When Petr Švihovec went for a walk in the Czech woods with his metal detector last fall, he never could have imagined what he’d find — or that it would take him across the globe.
At the site of a former POW camp, he unearthed a small, silver bracelet that belonged to an American soldier, a soldier who, to Švihovec’s shock, was still alive in a small city he knew nothing about: Grand Junction, Colorado, USA.
Months later, that’s where Švihovec was, readying himself to knock on the veteran’s door. He smiled and breathed heavily. He’d come all the way from Prague.
“I am so happy, but so nervous,” he said.
Joe Esquibel was just a teenager when he bought that bracelet right before shipping off to war. He had his own signature engraved on one side, and on the other, scratched his girlfriend’s name: Lydia. After the war, Joe and Lydia were married for nearly 70 years, until she died in 2019.
It was their oldest daughter, Jolene Esquibel-Archuleta, who greeted Švihovec at the door of her big, Southwestern-themed house.
“It’s so nice to meet you!” she said, giving him a hug and walking him into the living room, where Esquibel was waiting in an easy chair. “OK, Dad, here he is, the man of the hour. I should say, the men of the hour!”
At 95 years old, Esquibel used his walker to stand up and shake Švihovec’s hand. As they greeted each other, both were beaming.
“I just can’t believe it,” Esquibel said. “Can’t believe it at all.”
Švihovec’s eyes were misty, and he laughed in a pleased, overwhelmed way.
“It’s my happy day, really,” he said.
Not only had Švihovec found Esquibel’s long-lost bracelet, but he had worked tirelessly to find its owner. With the help of a historian and countless others, he eventually found Esquibel through Lydia’s obituary. It took the help of one final Internet stranger to get the bracelet back to Esquibel. But when Grand Junction resident Alena Busovska, who was born in what’s now Slovakia, called Jolene, Busovska had trouble convincing her.
At the moment, “I didn't know what to do,” Busovska said, chuckling as she thought back to that conversation. “I'm a real person. I'm not a scammer.”
Her persistence ended up being the final link in the chain of events that brought the bracelet home last year through diplomatic mail — and eventually brought her together with Esquibel, his family and Švihovec in the same living room.
Over and over, the group kept saying things like “I can’t believe it,” and “This is amazing.”
Almost everyone was teary-eyed. And Esquibel’s daughter told Švihovec there’s one more person responsible for the bracelet’s return.
“I think my mom pushed you. I think so,” Esquibel-Archuleta said. Then she sat back, as if reflecting on the impossibility of it all. “Wow. Good story.”
And the story didn’t end there. Over the next few days, the two men forged a new friendship, one night eating enchiladas and talking for hours. The next day, Švihovec came to Esquibel’s 96th birthday. And when the family visited Lydia’s grave, Švihovec was there, crying a bit as they laid down a bouquet of red roses, Lydia’s favorite.
“I feel her, I feel right now,” Esquibel-Archuleta said as they all looked down at Lydia’s headstone.
Later, when Esquibel attended a ceremony in his honor at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, Švihovec held his hand as he walked in with his cane. They were sitting right next to each other as Esquibel received a pin with a coat of arms on it from the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, who also wrote a personal letter. It was read by Busovska, one of the many people who helped make all this happen.
“Not even the best screenwriter would manage to write such a narrative about a found and returned bracelet,” she read to a collection of local media and officials.
Afterwards, Esquibel patted Švihovec on the hand.
“He did a real good job,” he said, with a laugh. “I can say that.”
And finally, this surprising saga felt real to Švihovec.
He’s sad to be leaving Colorado soon but hopes to come back. Next time, he’ll bring his wife and teenage son to meet Esquibel, who said he’s adopted Švihovec as his grandson.
“Yeah, now it’s real,” Švihovec said, “[the] world is so small.”
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