When Chris Spero Farlekas died on May 5, 2015, his obituary read like three men’s lives run together. Among his roles across eighty-six years: army medic in a MASH unit in Korea, civil rights activist, war correspondent in Vietnam, amateur violinist, and philanthropist.
But when his friends gathered to celebrate his life, they had other stories to share – quieter, more painful, and more powerful than the tributes in print.
Chris grew up as the son of Greek immigrants and volunteered for the army in 1949. After boot camp, he shipped off to Korea in 1950 to join the Eleventh Medical Evacuation Hospital Unit.
By his own account, his first taste of combat nearly unhinged him. The enemy struck at night, and his only chance of identifying friend or foe was by the light of tracer fire. He held his ground and tried to reach one buddy, then another. But caught between so many cries for help, he lost his bearings. He sank to his knees and began to dig frantically in the bloody mud. Somewhere, a childhood memory was calling him back. He was maybe six years old, digging in his front yard, and a friendly neighbor was leaning over the fence chortling, “Young man, you dig so deep, you’re liable to get to China.” Perhaps now the tunnel could reach the other way.
His superior officer stumbled across him and roared at him to get up. “Farlekas, the men need you!” Chris kept digging. The lieutenant dragged him up and slapped him. “Get away!” shouted Chris. “I’m going home!” Then the lieutenant did something that threw Chris’s life onto a new track. He carried the young man over to a small tree, leaned him up against the trunk, and above the roar of battle, shouted the words of a poem into his ear.
Only we two, and yet our howling can
Encircle the world’s end.
Frightened, you are my only friend.
And frightened, we are everyone.
Someone must make a stand.
Coward, take my coward’s hand.
(from Eve Merriam, “The Coward”)
Chris would later recall looking in dazed amazement at his superior officer, who had recognized in him a man who had the potential for bravery. On that night, as bullets shredded leaves above his head, he became that someone who must make a stand.
From then on while in Korea, according to fellow soldiers, he took risks that seemed beyond the call of duty. And when there was nothing more to be done for a dying comrade, he found one more thing to do – take down his final words for his family. Sometimes it was forgiveness pleaded, sometimes forgiveness owed. He heard memories of swings in haylofts, moms’ Sunday dinners, girls left behind, children that might have been. He kept them all, scrawled in a journal, to be delivered on his return – if he ever did return. When he closed the book, he held the hand of the man whose words he’d written down, until the man was gone.
Chris came home in 1952 with his journal, his memories, and his medals. In the next years, he followed up on his promises to the boys who didn’t return. Altogether he traveled more than fifteen thousand miles around the United States to visit their families and share their messages from the pages of his battered journal. According to Justin Nadal, a friend:
One of his most painful visits centered around a man named Steve Kroll. Steve was his friend in the unit, and one night he was almost torn apart by a grenade. An early dialysis machine was being tested in the MASH unit, and Chris was part of the team that used it to try to keep Steve alive. Steve suffered horribly, and all efforts to save him failed. When he finally died, Chris was ordered to assist in the autopsy. It was part of the protocols set in place to see how and if the machine had worked. He pleaded to be exempted, but he was refused, and had to watch as the doctor took his friend apart. It was a vision that tortured him up to his own death.
After the war, he most wanted to go to Crivitz, Wisconsin, to meet with the Kroll family. When he arrived at their farmhouse, they treated him like a son. As he had done in so many homes around the country, he sat in their living room and prepared to tell the family about their son’s last minutes of life. But this time it was different – he was talking about his own good friend. The pain was deep.
At the end of the visit, Chris asked if he could play his violin in honor of Steve, as a gift to the family. They accepted. Chris played for an hour, tears flowing in remembrance of his friend’s life and in mourning for his agonized death. When he finished, he laid his violin gently in its case, closed it and never played the instrument again. Call it a flair for the dramatic, call it a moment of honor, it was how Chris chose to capture the magnitude of the event.
As war correspondent for the Times Herald-Record, a regional newspaper, Chris again found himself on the other side of the world, in Vietnam – “in the back of a truck with a bunch of scared young soldiers.” For the second time he was on the front, notebook in hand, witnessing friends going into mortal danger, and writing to tell about it – to tell about them.
Writing was one way Chris could keep people from forgetting and from being forgotten. In the Hudson Valley, Chris himself is also remembered for other things: not only his penchant for goofy glasses, his dazzlingly bright cane, and his hot red car, but also for the Thanksgiving pies he baked for families who were low on money and for the red suit he donned at Christmas to deliver presents he’d collected through the year.
Cancer closed in on Chris’s later years, and despite his many friends, he often found himself alone. Hounded by all the death he’d seen over the years, the fear sometimes seemed overwhelming. At such times, all he wanted was what he had given to so many others – a hand to hold. “Frightened, you are my only friend. And frightened, we are everyone.”
Now Chris is gone. But his legacy – of a hand bravely extended – lives on.