Today is Veterans' Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, and I remember Airman First Class Dick Stello, who served honorably in the the United States Air Force during the Korean conflict.
Dick was a guest instructor and I, a young student on my third trip to Harry Wendelstedt's Umpire School in 1984. He'd already been a National League umpire for sixteen years, so I was very much in awe of him when we first met. He was the adopted son of hardworking New England farmers, a Massachusetts transplant with a Bahston accent that wouldn't quit, living in Pinellas Park, Florida at the time, and during the winter months I lived with my aunt Pat McGehee in Clearwater, just north of there, so after school let out in February we became fast friends and devoted country music compadres. Dick was always a lot of fun; he just emitted this great, positive energy, and he had a genuine appreciation for a good joke - in a former life he'd been a stand-up comedian - that was completely contagious. He loved to go to a country music night spot called Joyland not too far from his condo right off of U.S. 19, and he delighted in taking me to see the local bands that played there. He was friends with a lot of musicians, and although he wasn't a very proficient guitar player, he loved strumming away during impromptu jam sessions with me, cheerfully pickin' and grinnin' to the twangs of the country standards we both loved.
Before I knew him he'd been married to an exotic dancer and art house film actress named Chesty Morgan; that was about as much as I knew about her, other than that Dick never spoke of her with anything other than affection and respect. It turns out that Ms. Morgan was, and still is, a completely remarkable woman in her own right; her real name is Lillian Wilckzowski, and she's a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1939 during which her father was shot and killed by the Nazis and her mother was separated from her, never to be seen again. Lillian escaped to America and became wealthy and well-known under the Chesty Morgan burlesque trademark, marrying and divorcing Dick during a fabulous and turbulent performing career that demanded she be on the road at least as much as he was. Lillian still lives in Tampa; she and Dick had planned to celebrate the holidays together the November he was killed even though they'd been divorced for years by then. They still cared about each other and didn't let divorce get in the way of a good relationship long after their marriage had dissolved.
Dick sort of adopted me after I got out of umpire school, and each spring he would lend me a car while I was in Florida. Because I'd grown up in New York City and hadn't even learned to drive until 1980, and definitely didn't own a car, Dick would just let me have one of the vehicles from a St. Petersburg car dealership of which he was part owner so I wouldn't have to rent one. He never asked me to pay anything; he'd just let me have it for two or three months, free of charge, while I was umpiring in Florida until I was ready to go back to New York in April to start working high school and college baseball up there. One time I even brought back one of his loaners with a huge dent in the rear where I'd backed into a pole or something and he never said an unkind word to me, just laughed and told me not to worry, that he'd take care of it. That's the kind of friend he was.
In November of 1987, Dick was getting ready to move from his Pinellas Park condo to a more spacious home in an upscale, golf course-style development situated right on Tampa Bay called Feather Sound. He was very excited about the move and looking forward to his upcoming twenty-first season as a National League umpire. He'd worked the All-Star Game in Oakland that past July, his second such assignment, and had two World Series (the great Red Sox/Reds series of 1975, and the not-so-great strike-scarred, split-season Dodgers/Yankees debacle of 1981) under his belt, so he was in line for another post-season job any day now. Life was an adventure to him, and he enjoyed every minute of it.
He and a business associate drove to Lakeland on November 23rd to buy some vehicles for their classic car dealership. Dick would go to this huge auto auction in Lakeland a couple of times a year for this purpose, so he was very experienced at all the little details and logistics that go into trading, purchasing, and transporting multiple vehicles at once. This day he forgot one small detail, and when he remembered and took action to correct it, it proved to be his final, fatal mistake.
He and his friend pulled over to the side of the road somewhere between Lakeland and St. Pete; Dick's vehicle was in front and the friend's behind his, both of them parked on the shoulder. It had occurred to Dick while he was driving that he hadn't put a particular kind of dealer's sticker on the rear of the car he had just purchased, so he and the friend pulled off the road and stopped while Dick walked to the rear of his car and bent over to apply the sticker. A driver approaching in the lane closest to the shoulder suddenly veered to the right, rear-ending the vehicle behind Dick's - he was between the two cars as the one in the rear got propelled forward - and Dick was smashed like a bug in an instant. I'm sure he never knew what hit him, but it's a graphic and gruesome image that has kept me safe lo these many decades, during which I've driven more miles than I care to account for and seen drivers pulled over to the side of the road in so many similar situations, changing a flat tire, or switching seats from driver to passenger, or just taking a break. I say a little prayer for their safety when I do - theirs and that of any other driver on the road whose split second of inattention might cost them their lives, as it did my friend Dick Stello's. Since that day, I don't care if I have to ruin a tire, a wheel rim, or the entire car, I never, never, never never stop on the side of a road. If I have mechanical trouble or feel sleepy or in immediate need of a bathroom, I do whatever I have to do to get to an exit so I can get off the road to a safe place where cars aren't whizzing by. Getting hit at just ten miles an hour can kill a pedestrian or person on the side of a road, so I don't take any chances. If you think about it, the probability that someone, just one driver, won't be paying attention for the fraction of an instant it takes to cause an accident like the one that killed Dick is so astronomically high, it's ridiculous and downright dangerous to assume you won't get hit if you stop by the side of the road. So anyone who reads this, please take heed and stay safe out there.
Dick Stello served honorably in the uniform of an Air Force pilot during the Korean conflict; perhaps that's one of the reasons why I adored him so much, because my father Larry Barber was also an Air Force pilot in the same war. Dick is buried in the Chapel Hill cemetery in Largo, Florida, not too far from where he lived and died, right next to a serene, palm tree-ringed pond full of ducks and other local fauna. A little stone bench with his name inscribed on it across from his grave invites rest and peaceful reflection about the meaning of life and other mysteries. Dick's ex-wife Lillian was a soldier of a different kind, but I'm giving her a shout-out today too, for her extraordinary courage during wartime and the character and tenacity that led her out of the hell that was the Warsaw ghetto during World War II to become a productive, healthy mother, wife, and United States citizen who still contributes to her community and her adopted country.
On this day and every day, I pay tribute to the service of our veterans past and present, including my father, USAF pilot James Laurance Barber; my mother, Jaqueline Barber Davies, who did not serve but helped recruit American women for the Navy during World War II in her persona as Winnie the Wave; my great-uncle, Army Colonel Marlon Ellison; Marine Sargeant Bobby Wagner, killed in action in Iraq in 2004; my longtime upstairs neighbor and friend in New York, Dino Cerutti, a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II; the men and women of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, and the Reserves; and any and all other support personnel who put their lives on the line to answer the call their country has sounded.