A Game, A War, A Legacy
Dad and I celebrating Veterans' Day at Applebee's in Johnstown in 2011. He passed away less than four months later.
You couldn’t count on much if you were a youngster growing up during the “Great Depression” years. Money was short, non-essential materialistic items were rare, common foods were a treat, and even dreams at times were shattered. Such was the case with Dad when he played six-man football at Wilmore (PA) High School in the early forties.
Dad, Chuck Potchak - Wilmore, PA - circa 1940
To begin school at age seven was a common practice at that time, but it left nineteen year-olds void of a diploma at the end of their junior year in high school. That alone would be no problem, but WW II was about to break and Dad and his five brothers all joined the Allied Campaign. Completing school and participating in sports were put on hold. Life was about to change big-time for him and his whole family. Uncle Sam was in need of help. And getting the call to serve was accepted without reservation, but with plenty of apprehension.
Returning after service in WWII: Top row - Steve Potchak, Chuck Potchak and Pete Potchak
Bottom row - Frank Potchak, John Potchak and Mike Potchak
My grandma (baba) proudly displayed a flag containing six stars (one star for each son) in her window during the war. (A replica of that memento is framed and on display in my home today.) I can’t begin to fathom the mental anguish and worry she endured. As a parent, I can only dimly imagine the anxiety she went through. All six veterans are still listed on the military Honor Roll in Wilmore, and I am thrilled to say that all six boys returned home safely from their duties.
Dad never had much to say about his service years, only that he did what he had to do at the time. But his dream of playing sports during his senior year was gone. And so were some carefree years of growing up in Cambria County.
In today’s world, we are frequently reminded of the many sacrifices a veteran makes in the line of duty for his country. But we may have forgotten that those sacrifices existed on the home front too. Time was taken away. Dad’s senior year of football was never to be a reality.
Although I never felt pushed into sports while I was in school, I knew Dad was pleased and proud that I did choose to participate. His subtle encouragement was undeniable. He would change shifts at the mill if need be to make sure he saw every Friday night game. And the look on his face on senior night, as he and Mom posed for a picture with me in uniform, was proof-positive that he savored that moment.
I am sure of Dad’s emotions, because years later I experienced the same feelings when my son started to participate in high school football. Words cannot describe the pride I felt on his senior night. As the photographer snapped that picture, I could sense the passing of tradition, a legacy from father, to son, to grandson.
And his Pap was there too - as always - in the bleachers. His presence brought together three generations of gridiron participants that evening.
I never had the feeling that Dad was living out his sports career through his son and grandson. Instead, I got the distinct impression that he was relieved that we didn’t have to give up a game we loved to play because of a war. After all, most parents simply want their children to have it a little better than they did – and no parents want to see their sons and daughters risk their lives while serving. Time, opportunity and a game were not taken from us, and we are eternally grateful.
In 2005, my sister and I treated Dad and Mom to a bus trip to the WWII Memorial in Washington DC. As we strolled slowly through the memorial’s walkways, Dad’s eyes welled with tears and he stopped numerous times to wipe them dry. Most of the time, he could not speak when we asked him a question about that era. I noticed a visible lump in his throat, as he would pause, and try to respond. Most questions were tacitly answered with a nod. His silence and reverence seemed to show respect for the very same memorial that was built to honor him (and all other WWII Veterans). As we passed by the exit, we asked Dad if he wanted to go through one more time – this time by himself. He simply replied, “No, I couldn’t bear to walk through there again.”
Although visibly shaken, Dad thanked my sister and me numerous times for that trip. But it is I (we) who owe him appreciation and gratitude. For my dad and all veterans, we thank you for your sacrifice of time and your service to our country. Our admiration is beyond words.
My son and I could be no more grateful and proud than we are today. We feel very privileged and downright lucky -- after all, we had the time and opportunity to play football, we were spared from war, and we inherited the legacy -- the love of the game.