Reunited after 44 years

By William Kibler

The drive Thursday morning from the Amtrak station on 11th Avenue to Perkins restaurant in Pleasant Valley was telling.

Wayne Delozier of Altoona was at the wheel, and instead of turning left to access 17th Street, he turned right and went to 13th Avenue, adding a few unnecessary blocks to the trip.

Then he stayed in the left lane of 17th Street, which meant he had to switch to the right lane at an unfavorable spot in the school zone to be in position to turn right on the boulevard.

And after he switched lanes, he left his turn signal on for a quarter-mile.

It’s easy to get flustered when you’re reconnecting with someone you care about after 44 years.

Bob Stuller served with Delozier in an Army engineering unit in the states and in Vietnam during the 1960s, but they hadn’t seen one another since Stuller flew home from Southeast Asia in 1969.

On Thursday, seven months after they first got back in touch by phone, they reconnected in person when Stuller arrived from Washington state after a 3-day train trip.

The station attendant met Stuller – who uses a mobility scooter – with a hand-propelled portable lift.

As if postponing the longed-for interaction with his buddy, Stuller first spoke to Delozier’s wife, Gloria, who was on the station pavement.

“You weren’t supposed to be here!” he called, jokingly, as the attendant settled him on the lift.

Delozier, meanwhile, was gazing, head a little sideways, at his old friend – as if trying to reconcile the trim soldier he once knew with the man in his late 60s who had come to visit.

Stuller’s scooter was on the station platform when they finally hugged, then hugged again, then shook hands – as if the forms of greeting were inadequate for the occasion.

“It’s been a long time, buddy,” Delozier said.

“How you doing, dude?” Stuller asked.

The train pulled away, and a conductor called out the half-door, “Hey, have a good one! God bless you!”

Gloria arrived first inside the station lobby, traversing the 10th Avenue expressway by way of the stairs, while the men used the elevator.

They took a long time.

“We got to [talking] up there,” Delozier explained when the elevator doors finally opened. “We forgot to push the button.”

Outside the restaurant, there was a discussion about whether to lock the conversion van that Stuller had purchased via the Internet from a seller in Pennsylvania. He planned to drive the van back to Washington following his visit, in a caravan with the Deloziers driving their own car.

“I think they’re nervous,” Gloria said.

Inside the restaurant, Stuller and Delozier sat across from one another and settled into talk about the war and other things.

They talked about their old order papers, their dog tags, medals and the relative value of their respective VA hospitals.

“Up here’s awesome,” Delozier said.

They chatted with menus lying open, forgetting to decide what they wanted to eat.

They talked about shooting flies with soap in Vietnam, the abundance of movie stars out west, the merits of Chevy vs. Ford.

“I’m a Chevy man,” Delozier said.

Stuller told about mistaking lightning bugs for enemy flashlights while on watch in Vietnam and rousing Delozier, who couldn’t believe Stuller made such a mistake.

Stuller talked about getting spit on by protesters as he walked through the airport on the way home from Vietnam.

They ate slowly, especially Stuller.

They talked of the squirrel potpie Delozier used to get at home, of the leprosy village outside their compound in the jungle and the captain who forbade them to visit the girls who hung around the base but went to see them himself.

Stuller told about ingesting Lysol as a kid, and getting coffee as an antidote, and liking coffee ever since.

Gloria told of washing Delozier’s uniform while he was home on leave, after someone had washed fiberglass curtains, which led to Delozier scratching like he had fleas.

They told about eating onions, pepperoni, rutabaga and turnips in their childhoods.

Stuller’s face was mobile, his cheeks were rosy and his smile seemed almost childlike.

When Gloria left for the restroom, Stuller told about the gag gift he’s prepared for her from ketchup and salt packets and disposable bowls he picked up on the train.

Then they left.

“I had a lot of anxiety,” Stuller said later Thursday by phone. “I didn’t know what he was going to be like.”

They planned to visit the Horseshoe Curve and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall replica at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center today and the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville on Saturday.

They may head west Sunday. They’ll visit the sights in South Dakota and Montana, then separate – for now.

“[But] I ain’t going to lose him again,” Stuller said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.