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Commentary: Cool guy with a secret past

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: As a young writer, he was awed by a cool colleague, Tom Pastorius
  • He says nothing would faze Tom, who let troubles wash over him
  • Greene: He never mentioned that he had parachuted into France in D-Day invasion
  • He says such men were once constantly among us
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book, "Late Edition: A Love Story," will be published next month.

Bob Greene remembers an old colleague, Tom Pastorius, as one of the coolest guys he's ever known.

Tom Pastorius, left, and his brother Ed served in World War II, but Tom never talked about it at work.

(CNN) -- He was one of the coolest guys I have ever known, yet until this year I had no idea just how impressive he really was.

By the time you finish today's column, you'll understand why.

And why I'm thinking about him this weekend.

His name was Tom Pastorius. I was a kid sportswriter just getting started, more than 40 years ago, at a now-defunct newspaper in central Ohio; Tom was one of the stars of the staff.

He looked like Dean Martin -- acted a little like him, too. Totally unflappable, whimsy in his voice, a heartbreaker's hooded eyes: Tom was a man who made it seem that nothing could ever get to him. He had turned 50 during the summer I sat at the next desk.

An overly officious editor would bark at him? Tom shrugged it off. A young college athlete would treat him a little rudely? Didn't faze Tom.

The other star of the sports staff, and Tom's best friend in the newsroom, was Kaye Kessler. If Tom was Dean Martin, then Kaye was Frank Sinatra. Kess and Pasty -- that's what they were called, that's how they were known. And that's all I really knew about them. They didn't talk about their past history, and, as I recall, none of us really asked.

This year, I sought out Kaye Kessler again -- he's living in Colorado, long retired from daily newspaper work -- and I asked him about Pastorius, and he said that Tom had died more than 10 years ago.

I told him what a cool character I had always thought Tom was.

And Kessler said: "You know he parachuted into France for the D-Day invasion, don't you?"

I'd had no idea. Tom had never said a thing.

"He and his brother both," Kessler said.

The guy in the next seat on the sports desk, a paratrooper on the day of the Normandy invasion. And he had not mentioned a word about it.

There have been any number of emotional and stirring stories coming out of France this weekend as the world commemorates the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Yet there is one aspect of the anniversary that isn't often mentioned and that is worth thinking about:

We are accustomed to envisioning the Americans of D-Day either as the impossibly young men in vintage World War II photographs and newsreels, or as the elderly men, fewer and fewer in number now, who accept our humble thanks on weekends like this one, or, of course, as the unseen warriors who rest for eternity beneath those shattering rows of white crosses.

But there was a time in the life of the United States -- and that time is over now -- when it was accepted as a fact of daily life that the man across the aisle on the bus to work or the man sitting with his wife at the movie theater or the man riding the elevator on his way upstairs at the office just might be a hero of D-Day.

They walked among us for a very long time; the war ended, the world was saved, and they came home and blended into a nation at peace, and often there was no way for us to ever know. Not unless they told us, and many of them chose not to.

Kaye Kessler told me that Tom Pastorius' wife had died, and so had his son. But I made some calls and finally was able to find a very nice woman named Kathleen Pastorius, who is 88 and who is living in a senior community on the west coast of Florida. Kessler had said that both Tom and his brother had parachuted into France on D-Day. Kathleen Pastorius is the widow of that brother, whose name was Ed.

"Both boys were members of the 101st Airborne Division," she said. "They were very close all their lives. Ed was the older. They grew up in Canton, Ohio, and on the day of the Normandy invasion, they were both dropped in."

The men of the 101st Airborne parachuted behind enemy lines, behind Utah Beach; there was darkness and heavy fog and intense German anti-aircraft fire, and the casualties in the 101st were terrible. Each paratrooper wore more than 70 pounds of equipment. As they hit the ground -- the ones who hit the ground alive -- they had every right to wonder if they would ever see the United States again.

For the ones who did make it home -- as, eventually, the Pastorius brothers did -- the decision was: How do I want to live the rest of my life?

For many the answer was: Just live it, and don't endlessly talk about what came before.

It was little wonder that Tom seemed all but immune to being bothered by small vexations. A tedious assignment at work? A football game to cover in a blizzard? A late-night shift followed by an early-morning wakeup call?

Please. He had seen worse. He could always know: No one could throw anything at him as tough as what he, and the soldiers of D-Day with whom he had served, had seen when they were young.

They were constantly among us, once upon a time. They moved among us, and they elected to keep their pasts invisible.

They were, in every sense of the phrase, men among men.

Forever.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

All About World War IIArmed ForcesWar and Conflict

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