round again and the boys don their shoulder pads and their helmets, that I ought to buy my ticket one Friday night so I can walk in and pay a silent tribute to Steiger.
I know just where to go. I would start at the bottom of Section C and climb the stairs to Row 10 and shuffle over to seats 1-4. That’s where Steiger sat on so many Fridays, on soft September nights when summer held on, on chilly November afternoons when the Bulldogs had a playoff game in a snowstorm.
I would sit there, maybe, if the seats weren’t taken. And if they were I would pass by and pause for just a moment and honor, as best as I can, the man whose place this was, and will always be for as long as it stands.
Herman Steiger is not of course the only veteran I’ve interviewed who is no longer around.
These days it’s the veterans of the war that followed Steiger’s war whose ranks, already thin, each day show new gaps, more empty spaces.
The youngest veterans of World War II are in their early 90s, just as Steiger was when I met him a quarter century ago.
And those who fought in Korea, some of whose sacrifices are described in terrible detail in the book I mentioned, are many of them just as old.
The book is “On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle,” by Hampton Sides.
The titular battle is the one fought at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea during November and December of 1950, the war’s first year, when the First Marine Division was ambushed, and in some places surrounded, by Chinese soldiers.
It is an excellent book. Although the Korean War is sometimes known as “the forgotten war,” in part because it happened relatively soon after World War II and in part because it had nothing like the societal effects of the Vietnam War, rarely if ever have Americans fought in such awful conditions as during the Chosin Reservoir campaign.
Hundreds of Marines and soldiers suffered severe frostbite — many had fingers, toes and even hands and feet amputated — when temperatures plummeted to polar levels.
So far as I can remember — and my computer files seem to agree — I’ve interviewed only one Korean War veteran. I met with Dick Coller in his Baker City home in 1998, when he was 68.
(Dick was killed, along with his wife, Tina, in a car crash on Interstate 84 near North Powder in December 2009.)
Coller fought at the Chosin Reservoir. He told me he slept on the ground when the temperature dropped to 49 below zero. He was, as are many veterans, hard of hearing. In Coller’s case this was all but inevitable, as he was an artilleryman who fired 105-millimeter howitzers.
Over the ensuing years I’ve met veterans from Vietnam and the Gulf War and the War on Terror, including soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was in every case humbled.
Whatever challenges I had recently endured immediately seemed trivial by comparison.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.