He remembers like it was yesterday, Nicholas Stozic does.
After the eighth grade, he quit school and went to work in a mill for 30 cents an hour to help feed his family. Three years later, he was making 44 cents an hour and looking for a better way. He fibbed about his age to an Army recruiter.
At 98, he is the second-oldest survivor of the 82nd Airborne Division. The oldest is Strom Thurmond.
Fort Thomas. Fort Benning. North Africa. Sicily. Salerno. Toward the end of World War II, he took three bullets in the leg and was captured in Holland.
"American cigarettes are wunderbar," the enemy said, tucking a pack of Camels back in Nick's shirt pocket after liberating the rest from his duffle. "They took my cigarettes, but they never took my wristwatch and carried me out of the field on a ladder."
After the war, he married Alice Maher. "In what better hands could God have placed our dear Aunt Alice," Dave Maher says. Alice died nearly 20 years ago from Alzheimer's disease. "My uncle was constantly there for her."
The couple had no children of their own, but Dave and a cousin were "in Uncle Nick's shadow when we were growing up. We could tell you even today what kind of shaving soap he used, what kind of hair tonic he put on his hair."
Nick still has an admirable head of hair, mostly white but still dark at the crown. His 6-foot frame is bent, and he walks with a cane. But he tends his park-like, two-acre lawn himself.
After the service, Nick built houses, including his own neat Cape Cod in Union Township, where he has lived for 56 years. He helped start a "civic club," lobbying for sewers and phone service. When he arrived home after surgery for colon cancer five years ago, his yard was filled with people on riding mowers. Repaying favors.
Dave comes from the West Side, is an Elder grad. So, I'm guessing his Uncle Nick has driven across town for his share of christenings and weddings and funerals.
"You bet. He's constant," Dave says, "always there for his friends, neighbors and family. Whenever I visit him, he stands on his porch and salutes me when I leave." So, Dave planned a salute of his own. He gathered about 50 people last month at the Hibernian Hall on River Road for some unfinished business.
"When we leave here today, nothing really changes," Dave said then. "He will still be one of the smartest persons I've ever met with or without a high school diploma." But some people at the high school in Nick's hometown near Steubenville helped Dave make a diploma for his uncle.
Citations from government officials were read that day. A letter arrived from another old soldier. A flag was presented, and speeches were made. But it was not a military ceremony. Not really.
Family and friends gathered to honor Nicholas Stozic, a good solder long after he put away the uniform.
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