I never served one day in the Armed Forces. It simply was not my destiny. Sometimes, even now, I lay awake long into the night and wonder what if…… And I have always, deep down, been just a little ashamed that someone else was sent off to do my fighting for me.
Maybe that is why I so admire, appreciate and love, in the truest sense of that word, every single man and woman that ever suited up on my behalf!
My first encounter with veterans started way back in grade school. On the eleventh day of the eleventh month the whole school turned out by the flag pole to see these old men line up behind a little cannon they’d brought with them. Miss Carolyn said they were from World War I. They’d wait till exactly eleven o’clock, fire off that cannon, and then step back, rather smartly I thought for old guys, and salute while the high school band played the Star Spangled Banner. Most of them would wear their uniform jacket or an old green army hat. Some were tall and skinny; others short and fat. They looked pretty ordinary to me. I couldn’t picture those old guys fighting anybody!
We called it Armistice Day back then.
Daddy was a veteran. He never said a word about World War II. And I mean not one word! Me and David Mark couldn’t believe it when we found that old uniform in the closet. We had never heard of the South Pacific, and had no clue where it was. Mother wouldn’t let us ask him hardly anything about the war. Dave and I did take those bright colored ribbons and arrowheads off that dress uniform and pinned them on our t-shirts. We promptly lost them playing army down at the big ditch. If Dad ever noticed the missing awards, he never said a word. You’d a’ thought the whole war was just something to forget about and move on. Dad was about as ordinary as anybody you’d ever seen.
I knew Chandler King was at Pearl Harbor. I remember Peajacket Lawrence served in the Navy. Mr. Ben Gaines had fought in Italy. Anne Alexander’s father was in the service. As was Yogi’s and Ruth Ann’s. Almost all the merchants around town had served in one branch or the other. They seemed like such ordinary men to me.
I was in the seventh grade before I realized there might be more to this veteran thing than meets the eye. You understand how silly and immature you can be at that age. I came home one day limping along and moving my head about, mocking an old man that lived just outside of town. In my own defense here, I knew nothing about shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder. I made a couple of passes across the porch when it dawned on my Father who I was making fun of. Folks, he leaped across a rocker and two swings and lifted me off the concrete steps with one hand. He was literally shaking he was so mad! I could make fun of the ladies and their big hats at church and he never said a word. I could “preach” with my hand up in the air like Brother Hatcher and that was o.k. I picked on the wrong guy. “Son, you don’t know what that man has gone through. You have no idea of the nightmares he has seen. You don’t have a clue as to the sacrifices he has made. You wouldn’t know a real hero if he ran over you in a lighted hallway!”
It was the only war related speech Dad ever gave. I think my youth and utter stupidity was all that kept me from being killed right there on the front porch! And, you’d better believe, I got the message loud and clear; a message of love, sacrifice and duty that knows no bounds or limits.
By the ninth grade, I noticed half of the World War I guys that came out to celebrate the 11th with us were gone. I remembered Miss Belle telling us that every World War I veteran in town always participated in the event. What was left of them still fired the cannon and stepped back as spritely as ever.
I took notice for the first time of those ordinary men around town. Come Fourth of July at the parade, when our small high school band struck up The National Anthem, those men came to a ram rod straight position. Their chins were up. Their moist eyes fixed on the American flag. Undoubtedly, they were transported to another place and another time. And I can only imagine the horrors of war and the remembrances that must be streaming across their collective minds……..especially of the ones they personally knew that didn’t come back.
Ordinary men, I don’t think so!
We’ve sent the same caliber of people, including David Mark, to Viet Nam. We have them now in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
By November 11th, 1964, my senior year in high school, there were only four World War I veterans left. One was in a wheel chair. It had snowed and those men were standing in the freezing temperature to fire that old cannon. As the band hit the first note, the man in the wheel chair struggled to his feet. His lifelong friends got him erect. Everyone stood for the presentation of the colors!
That was the day I shed my first tears for an American veteran.