When I saw him get out of his car at the Walmart, my eyes immediately went to his cap. He had that clear-eyed forthright look that was emblematic of his generation, the one Tom Brokaw dubbed The Greatest Generation. As I walked over to him, he looked a little wary. I said “Excuse me sir…I saw your WWII Veteran cap and I just wanted to thank you for you service.”
With a grip of steel he shook my hand. He looked like he had been caught off guard, and got a little misty eyed and said…”142.” He then looked me dead in the eye and said, “This makes 142 people who have thought enough to come over to me to thank me for serving.” He told me that he was sick about our country and how we have forgotten who we are. I told him I had served as Navy Chaplain and he then said “You know I have made and lost a lot of money had three or four successful businesses and lived a prosperous life, but the only thing that matters to me now is my Savior Jesus Christ.”
As we got into the store I told him that I wanted to go out to my car to get something to give him and that I would come back into the store and find him. When I came back I looked up and down the aisles looking for him when I passed another guy (younger than the first man) who also had a cap…His started with the letters ‘DD-____” I went up to him, and exaggerated the fact that I was looking at his cap. “So…you served on a destroyer?” I shook his hand and thanked him too. He took his hat off and began to show me the pins and decals. He stopped on one small orange one that I didn’t recognize. He got that far off look and said two words, “…..Agent Orange.”
“I get it…” I said sheepishly “I get how much it cost you…” I squeezed his shoulder and went on to find the WWII vet.
Later, as I walked to my car, I remembered an incident earlier this winter when I was driving down highway 99 in a driving rainstorm. For some reason I was thinking, as I often do in inclement weather, about what our troops endure when they are deployed—rain…sleet… snow… camel spiders in their boots in the morning… blistering heat exceeding 130 degrees in full Kevlar gear…sand fleas—when out of the blue, and out of the corner of my field of vision, I spotted something that I really thought may have been some sort of hallucination.
There they were… a small group of soldiers…in WWII era uniforms their vintage weapons slung over their shoulders… marching in a patrol formation on the shoulder of the road. I almost got into an accident as I pulled off to the shoulder of the road to get a better look. Then I crossed the highway. The lead man signaled “Halt” and then I asked him. “Please… I don’t mean to interrupt you but what is this?
He went onto tell me that he and his friends took it on themselves to do this march on the highway to commemorate all the troops that came through Camp Adair when it was a training command during the war. They obliged me as I took this picture.
Just yesterday I had an experience that tied up what it is I want to say in this post. I heard there was going to be a musical held at a Concert hall in Eugene called “In the Mood.” It was fabulous recreation of the Big Band and Swing music of the WWII era. I called and invited my friend Leonard. Leonard was a member of the congregation I served for 20 years. He was B-25 crew chief who participated the North Africa campaign, the invasion of Sicily and numerous other battles in WWII.
Over the years Leonard and I had the sad duty of conducting many—many… too many—funerals of the veterans in Lane County. I would preach and he would be in charge of the VFW members who were rendering military honors. He had in his life been a university professor, a Bible College President, and Missionary to the aboriginal peoples in Alaska.
After an amazing performance, the cast of the musical “In the Mood” turned up the house lights, and then the orchestra commenced to play the songs for every branch of the service. They urged every veteran and active member of that service to stand and be recognized. When they got to Army Air Corps, my 93 year old friend checked himself to see that he was squared away and lifted his unsteady frame and stood tall.
For a moment he was 18 again (He enlisted the day after he graduated from High School…and spent 3 years and five days overseas…he told me many times that the last five days were the hardest) and stood there as living monument to all that is good about America. I have grown tired about all the apologies from our President about American exceptionalism, and patriotism. If you want to find about such things, perhaps it would be best to not search in the faculty lounge or the pop culture. Maybe the answer is found in the Walmart parking lot, or on highway 99 in a rainstorm, or in eyes of a white haired old man with an elegance and authority carved in his face.
I challenge you to begin to read the ball caps and to take the time to go up and shake the hand of those who served. Prepare to be changed forever. I am…every time.