Central Valley Honor Flight veterans John Arambel and Ervin Toews reminisce
The sum total of my knowledge of my dad’s time in the service can be wrapped up in a story my mom used to love to share as a point of reference for why Dad was, well, Dad.
According to Mom, Dad kept an entire barracks up with his snoring. The snoring was so loud, Mom would say, that they had to give him his own space to sleep in so the rest of the men could rest peacefully.
“It’s true. That was during basics,” Dad recently shared when I asked, just to verify that this wasn’t one of those stories an ex-wife likes to tell of her ex-husband.
Being the only daughter, I just figured the story was true because 1) There was a time when I lived with Dad. I can remember the snoring. It was so loud it could wake an ocean. And 2) It sounds like something Dad would do based on who he is.
And who Dad is is quite a character.
Dad is 87-year-old Korean War Army veteran John Arambel of Los Banos.
Dad loves Dave Brubeck. Dad is the reason I think Mel Brooks is a god. Dad loves to eat dark chocolate but ONLY if it’s from Trader Joe’s and ONLY if it’s 70% cacao.
Dad worships the Warriors, tolerates the 49ers and knows the Giants so well he can tell you who’s coming up from Sacramento before the player has been notified.
Dad is a fantastic dad but he’s an even better grandfather.
Our relationship hasn’t always been what it is today.
There was a chasm between Dad and I that is common when you’re separated by proximity and divorce.
Looking back, I fully admit I was a pain in some very unpleasant places.
But you grow up. And you take responsibility for the choices you made.
Now our relationship is one of gut-busting laughter nearly every time we visit.
Dad’s philosophy is a solid one: “You’re running out of money and running out of time, so you better start laughing.”
So I tease him about his three-haired comb-over. And Dad cries, “Elder abuse!”
The last time the two of us took a trip together was when I was about 7. We went to Knotts Berry Farm.
Dad flirted with a statue of a saloon girl sitting on a wooden bench. And I giggled because it was something that only my dad would do.
“She’s cute and she listens to everything I say. She also doesn’t mind if I put my hand on her bare knee,” I fondly remember him joking.
The 13th voyage of the Central Valley Honor Flight carried 66 veterans from 10 different counties and their guardians. Three women and 63 men represented the Army, Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps/Air Force and ranged in age from 62 to 96.
When I found out that Dad had been chosen to take a seat on the Central Valley Honor Flight heading for Washington, D.C., I immediately raised my arm to be his guardian for the three-day adventure.
“You’re not taking Ernie or Paul or Robert,” I told him on the phone the morning he called with the news, throwing my uncle and cousins under the bus. “The only way you’ll get into any trouble with the Secret Service is if I’m around, and we both know that’s why we want to go on this trip.”
But if I’m being completely honest, there was a bigger reason I wanted to go.
I lost Mom in 2010. And when she died, so did the opportunity to ask her all the things I wanted to know about her that I never did. Like why she liked raising sheep so much? Or why she graduated from college a thesis away from a master’s degree but never really put that part of her education to use?
This trip, I thought, was going to be about putting some missing puzzle pieces together in the relationship between me and Dad.
This trip, however, became something so much bigger than that.
I could blame Dad for not talking about his time in the Army. Or I could grow up and tell myself, “You never asked.”
So that’s what I did.
Dad was drafted in 1952, shortly after graduating with a degree in field crops from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
He had an opportunity to work in soil conservation for the state of California, but the draft changed that.
“I didn’t think I was gonna be drafted because in my left eye I’ve only got 5% vision, and I was positively sure I would be 4-F,” Dad says.
During his physical examination, Dad explained his lack of vision, the result of a dog bite when he was a toddler, but, “I told him (the examiner), ‘I can only see the big E,’ and he says, ‘That’s good enough. You’re drafted.’
“I was shocked,” Dad exclaims. “My two buddies who went with me, one was drafted, but the other guy, he was in perfect physical condition – at least I thought he was – and he became 4-F.
“I says, ‘How the hell’d that happen?’ Dad explains. “He says, ‘I told ’em I had TB (tuberculosis) as a youngster and that eliminated me.’ ”
During basic training in San Luis Obispo, Dad had the chance to attend cryptology school. But because his parents were born in the Basque country in France, Dad wasn’t allowed to participate.
“They didn’t want anybody attached to foreign-born people, so … that disqualified me right off the bat.”
Dad was attached to the Signal Corps where he worked as a pay clerk and spent his duty in Europe.
“We landed in Bremerhaven, Germany,” he says. “Took us 11 days to cross the Atlantic. It was a two-stacker, the USS Buckner.”
From there, Dad was transferred to France, where he spent nearly two years helping build American Air Force bases in an area between Nancy, France, and the German border.
“We had to live in seven-man pup tents,” Dad says. “The worst conditions we had were, that was French communist … people working there. They were always cutting off our water supply. That’s when I learned how valuable water is. They’d take us in once a week to shower. They did it just to harass us.”
For the last six months of Dad’s two years, he was transferred to Landstuhl, Germany.
Because Dad is a Korean War veteran, it makes sense that visiting the memorial that honors those who served during that conflict would make the biggest impression of the memorials we visited – which included the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery – during this 13th voyage of the Central Valley Honor Flight.
“Look at their faces,” Dad says of the 19 larger than life-size stainless steel statues of a platoon on patrol drawn from each branch of the service. “It’s like they’re starin’ right back at you. Like you wanna say, ‘Hey, buddy. I’m here. Let’s go.’ ”
When Dad’s service was complete, Dad returned to the hills outside Los Banos where our family ran sheep and took over the spot left empty by his younger brother, Mitch, who had been drafted by the Army and was bound for Okinawa, Japan.
