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thedrifter
04-24-09, 08:57 AM
Thursday, April 23, 2009
MORNING READ: Old vet takes old Jeep on one last mission
Sam Castillo drives 1948 Jeep cross country to say, 'Thanks.'
By TOM BERG
The Orange County Register
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LAGUNA HILLS He crept over the Cajon Pass. Survived the Mojave Desert. And somehow, Sam Castillo, 69, has nursed, nudged and willed his 1948 Jeep half-way across America on a trip that might be called inspired madness or just plain inspired.

Whichever – he's on a mission. And not to be denied. Not yet anyway.

"If I don't do this, I'll always wonder why," the old veteran said Wednesday from Colorado after waving goodbye to family, friends and even the Laguna Hills mayor four days earlier.

To understand this trip, you must know two things:

One, these early flatfender Jeeps were designed by the Army to replace mules – not cruise America's superhighways. Sam's got no power steering; no power brakes; no heat; no air conditioning; no radio; little suspension and even less get-up-and-go. He's got a pillow for a seat cushion and a top speed of about 45 mph. And that's without the trailer.

"Are you a betting man?" Jeeps R Us owner Larie Tales, of Laguna Beach, said of Sam's plan to meet his son-in-law in Columbus, Ohio, en route to the nation's Capitol. "I'd bet any kind of money his son-in-law will never see him."

Tales says Sam did a nice job restoring his Jeep, but it's still a primitive vehicle – with vacuum windshield wipers that quit when going uphill; an engine that leaks oil; and a transmission transfer case that's pitted and rusted.

"I don't think the wheel bearings can take it," Tales said of the 5,000-mile round trip. "And if he breaks a differential, he's up the creek."

Told that Sam is also hauling a military trailer, Tales paused: "Amazing. He should get some kind of medal for nerve."

Now, the second thing you should know is this: Sam's got a history of taking on the improbable. And this time, he's inspired – like never before.

WAITING TO DIE

The idea for this trip was born five years ago.

Castillo was 64 and enjoying retirement. In the morning, he'd tend to his roses and fruit trees. At noon, he'd eat with Gypsy, his mixed Shih-Tzu and Chihuahua, and Lucas, his Maltese, and in the afternoon, he'd watch "The People's Court." A good life.

One day he heard about some younger veterans bicycling cross-country to launch a "Vietnam Veterans Day," and that's all he needed to hear. A week before the trip, he bought a bike and bike shorts. It was a few days before anyone had the heart to tell him his bike shorts were actually bike underwear. He didn't care.

"After the second or third day, I was able to touch my toes," he says. "I felt absolutely perfect."

See, there's a special place in Sam's heart for the military. He never saw action – he served in the Army from '57 to '61, between wars – but he's as patriotic as they come.

If you've ever watched a Veterans Day parade in Orange County, you've likely seen Sam chauffeuring some pilot or general in his old Willys Jeep.

Sam and his fellow cyclists were in Indiana when President Ronald Reagan died. Their plans fell through, but not before they'd visited several veterans' hospitals.

One Kansas veteran told Sam he was living on $25 a month – too little to visit relatives. A Denver veteran told him: "I'm sitting here, waiting to die. And the only thing I can tell you, son, is it's taking too damn long."

Sam never forgot.

"Someday," he vowed, "somehow, I'm going to do something to help them."

He began telling his wife, Marie, about his plans. "Sure, sure," she said.

And he kept fiddling with this old, steel nut he found on the Washington Mall that trip. First he kept it on his desk. Then his pocket.

"If I lost it, it would drive me crazy," he says.

So he put it on his key chain. It became a constant reminder of his promise to help – if only he knew how.

NO BREAKABLE PARTS

Sam knows a thing or two about helping others.

He's the guy who empties the trash after church functions. The guy who fills a neighbor's tire when it's flat. The guy who used to drive to the Tustin Marine base each Thanksgiving and bring home a few Marines for turkey dinner with the family. That's the way he was raised.

His father, Ray Castillo, of Placentia, often took food and clothes to the poor in Mexico. After Ray died, Sam carried on the tradition. One truckload turned to five, which turned into 10, sometimes 20 – every Christmas and every Easter.

For 30 years.

"He'll do the work nobody else wants to do," says Gwen Wieser, confirmation coordinator at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Laguna Woods. "His sincerity comes out in his actions."

For four years after his bike trip, Sam toyed with the idea of bringing portable CD players to the veterans he'd met. But parts break. Batteries die. CDs get lost. He didn't know what to do.

Then last year, while visiting his daughter Annescia Hite and her husband Jeff in Ohio, they came upon another idea over dinner. It was so simple, Sam practically kicked himself for not thinking of it before.

"I'm starting a pen pal program," he says, "where the American public can pick out a veteran and write them a note to thank them for serving our country."

That's it. That's why at age 69, he's driving a 1948 Jeep across America using a pillow for a seat cushion and a cot for a bed. He's stopping at veterans' hospitals along the way, starting a registry of veterans' names and asking everyday citizens to pitch in.

"People will help if you ask them," he said Wednesday after visiting a Trinidad, Colo., nursing home.

He's started a Web site, www.americans4americans.org , where people can sign up to send a letter, a birthday card or even a box of cookies to a vet.

When Sam reaches the Capitol he'll knock on doors and see who answers. In his pocket will be that small steel nut he found outside the Capitol stairs – a reminder of the promise he made five years ago. And a reminder of his Uncle Danny, who was buried with shrapnel in his arm but never heard anyone say, "Thank you for your service."

What if no Congressional doors open? What if no one signs up to be a pen pal? What if his old Jeep doesn't even reach Ohio?

"I'll have the satisfaction of doing everything I knew how to do," he says. "I'll know I did my best."

Contact the writer: 714-796-6979 or tberg@ocregister.com

Ellie