The Story of an Unforgettable Sailor
Mar 30, 2018 11:00AM
By Enjoy Magazine
By Summer Lane Brandt
THE BASEBALL FIELD. The smell of fresh dirt, manicured grass and tobacco. The excited murmur of the crowds, the hiss and fizz of new bottles of pop, and the trickle of perspiration on the forehead. Two teams. Two uniforms. Two sets of players. All hard muscle and determination and focus. The dugout, where men spit tobacco or chew gum or crack sunflower seeds between their teeth.
Crack! Batter up, and the bat collides with the ball and it sails sideways. Foul ball. Home team is up to bat. Dark skin, strong hands, fiercely concentrated on the pitcher’s mound. It’s all up to this batter, now. Just a few more moments, and the game will be over. The pressure’s on. The pitcher hurls the ball. It flies through the air, and the batter swings with all his might. Bam! It’s a home run! He laughs and raises his fist and he runs the bases. The crowd is yelling and the girls are squealing and the home team is running out to congratulate their batter; he’s the man who has won the game. He’s the man who is as quick to tell a joke and laugh uproariously as he is to set his jaw and get to work. He’s all spit and fire and hard-working determination and humor. He’s six feet tall, flashing a brilliant smile, living the life.
He is my grandfather.
Take a step back to 1927 California, and you’ll witness this man’s birth: the youngest of seven children, born in a small farmhouse into a poor, immigrant family from what was then called Yugoslavia. His parents: Yovo and Anja Pistinjat. His siblings: Dan, Willy, Sam, Bobby, Bertha and Johnny. The birth you are witnessing now is Pete’s. His entrance into the world is a vibrant shock of energy into a country characterized by the grim reality of the Great Depression. Pete is the baby, and he will be the last child born to Yovo and Anja in this wooden, dusty farmhouse in Dinuba, at the base of Smith Mountain.
Growing up, Pete is full of endless energy, and like all of his siblings, two major things shape his life: constant hunger, and the constant desire to play outside. Short on money and even shorter on food, Pete lives on a diet of raisins or salted bread. He attends Smith Mountain Grammar School, walking to class barefoot, wearing faded, hand-me-down overalls, excitedly squirming in his seat. He can’t wait for class to be over. Why? There’s a baseball game with the neighborhood kids tonight, and it’s his favorite part of the day.
The Pistinjat siblings – their surname was changed to Petinak upon Yovo and Anja’s immigration to America - have a dominating, beloved pastime: playing ball. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or raining, day or night. The seven siblings have a small baseball team just between themselves, and it isn’t unusual for other children in the area to join in. Here, the Petinak children learn to play ball. They have no money to buy bats or leather balls. They use old broom handles instead. They toss around figs from the trees in their yard. They laugh and joke and slide into the bases, dirtying their clothes and bloodying up their knees.
Tragedy will strike. When Pete – the happiest, silliest, and most fun-loving of the Petinak siblings – is just nine years old, his father dies. Pete is young, and he doesn’t understand. Later, he’ll hear words like lung cancer tossed around. Anja is devastated. One year later, she joins her husband, dying suddenly in her 40s. This time, Pete hears words like death from a broken heart.
Time marches on, and, orphaned, Pete moves out at age 16 and lives in the local Hayden Hotel, paying $6 a week for rent and eating one meal per day at the local cafe. He is skinny and hungry, but he’s working. He turns trays of raisins in the sun, sells ice-cold soda water on the back of an old truck, or sometimes he tosses watermelons for his older brother Johnny, the “Watermelon King” of the Central Valley.
When World War II rears its ugly head, Pete is among the first to sign up to fight after the Pearl Harbor attacks. He joins the U.S. Army Air Corps, and for the first time in his young life, he has a solid roof over his head, and the guarantee of three square meals a day. This is the life for him. He works hard, and although he jumps careers (and military branches) a few times, he finally settles into a long-lasting stint in the U.S. Navy. He is a sailor now. He travels around the world on naval vessels, sometimes fighting, but mostly, he plays ball. He joins the Navy’s baseball league, and he sees China, Japan, Italy, Rome, French Morocco, Hawaii and so many other places playing the game he loves most. Some of his siblings do the same, joining the military and traveling the world, playing the same game that kept them happy during their childhood, even when times were tough. Bertha - the only girl in the family - will go on to make a career out of playing softball, eventually becoming one of the most famous female players in the world.
Pete travels the world and he serves his country and he grows up. When he is 30 years old, he marries Nancy Arlene Turner and moves to Coronado, where he works at the naval air station. In 1966, he retires from the Navy, but he by no means stops playing ball. He finds a way to play ball no matter where he is, because it is what he loves, and because it is his way of bringing family together. He is always competitive, always laughing, and always moving, moving, moving.
I was born in 1993, and some of my earliest memories are of sitting snuggled in Grandpa Pete’s lap. His loud, infectious laughter was a daily sound. I admired his willingness to do anything, anywhere, for anyone. I remember his hands – big, Yugoslavian hands, perfect for catching baseballs. He was the most generous person I ever knew; perhaps his generosity stemmed from the fact that, growing up, he had absolutely nothing, and he knew better than anyone that the things in life that mattered most were not material. To Grandpa Pete, happiness came from living. It came from laughter and family and faith. Money or fame or status was irrelevant to him. Grandpa was all things to all men. Something he always said was, “I’ll shake hands with anyone. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. That’s all you gotta do: hold out your hand, and shake.” He was a soldier, devoted wholeheartedly to the cause of freedom and liberty. He was a defender, standing up for the equal rights of all colors and races of men long before it was acceptable to do so. He was a husband, loving and caring and completely devoted. He was a father, generous and supportive and respected. He was a brother. He was a friend. To me, he was the best grandfather anyone could ever wish to have, and on October 14, 2017, Pete passed away in Reedley, the town he so dearly loved.
Pete Petinak may never be on the evening news. He may never have his own biography or his own movie, yet he made a difference in the lives of thousands of people in Reedley and around the world. His life was a fabulous and colorful display of adventure and love. He lived one epic story after another. He traveled the globe and met everyone with total acceptance and enthusiasm. He kept the people he loved safe. Every job he ever held was performed with determination and pure pride (many locals will recall his days working at Immanuel High School). He was a bright, inspiring light to all who knew him. He was a part of this community, just as this community was a part of him. Locals know he could always be found at the local donut shop, grinning and laughing. Many might even remember the years he spent washing windows during the 1990s and early 2000s (Pete’s Windows - Clean as a Whistle!). To me, I will always remember Pete Petinak as the best and most staggeringly kindhearted person I have ever had the honor of knowing. The story of this sailor is unforgettable, and his legacy is one of love, Christian faith and devotion. Pete was the man who always took care of me - and everyone he knew – and who, by simply existing, changed the world and made it a better place. •