By Dedra Cordle
Excitement reverberated through Jim Kuno as he prepared to board a plane bound for Washington D.C. Although the resident of Grove City had visited the nation’s capital a number of times before, he believed this experience could prove to be the most memorable of all.
As he walked through the aisle, he looked around at his fellow passengers, nodding and smiling though it was early in the morning. And when he found his seat, he soaked in the moment for this was a flight filled with veterans like himself.
Kuno had dreamed of this day for years, of the flight that would allow him to visit the war memorials alongside those who had also fought on foreign land. While honored to be amongst these special passengers, it was his two companions that made him feel right at home.
“I don’t know if I would have wanted to do Honor Flight without these two beside me,” said Kuno, referring to his childhood friends Dave Johnson and Danny Burns.
It was the late 1950s when Kuno’s family relocated from Columbus to Grove City, a move that wasn’t so popular with the young boy.
It was always uncomfortable changing schools, he said, but fortunately he was able to make friends right away, one of whom was Burns.
“We shared a lot of classes together at J.C. Sommer, so we were just kind of stuck with each other,” joked Burns.
He said what kept their friendship alive throughout their adolescent was chasing different girls.
“We never liked the same ones so we got along great,” he laughed.
On their periphery was Johnson, an affable boy their age who hung around with the older crowd.
“It wasn’t until high school that we really started to become friends,” said Kuno. “Danny knew him from grade school (the two were baseball rivals) but we didn’t start hanging out together until then.”
Johnson joked it was because he was too cool for them.
For the next four years, the trio did not help each other study while they were students at Grove City High School but they did support each other on their quests to get into some mischief.
“We would all meet up at the Stardust and then go to Wollyburger and hang out and drink,” said Johnson. “It was the place to be and the thing to do at that time.”
Burns, however, sees it differently.
“We never got into any trouble,” he said, possibly crossing his fingers underneath the table at his Grove City home.
“They were good guys,” interjected his wife, Cindy, “but don’t believe them when they say they never got into trouble.”
Upon graduating in 1967, they took jobs at their family-operated companies and started to lose touch. Less than two years later, Johnson had joined the Navy, Burns and Kuno the Army and all were fighting in the Vietnam War.
“We were stationed all over so we had no idea where everyone was,” said Kuno.
When they returned home in the early 1970s, they each sought employment, found the loves of their lives and started to raise their families.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to get together,” said Johnson.
“But we did try to go on fishing trips occasionally,” said Burns.
“We were terrible fisherman and never caught anything though,” said Johnson.
“We just liked the company,” said Kuno, who admitted they debated the merits of buying fish from the local market and throwing it in the lake so they could “catch” them.
As the years passed, they saw each other from time to time while out on errands and kept in touch that way. Then came their retirement.
Upon retiring as the maintenance supervisor at The Ohio State University in 2011, Kuno looked forward to a quiet time watching the squirrels play in his yard. Then, one day, he stopped into a local McDonald’s to get a cup of coffee and ran into Burns.
“We sat down and talked for hours,” said Burns.
It soon became a tradition.
Then they ran into Johnson. He pulled up a chair and talked to them for hours over breakfast. It soon became another tradition.
Shortly thereafter came monthly card games, nights out with their wives and ill-conceived adventures on Lake Erie.
“We were stranded once,” said Burns. “It was Dave’s fault.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Johnson tried to explain. “They didn’t put the buoys out for the low water warning.”
Kuno said they only made it out by the grace of God.
“Danny and I served in the Army, so that means we don’t know how to swim,” he said. “We certainly weren’t going to get into that water to push us to safety so we waited until the boat just started floating back to shore.”
Though the trio joked that they needed irritation breaks from each other from time to time, they all wanted to take a trip together to Washington D.C. to view the memorials and monuments for those who had served. Upon the recommendation of a fellow veteran friend, Kuno suggested Honor Flight, a non-profit organization that sends veterans to the nation’s capital for free, and they all sent in their applications.
“We didn’t know if we would all be approved at the same time but we knew we wanted to go together,” said Kuno.
Surprisingly, they were approved for the same flight on Sept. 28 and each had to verbally promise their guardian, Susan Park, that they would behave.
“We tried our best,” said Johnson.
Throughout the course of the day, they visited Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force Monument, the famed Iwo Jima sculpture, and the World War II Museum and Memorial. Eventually, they came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where those black granite walls loom large.
“We all had friends who died in that war, who were severely wounded or maimed,” said Johnson.
“A lot of us were wounded mentally,” added Kuno.
After reflecting upon the sacrifices of their fallen friends, they took a moment to be thankful that were able to share in this experience.
“We don’t really talk to each other about what we went through in Vietnam,” said Burns “but I know if I ever wanted to, they would be right there for me.”
When their journey was over and they were heading back to the airport terminal, they saw a throng of cheering people bearing posters, cards and handmade quilts crafted just for the Honor Flight veterans.
“It was an unexpected surprise,” said Johnson. “We never got that reception when we came back from Vietnam.”
“We certainly didn’t,” said Kuno, referring to the protest movement that was taking place concurrently with the war.
Burns recalled coming home from the war, only to be met with the flying fists of a stranger at a bar.
“He wanted to let me know that he did not appreciate me and wanted to start trouble,” he said. “So we had trouble.”
He added that the warm reception that took place after their Honor Flight more than made up for that event in the 1970s.
Now that they have experienced the Honor Flight together – which they recommend for every eligible veteran – they say they look forward to a quiet period of daily coffee meetings, card games and planning their next grand adventure.
“It’s just in the beginning stages but we’re going to go to West Virginia and look for the Mothman,” said Johnson.
“Well, we just want to see the monument,” said Kuno.
“And maybe search for it, too,” said Burns.
They say whatever will happen there, will happen. But they’re excited that they get to do it together.