Yet another old soldier died this week. Sadly, Howard H. Braunstein died on 10/09/2002 at the age of 80. If you missed knowing him, you missed knowing a wonderful man with mesmerizing stories you might have found difficult to believe. In 1996 Howard traveled to Peachtree City, GA from Monterey , CA with his wife while she underwent cancer treatments. That’s when I met him; the dad of the wife of a West Point classmate.
Funny, back then he was just a dad; an everyday kind of dad from the greatest generation. Howard grew on me and I think his daughter, Barbara Curasi, knew that. At first, I didn’t spend much time with him, perhaps because he was older than I or because I wanted to mingle with the crowd that so often gathers at his daughter’s home or maybe it was something else – perhaps I was avoiding his conversation. But like I said, Howard grew on me.
He carried a special wallet. It was brown, a little puffy (well, kind of swollen) and just a little bit worn on the folds and edges. It was special because inside that wallet were the keys to the stories he loved to tell. He had a knack for telling those stories that kept you from forgetting them. Naturally, well naturally for Howard, his family, and me, the first key he generally would find in the wallet would be his military identification card. It was located at the front of his wallet and was the start of almost any story line. It declared in a matter-of-fact sort of way that Howard was a retired Army officer. If you couldn’t understand the relevant data, Howard would tell you he was a retired colonel, an O-6.
You would also learn that he spent 32 years, 9 months, and 20 days in the Army of the United States. On occasion his memory would err and he would tell you he spent 33 and a half years in the service, but that was just a minor detail. He began that long career as a veterinarian, looking after the welfare of the service mules. You have to marvel at a man who was in our Army when mules were used somewhere else besides at an Academy football game.
If you stuck around the conversation long enough, you would learn a lot more. After only a few moments with him, I came away with the certain belief that he was likely the only Army veterinarian who transferred to tank commands and then switched to cavalry units before becoming an aviator.
It was while he was assigned as a cavalry commander on the Fulda border in then West Germany that he became an Army helicopter pilot…and at that point in the story he would look for and find the card signifying his cherished membership in the Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA). That invariably would lead to talk about his earlier flying days when he flew with Sammy on bombing missions over Libyan WWII.
If you were around Howard much, you might have been present when he would find a lovely black & white picture of his wife tucked towards the back of one of the pouches. Sometimes that picture was difficult to find; he didn’t always put it back in the same spot. She was a wonderful wife and mother he said. She died of cancer a few years ago.
Sometimes when he was looking for something else, he would come across his Spaulding sporting goods business card. That would launch him into stories about running golf tournaments on the West coast, and then he would reminisce about the number of golf clubs he had acquired over the years. That would lead to the story about how he stored those clubs in his garage. He hadn’t been in the garage for a while because he was staying in a hotel to be closer to Babs’ house. When he was living at the house with the garage, he often would go play golf. When he got back, Sammy (his dog since WWII days you may recall) would be there. I remember his stories about Sammy always made Howard’s eyes brighten and his make his smile broaden.
I suppose I could go on about the stories Howard would tell and to which I patiently listened, but I will save that for the gatherings at his daughter’s house when it will seem appropriate to pause and remember the old soldier. Thinking back now, Howard was a just dad and just a husband who happened to be just another American soldier who just told wonderful, endless stories. I miss him and I miss his stories. I wonder now if perhaps I inaccurately recalled the details of his long Army career. I wish I could walk around the corner and see my friend Howard flipping his wallet open…that would make today just like yesterday and I could ask him to correct my faulty memory. I’ll have to wait, I guess, to get things straight when I meet your dad, my friend, and our soldier on that great helipad in the sky.