People once commonly called Las Vegas “the city without clocks” in a nod to the 24-hour nature of the place, but when Norm Ziola and Bert Stehle visited here this past week, time was very much on their minds.
They felt the pang of the time that had passed and the urgency of the time that remained. Brothers separated by an adoption nearly 64 years ago, they met in person for the first time Tuesday. And for a few short days, they managed to turn back the years.
Accompanied by wives Denise and Charlotte, Ziola and Stehle ate and drank and talked about their lives. They found they shared a seemingly endless list of similar likes and dislikes. Both are cancer survivors. Each possesses a playfully biting sense of humor. While Bert can’t handle garlic and Norm prefers beer to gin, the brothers found themselves laughing easily and ribbing each other as if they had been separated by a few weeks instead of more than six decades.
Now 70, Ziola was put up for adoption as a newborn in 1943 at a Catholic birthing hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Bert, now 64, was raised with their birth mother, who didn’t reveal the earlier pregnancy. Ziola is a retired homicide detective who had investigated more than 200 slayings, but solving the mystery of his identity proved a daunting challenge.
“It took me so many years of searching,” Ziola says. “I hit roadblocks, and hit roadblocks.”
It was only when Missouri changed its law in 2012 that he finally gained access to information essential in finding his long-lost sibling.
While Ziola felt the ache of unanswered questions common to the adopted, Bert says, “I never knew anything. Nothing. But I always said I wanted a brother. I didn’t know what to expect. But this has turned out a lot better than even I thought.”
A year ago, Stehle was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness when he received a letter that informed him he had a big brother. He was almost speechless.
The two men began a correspondence and spoke via phone for the first time on Memorial Day this past year. They were determined to meet, but Bert’s life was complicated by a leukemia diagnosis.
Once Stehle felt up to traveling, the brothers decided to meet in Las Vegas. On Tuesday evening, they saw each other for the first time — and almost immediately began to laugh and share stories.
“In the three or four days we’ve been together,” Ziola says, “it seems like we’ve known each other all our lives.”
Now that he has a little brother, he adds, isn’t he supposed to take him out in the back yard and give him a whipping?
The grown men laugh and acknowledge neither is in any shape to recover from such a tussle.
“Their personalities are a lot alike,” Bert’s Charlotte says.
“I mean a lot a lot alike,” adds Norm’s Denise.
And both men appreciate the gift they’ve been given: a brother, and time enough to make a friend.
Although their mother kept her secret, she also was cognizant of the passage of time. She kept an elaborate clock collection. “She had a whole room full of clocks,” Charlotte says. “She loved them.”
When Bert was laid off at the Buick plant in Flint, Mich., he took a job in a clock factory. He even made cuckoo clocks for a while.
Approximately 2,000 miles away, Ziola worked as a homicide detective. In his spare time, he collected watches. “I have a watch fetish,” he says. “I’ve got a whole box of watches.”
The two couples left Las Vegas on Saturday to travel north to Ziola’s home at Topaz Lake. After a few days in Reno, the Stehles will fly back to their home to Clio, Mich.
But they will write and call.
And they promise to see each other again, these two brothers who met on the far side of their lives, but managed to become friends just in time.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.