ENCINITAS, CA — Ed Coonce learned early on to keep his expectations low when his Feb. 29 Leap Day birthday rolled around.
Children of the post-World War II Baby Boom, he and his siblings were taken away from their parents by the state for neglect after they were found unsupervised in the streets in their Indianapolis neighborhood, the younger ones in diapers.
Coonce grew up in foster homes and state institutions. The first was a “fabulous” farm and the last was an abusive home headed by a fundamentalist pastor that he ran away from three times, Coonce told Patch in a telephone interview Tuesday.
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Never in those years, nor the ones after when he was at a dormitory-style state-run home for “unadoptable” youth, did anyone acknowledge his birthday — despite the rare chances of being born on Leap Day, about 1 in 1,461, and Coonce shares his birthday with about 5 million people around the world.
The years passed, and it was more of the same. His 20th birthday, Feb. 29, 1968, was spent under fire as a combat Marine in Vietnam.
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“I remember lying in the bamboo thicket watching rockets come in and thinking, ‘Happy birthday,’” he said.
When he came home from two tours of duty in 1972, his girlfriend at the time threw him a surprise party, his first-ever birthday celebration. Feb. 29 isn’t always a raucous celebration — like the “Sweet 16” party his friends threw in 2012 and made him wear a tutu and a tiara — but it never passes unnoticed.
This year on Feb. 29, Coonce promises he’ll act his age and wear regular clothing. He’ll be 76.
Instead, good judgment — a quality that carried him through a life that started under some of the saddest of circumstances — will prevail. He and his wife, Lucy, plan a low-key celebration with dinner at a restaurant they haven’t tried and a movie at a theater, their first since the pandemic.
Mischief creeps into his voice as he points out that by Leap Year calculations, he’ll be 19 on the 29th.
“If I was walking around acting like I was 19, someone would call the police, I’m sure,” he said. “I would probably be taken into custody and subjected to a mental evaluation.”
An Idyllic Life, Then A Nightmare
Birthdays are occasions to reflect on milestones of the past year. As Coonce’s approaches, he reflects on a lifetime.
There is no trace of bitterness in Coonce’s voice as he shares his life story and recalls all the years his birthday went unnoticed. Like so many things about his Indianapolis childhood, the way through it was acceptance.
Coonce is acutely aware his life could have turned out differently, and that life did for other kids in the same foster homes and institutions in Indiana.
He is matter-of-fact about his childhood.
The death of her first husband during the World War II battle to liberate Belgium deeply affected his mother. She married the man’s buddy, Coonce’s father, and both likely suffered from PTSD, he said. His dad was a mean drunk. He had Coonce’s mother committed to what at the time was called the Indiana Hospital for the Insane in 1955, where she stayed until her release in 1972.
“It wasn’t the kind of care she needed, but you have to understand,” Coonce said, empathy thick in his voice, “in those days, a husband could actually commit his wife to a mental institution.”
The Coonce kids were split up and sent to different foster homes. Ed and his sister stayed together, landing with a farm family on the northwest side of Indianapolis. It was a happy time.
“I started school there, they treated us well and loved us,” he said.
The idyllic life wouldn’t last.
After four years with the family the state ripped away Coonce and his sister’s secure footing “and put us in a fundamentalist minister’s home,” he said. “We were abused, beaten and all of those kinds of things, practically every day we were there.”
Social workers checked on Coonce’s and his sister’s well-being once — an effort he called “sadly inadequate.”
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“I learned from a very early age that I could be self-sufficient to a degree,” he said. For example, he got a weekend job working for a local farmer at his greenhouse for 35 cents an hour.
“I saved my money in a jar all summer, and when school started, the minister’s wife took my money,” he said. “I had nothing left. I will never forget that.”
Again, his tone is understanding if not fully forgiving.
“She had some serious problems of her own, too, now that I look back on it,” Coonce said. “She had an eating disorder where she was starving herself. I don’t think she wanted to be there, either, and was taking it out on us kids. He just let her do it.”
He kept his head down, for the most part.
“I just kind of went along to get along,” he said, putting himself more than 60 years in the past. “I’ll learn to pray, I’ll bow down, I’ll listen to my elders.”
Life was still unbearable, though. Coonce said that he was 13, he “got up the courage to run away.”
“They brought me back, and I ran away again. They brought me back, and I ran away again,” he recalled of his desperation to leave the situation. After his third attempt to flee, caseworkers concluded, “it seems you don’t want to be here.”
But he survived and finally had a chance to thrive.
A Regular Kid
He was placed at the Marion County Children’s Guardians Home, for more than 120 years the only stable home known to the thousands of youths who passed through its doors. The first of its kind in the country, it was not an orphanage or reformatory, but a rescue program for abused, neglected and abandoned children.
“I flourished there,” Coonce said. “I went to public schools, got good grades, was on the wrestling team, played football and became first-chair tuba for the Indianapolis Youth Symphony.”
Finally, he could be a regular kid. As such, “I learned a lot of hoodlum stuff, too,” he said.
