History teacher Jim Pustay doesn’t always tell stories. But when he does, they tend to be wild. Crazy, amazing and fantastic experiences that border on the surreal, so surreal that many don’t know what to make of them. A classic debate during the 13 years Pustay has been here has been: “Are his stories true?”
“I’ve gotten to do what I want on my own terms,” Pustay said. “I’ve visited every state several times, been to over 40 countries, lived in 11 of them for more than several years.”
Pustay was able to become a jack of all trades due to his career in the military: working in the Air Force allowed him to visit more than 40 countries in a period of 21 years. Born on Oct. 16, 1952 in Youngstown, Ohio, he first got into the military after high school when he received a low draft number.
“My father lost his job at the steel mill when I was 13 so I didn’t have the money to go to college,” he said. “The only way I could go was by joining the military. I spent eight and a half weeks in basic training and was assigned to go to Vietnam; the irony of it all was that I joined the Air Force to avoid going there.”
Pustay originally trained to be a linguist who would teach Vietnamese counterparts English, but then trained to be a crew chief after Vietnamization by the U.S. government, kept him here since they were attempting to withdraw troops from the area. However, after getting in trouble from too much horseplay, Pustay was ultimately given the option of going to court or going to Vietnam.
“My first time there traveling by air craft, I was put in charge of 60 prisoners that went absent without leave from Vietnam, even though I had no idea what to do,” he said. “As soon as we landed, I remember I was soaked in sweat from the 130 degree weather and everything smelled like death.”
As soon as Pustay got off the craft, he saw people being killed. Right in front, just like the commercial in which the people can freeze their TV from one room to the next, Pustay saw one man get shot while running and another blowing himself up. But Pustay was somewhat used to the violence.
“Our town, Youngstown, Ohio, was called ‘Murder Town USA’ for many years,” he said. “There were big wars going on between the mob families in Chicago and New York: Ohio was a middle-ground. Part of normal routine was checking under your car every morning since there were gang hits all the time.”
Pustay had several experiences with the Italian Mafia while he worked as an assistant manager at Arby’s. Starting work at the age of 14 making malts and sundaes, he was the youngest assistant manager the business had ever had at the time.
“The Italian Mob happened to like Arby’s,” he said. “They’d call in and want two to three hundred Arby’s at 10 o’ clock at night. They’d come in looking just like the guys from the ‘Sopranos’ with their guns, and they actually paid quite well.”
In Vietnam, Pustay worked a night shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m for up to 40 days in a row at a time, doing jobs that ranged from tracking down escaped enemies with dogs or watering banana trees planted to beautify the U.S. headquarters.
“Vietnam was surreal,” Pustay said. “I didn’t know my standards at the time, and anything was fair game there. People could peer pressure me into playing poker with body parts, and drugs and prostitution were fluent on the streets. Little kids were drug dealers or were strapping explosives on themselves to kill two to three U.S. soldiers.”
During his time in the East, Pustay visited Australia, Thailand, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. He says no matter where he went, he tried to take full advantage and experience the culture by eating the food, making friends with the people and participating in religious and spiritual ceremonies.
“I was intrigued by the Eastern philosophy,” Pustay said. “I was always trying to learn the difference between the East and the West in terms of time, space and reality, and wherever I went, the people always took me in and welcomed me. In Thailand, my buddies and I rented elephants to go night clubbing, and in Taiwan, I got to visit the Shaolin monks and pick up some martial arts.”
Eventually, the military sent Pustay to New Mexico around the age of 20. Not wanting to live on the base, Pustay rented a trailer with his buddy on Apache grounds and participated in several of their ceremonies and heard their stories. In the desert, Pustay learned to dirt bike, sky dive and drag race semi-professionally.
“My friends and I used to go to Mexico to barter,” he said. “To be safe, we had to get a taxi driver that represented a cartel member, and we’d pay the cartel for protection while we watched bull fights.”
Pustay returned to Youngstown after receiving a call about his grandmother having a stroke. There he studied at Youngstown State University, one of the six colleges he was able to attend since the military funded much of his education, and got married at the age of 25. Wanting to experience as much as possible, Pustay worked at least 100 different types of jobs during his time there that ranged from volunteer fire-fighter to a rat catcher. Ultimately, he decided to go back to flying and rejoined the Air Force.
“During this time, I got into my second air craft-accident, which killed my flying career,” Pustay said. “All my vertebrae were split and they had to do fusions on my spine and take out disks which made me lose a lot of my height.”
Pustay was in and out of the hospitals for three years and his occupation in the Air Force became listed as patient. During this time, Pustay went to law school, and then left after a year to get an MBA in business and general management when he became interested in hospital administration.
“As a hospital administrator, my family and I travelled a lot,” Pustay said. “We moved to England for 3 1/2 years and traveled to Germany, Italy and France. I travelled everywhere and I loved being a jack of all trades, yet I always found myself gravitating back to teaching.”
Pustay retired at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at 40 and went to University of Central Florida to get five graduate level courses since he could afford to become a teacher since he had a nice investment behind him with his Air Force and VA retirement. He began teaching several classes at Our Lady of Lourdes ranging from religion to Spanish, and eventually was hired at West Shore.
“Pustay has taught me about work ethic and how to deal with AP classes,” sophomore Ilana Krause said. “He’s a great teacher, and I’ve really learned a lot from him.”
Pustay turned down a six figure job to work for 18,000 a year to work with kids as a teacher.
“I love working with kids,” Pustay said. “They keep me young and keeps me away from thinking of my ailment. I’ve always wanted to give back, and money has never been an object for me.”
Though Pustay suffered from pesticide poisoning similar to DDT from eating tainted fruit in Mexico that severely damaged his body, he continued to teach, walking with a cane at times.
“I have a lot of admiration and respect for Mr. Pustay,” history teacher Bob Sarver said. “Since he’s been here, he’s made a lot of sacrifices, especially considering his illness. He goes out of his way for students and does things he really doesn’t need to do. A lot of teachers wouldn’t do what he does because it’s too much work.”
Senior Cindy Thaung, who was in Pustay’s AP U.S. History class, is inspired by his efforts.
“Pustay has mad respect factor,” Thaung said. “He’s this rare balance between being really chill and understanding the hassles of student life. He’s really informative and a good facilitator.”