“I didn’t have any job, really, and … I felt obligated to stick around and work for my dad, so that’s what I did,” Dad says.
When Dad told me this, that he felt an obligation to stick close to home, I realized I had felt that at one time, too.
When I left Fresno State in 1998, I had plans to be a journalist working on the East Coast, far away from Clovis, where I grew up.
But life happens, and I felt obligated to stay closer to home, not far away from my mom.
“I’m sorry I waited this long to ask you about this part of your life, Dad,” I said while we talked about his time in the service.
“Well, I never told,” Dad says.
That’s when I realized maybe Dad and I have a lot more in common than I first thought.
Three days. Eight stops at sites in Washington, D.C., set at a furious pace. Two cross-country flights between Fresno and Baltimore. More than 120 veterans and their guardians, most over the age of 60.
With that much going on, it’s hard to believe that anything more than exhaustion could be accomplished by our motley crew.
But something fairly significant happened. That bond of brotherhood that occurs between veterans turned all of us on this trip into more than just a unit. We became a family.
We spent a hectic three days connecting with men and women from 10 different counties.
I spent it watching Dad interact with veterans, something I’ve not been witness to before. Because that connection between veterans – that brotherhood – is deeper than the bond between friends, I left the trip feeling like I might have gotten more from the experience than Dad did.
Dad was SCARWAF, which in military language means Special Category Army Reassigned with Air Force.
“There aren’t many of us,” Dad says. “We’re hard to find.”
So imagine our surprise when Dad and I discovered that while we rode the bus from site to site in D.C., we had been sitting across from a brother.
Dinuba Army veteran Ervin Toews was a cook and baker stationed in Kimpo, South Korea, during the Korean conflict.
I didn’t think I was gonna be drafted because in my left eye I’ve only got 5% vision, and I was positively sure I would be 4-F. I told him (the examiner), ‘I can only see the big E,’ and he says, ‘That’s good enough. You’re drafted.’
John Arambel, 87, Korean War army veteran from Los Banos
And Toews was SCARWAF.
“Oh, man!” Toews says, smiling huge and looking almost relieved when learning that Dad was SCARWAF just like him. “Oh, I’m so glad!”
“Golly, what a small world,” Dad says.
“I’ve only met one other SCARWAF,” Toews says. “He just passed away, too. He was based … near Sacramento. He moved to our community, … went to the same church. But that’s it.”
“I’ve only met one other, too,” Dad tells Toews. “But it was later, … it was after I had a heart attack, … when I did rehab in Merced.”
Toews brought his daughter Connie Christensen of Clovis as his guardian on the Honor Flight trip.
“He’s been needing this so bad, to visit with somebody,” Christensen says after watching our dads connect. “This couldn’t have been a (better) finale to this trip. To relate … to what they’re talking about.
“Every day, he keeps saying, ‘SCARWAF, SCARWAF’. Now, he’s finally found somebody. This is great!”
Christensen and I share a connection because like Dad, she says Toews always has been proud of his past in the military, but often didn’t talk about it.
“It has been difficult for him to talk about it, because what he did … he’s very sensitive,” Christensen says. “But then – once he got past that – he’s starting to write” about his life and times in the service.
Each day of this trip was like this, making connections with people because we share a friend or experience in common.
We met Dick Brem, a Korean War Air Force veteran who lives in Madera, and his son Mike of Turlock, who is great friends with a former co-worker of Dad’s when he worked as an insurance appraiser in Turlock.
We met Hailey Haux, who grew up in Clovis. She now lives in Washington, D.C., currently on active duty in the Air Force working out of the Pentagon as a photojournalist. Haux volunteers to guide the Central Valley Honor Flight when it comes to town, because, she says, “This is my group!”
It just so happens that Haux’s grandmother and my mom worked together at The Big Fresno Fair for years. I grew up knowing her grandmother Bonnie.
“I can’t believe I’ve met you,” Haux said, tearfully.
Now we’re home. It was a harrowing trip. About 15 of us had to stay an extra day in D.C. due to illness that swept through our group, including our pilot. There was a five-hour wait at Baltimore/Washington International Airport while a new pilot was found.
There was a five-hour flight that included fun-house like turbulence.
There was me trying to get TSA to give my dad a “full-cavity search because while he’s cute, he’s also wily, and I think he mentioned carrying a billy club in an unfortunate place on his body.”
They, instead, threatened to put me on the no-fly list if I didn’t get moving.
And if I could do it all again, I would say, “Give me 30 minutes to pack and I’m there!”
Because it was me and Dad, our first trip to our nation’s capital, and seeing the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument from afar and being awed by what men and women could do when they want to honor our country but have fewer luxuries to work with.
It was me and Dad making new friends who feel more like family, who we teased unmercifully because they look just like the star of the film “Manhunter.”
(I’m sure there are worse things than being compared to William Peterson. Hope we didn’t make the trip too unbearable for Clovis resident and guardian Jim Dobbs.)
But mostly it was me and Dad. Getting to know each other. Making sure we’re always connected no matter where we are or what stage of life we’re in with no regrets.
Cherie Arambel is an online content producer for The Fresno Bee.
Central Valley Honor Flight
The next voyage of the Central Valley Honor Flight takes off Oct. 9-11. If you’re interested in participating as a veteran or guardian on future flights, volunteering for the organization or making a donation, visit www.cvhonorflight.org