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Front Porch: Veterans’ life stories mattered

Cindy Hval sits between Ray Daves, left, and Denis Mikkelsen in the 2010 Armed Forces Torchlight Parade.
Cindy Hval sits between Ray Daves, left, and Denis Mikkelsen in the 2010 Armed Forces Torchlight Parade.

I read something recently that I can’t seem to shake. Something I’ve pondered much at the dawn of this new year. It’s from the book “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.” The author quotes an officer from the military academy he attended who was stepping down from his post to undergo treatment for advanced cancer.

The officer said, “When it is time for you to leave this school, leave your job, or even leave this earth, you make sure you have worked hard enough to make sure it mattered you were ever here.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote because so often this past year the obituary listings featured familiar names. Some I knew well. Some I’d only met once. But for whatever reason, each one mattered to me.

In March, Denis Mikkelsen passed away. I met Denis and his wife, Vina, in 2007 when I covered a meeting of the Lilac City Chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors. He shared his story of waking up aboard the USS West Virginia to find Pearl Harbor was under attack.

Over the years, I visited with the Mikkelsens many times. Denis wasn’t exactly chatty about his wartime experiences. In fact, Vina said they’d been married more than 50 years before she knew he was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

In a later interview, Denis recalled that terrifying day: “I was told to close the hatches, but before I could get them closed the water was pouring in – we were sinking that fast.”

When the order came to abandon ship, the 19-year-old clambered down a rope ladder clad in shorts and a T-shirt, and swam to Ford Island.

While interviewing him and Vina in 2009 for my Love Stories series, I learned the couple married just two weeks after their first date. In that interview he said of Vina, “She’s always there for me – always. I’m gonna hang onto her. Where would I find another?”

The following year, I was invited to ride with the Pearl Harbor survivors in the Armed Forces Torchlight Parade. I sat smack in between Ray Daves and Denis. “A thorn between two roses,” I said.

In every photo I have of Denis, he’s grinning. And that’s what I miss most. His smile lit up a room.

I’ve already written about the loss of my friend Charlie Parsons. Charlie was a well-known horticulturist, florist, teacher, civic leader and an avid reader of the Front Porch column. But more importantly he was a friend and encourager to all who knew him.

When he died in October, Spokane lost one of its most positive, life-affirming residents. Charlie’s gardens made our city more beautiful and so did his kind, loving spirit.

In November, Tom Cassis passed away. I’d shared his and Jackie’s Love Story in August. Tom was gregarious – full of anecdotes. From his bleak and terrifying experiences during the Korean War, to his Greek heritage, to his life with Jackie, his stories were detailed and he told them with passion.

However, on the day of our interview, I had a packed schedule filled with back-to-back appointments. Tom had so many anecdotes and I had so little time! But his stories mattered. From his 40-year legal career, to his 61-year marriage, to his stint in the Marine Corps – I wish I’d had time to hear them all.

Three days before Christmas, Don Barton passed away. I met him and his wife, Melba Jeanne, in 2010. Don was a pilot and instructor pilot during World War II. His eyes lit up as he vividly recalled the different planes he’d piloted.

But those eyes dimmed when he spoke of some close calls during his 25 missions over the Pacific. One in particular he never forgot. “We got shot up pretty bad,” he said. “I lost my navigator. He sat right behind me. He was the youngest one on the crew.”

After a harrowing flight in a hobbled plane, Don was able to bring the rest of his crew safely home.

By the time he met Melba Jeanne at a Grange dance in 1945, he’d had his fill of adventure and the couple settled down on their Half Moon Prairie farm, raising three daughters there.

Although I only met Don once, I was struck by his love for his wife and daughters. He teared up when he spoke of them. His wife said, “He has the most patience of anybody I’ve ever known.”

Four very different men, yet they had much in common. They served their country. They loved their families. And they worked hard enough to make sure that it mattered that they were here.

Contact Cindy Hval at Her previous columns are available online at Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.