Standing in front of nearly the entire Pilot Rock School District, Bob Deno was nervous.
The Korean War veteran was in the Pilot Rock High School gym to for the school’s Veterans Day celebration. After a school-hosted breakfast, veterans and students were ushered into a morning assembly where bands and choirs performed patriotic tunes led by music teacher Jacob Try and a slideshow was shown of local veterans.
Deno, who served four tours in Korea, was the keynote speaker at the event, scheduled right in the middle of the proceedings.
Deno looked over the crowd of a few dozen veterans and the entire student body, some outfitted in stars and stripes, and proceeded to find some levity in his experience with war.
He talked about joining the Navy and seeing the ship he would be stationed on for the first time, the U.S.S. Lexington, an aircraft carrier. He remembered thinking how unlikely it was that it would float, much less act as a launch pad for airplanes.
When he came aboard, he was told that the life expectancy during an attack on the deck of an aircraft carrier was only 45 seconds.
“I don’t know about you, but that scared this ol’ boy to death,” he said.
He was also handed shoes with suction cups on the soles and a .45 caliber pistol. When he asked why he had received a pistol, he was told it was because of the expert firing skills he had displayed during training — with a rifle.
Deno didn’t have much use for the pistol during his tours. When he returned at the end of his service, the person who collected the gun asked where the firing pin was. Turns out his gun never had one.
Deno called these humorous bits “Navy wisdom” and shared another story about how the Lexington’s admiral was concerned that his men weren’t getting enough exercise. As a result, Deno hiked Mount Fuji in Japan one day, marveling at how old Japanese men easily surpassed him during the ascent.
He said that people who watch the sunrise on Fujiyama are a supposed to live a long life.
“Well, I’m holding them to that,” the 79-year-old said.
Deno kept the material light, but he also occasionally reminded the audience of the stakes.
He reminded the students that Veterans Day was held in honor of the Nov. 11 armistice in World War I, a war that took the lives of 116,516 soldiers between 1914 and 1918. 419,400 more service men died over the course of World War II.
“Strictly by the grace of God, I made it home in one piece,” he said. “But many of my friends didn’t.”
After the assembly ended, Deno said he edited his speech multiple times before Thursday and decided to leave out a specific reference in his final draft, the story of how his best friend had been blown off the boat by a plane, his body never recovered.
When Deno returned home, he raised a family in Pilot Rock and continued a tradition of sending family members to the Navy. In total, Deno has nine relatives who have served the Navy, including two sons, two grandsons and a son-in-law. Deno suspects that it’s all a coincidence.
Ultimately, Deno said he was humbled by the reception he received after his speech ended. Out of all the performances and speeches, his was the only section of the program that garnered a standing ovation.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.