It was typical boyhood hijinks kids who grew up outside the state system can relate to — a chance to even the score with a neighborhood kid who bullied and taunted Coonce and his Children’s Guardians Home friends. A few shop owners weren’t too keen on them, either.
A plan came together at Christmastime when he was 15. Coonce and his buddy Ronnie snuck out of their dormitory after lights out. Their first target was the store where they’d been treated poorly. Its Christmas tree ended up on the roof. They also robbed the crèche with the neighborhood bully in mind.
“He had one of those three-wheeled Fiats,” Coonce recalled. “We put Mary riding shotgun, Joseph in the back with the wise men and baby Jesus behind the wheel.”
It furiously snowed that night, and snowplows buried the small car. “It was a week before the snow melted,” Coonce said, chuckling at the memory.
‘My Country Is Calling’
After graduation, Coonce worked the night shift at a factory and went to college during the day. The schedule was grueling, and with the Vietnam War escalating, Coonce figured he should join up before he was drafted, often the fate for young men without prominent families or political connections.
“At that point in time, I felt, ‘It’s my patriotic duty. I should just do it. My country is calling. If I go do this, I’ll get the GI Bill to go to college,’” he said.
He joined the Marines in 1967, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam and earning an early discharge.
“I went through all kinds of things people do in war,” he said, but like many combat veterans, fast-forwarded through that part of his life story, skipping details that still haunt him.
He said, simply, “I was in eight major operations and was lucky I survived. I’ve had shrapnel through my flak jacket and bullets graze my helmet. I’ve had guys shot next to me, but I was lucky and came out of it with a few scratches and PTSD — and a real fondness for pho.”
‘That’s How I Missed Woodstock’
When Coonce came home from the war in 1969, his first stop was a used car lot. He bought a baby blue Triumph sports car for $375 and took off on Route 66, one of the most famous roadways in America.
“When I got to I-40, I picked up this kid hitchhiking,” Coonce recalled. “He had long hair and was a hippie type. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked. He said, ‘I’m going to Woodstock.’ ”
In the jungle for two years, Coonce didn’t understand.
“‘Where have you been, man?’ he asked. I said, ‘Man, I’ve been in Vietnam.’”
He dropped off his passenger in Indianapolis and went to a high school girlfriend’s house. She wasn’t home. She had gone out with her boyfriend, her sister said.
“And that’s how I missed going to Woodstock.”
He enrolled in business school and graduated from Indiana University. He amused himself by “jumping out of airplanes, racing motorcycles and blowing off steam.” He met his first wife, Kathie, who surprised him with his first Leap Day birthday party in 1972, while in school.
“It was the first time I had even an acknowledgment of my birthday. We had a party at her mom’s house and all the family was there, and a lot of friends. It wasn’t a huge deal — just a basic birthday party,” he said, understating it.
A lawyer, Kathie got a job offer in San Diego.
“Let’s get out of this cold,” he agreed. “It was 15 degrees and there was 2 feet of snow the day we left. I had to dig my tires out of the ice. We drove all the way to California and into San Diego. It was like driving out of the ice into fire. The eastern part of San Diego was 90 degrees, and there were fires and plumes of smoke as far as the eye could see.”
The marriage lasted seven years. He worked at various jobs, including climbing towers surging with 50,000 volts of electricity as a lineman, selling cars and working as a service manager before eventually landing in the printing industry in 1995, working until 2010 when the new owners “let everybody over the age of 50 go.”
“I retired early,” he said.
‘I’m Really Lucky’
Before the layoff, he had gone back to college and took a creative writing class, writing tales of intelligent mice in walls that heard everything and other fantasies, one of them nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He engaged his creative side, becoming an artist and landing a few local shows. He took community theater parts and made short films, one of them featured in the 2012 Oceanside International Film Festival.
He and Lucy, who married in 1983, are favorites among the children in his condominium development in Encinitas. They are important parts of many families.
“I get the opportunity to have kids come over and get close with their families,” he said. “We go to the garage and I teach them art. We do different projects they can take home. They just pop in whenever they feel like it, and know they are welcome.”
He has a good life.
“I’m looking out onto the patio at the pool, the sunshine and a couple of people in the Jacuzzi, the palm trees being trimmed and waiting for the next weekend,” he said, adding a sarcastic postscript “or until the next atmospheric river.”
“I started out sad and was that way for a while, but I hung in there through the ups and downs,” he said. “A lot of kids didn’t make it. A couple guys are in jail forever. Some people got on drugs and that kind of thing and ended up in sad circumstances. I don’t know what happened to a lot of them.”
Coonce doesn’t define himself by his circumstances as a child. As an adult, he hopes to leave a mark “not just through what I say, but what I do,” he said.
“I feel like I’m really lucky that I don’t drink, don’t smoke — and I was exposed to all of that stuff,” he said. “I’m glad I am as healthy as I am.”
Coonce figures he’ll live for another 25 years and have four more birthdays.
This year, he’s urging all Leapers “to act their birthday age, rather than their real age.”
“And see how that works out,” Coonce said, the mischief back in his voice.
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