Like many Americans, Memorial Day never ceases to move me. Rivaled only by Christmas and Easter, it’s the most poignant time of the year for me, maybe because, like Christmas and Easter, it’s about life, death, and remembrance.
This Memorial Day, several images stick with me:
Recently, I was sitting at the waiting room at the nearby hospital, alternately reading something and checking email on my BlackBerry, consumed by my own little modern, technological world. Over to my left, I heard an elderly gentleman saying to another elderly gentleman, “Yes, I got there in 1943, ready to deploy to Italy….”
I looked over at the two of them. They were chatting amicably, calmly, quietly, un-ostentatiously. When the one finished a thought about the Italian campaign, the other picked up with his story about boarding a plane for Europe nearly 70 years ago.
The two men sat a few feet apart, two chairs between them. I was struck by how similar they looked. Each was probably late 80s, about 5’9”, 160 pounds, apparent good shape, minds sharp as tacks, wearing trousers on a very hot day, baseball caps, legs crossed, arms bent atop the back of a chair. They looked like farmers, and probably were farmers in their youth before they headed off to World War II. They were mirror images physically, could be mistaken for brothers, but their resemblance was more than that: each possessed a sort of serenity, a peace. You had the sense that if the doctor told them they had just weeks to live, they’d shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s a tough break, Doc. But I can’t complain.”
When the one man was fetched by an attractive young nurse, he got up, smiled, and said to her, “Nice day outside, eh?”
Both had the comportment of the gentleman American farmer, the guys who, when called to duty, did their duty—a long time ago.
Like many of you reading this article, I’ve encountered these men frequently in my life, but increasingly less so. I’m in my mid-40s. I came across them much more often 20 years ago.
I recall another such instance in the early 1990s. I pulled off I-95 in rural Virginia, early in the morning. It was only my fiancé and I—before all the kids we have now. We stopped at a McDonald’s. Sitting there was a group of old men. They were talking about “The Big One,” about “W-W-Two.” One was describing what it was like at the Battle of the Bulge, as the others listened intently.
I wonder about those men at that McDonald’s in Virginia. Are they still alive? Perhaps half of them are, at best.
I’m struggling here to provide a picture of what I regrettably know is a dying breed, a special American that my kids will not encounter in their mid-40s. What a loss that will be. These WWII vets are the essence of Americana. Norman Rockwell would have painted them for the Saturday Evening Post. And they are nearing extinction. Two decades from now, a handful will be left, and they won’t be shooting the breeze in the hospital waiting room or local McDonald’s.
That brings me to another image that sticks with me:
Speaking of Norman Rockwell, I live in a quintessential American small-town: the main street with the flags, trees, barber shops, old movie theatre, churches, and people who know your name. After you cross the railroad tracks to leave town, drive about three miles, you come to a cemetery. Whizzing past that cemetery on Memorial Day literally gives pause. It looks like every second or third tombstone is festooned with a tiny American flag. Could that be possible?
Sure, it could. My town (probably like yours) was founded in the 19th century. From then on, America’s men went to war. From the Civil War to World War I to World War II to Korea to Vietnam, among other conflicts, each generation served and died. Most died years after getting home and starting families with their sweethearts. The flags at the cemetery bear witness.
Sadly, we’re currently amid a period when we’ll observe a palpable increase in the flags at the cemetery, and a corresponding decrease in the gentlemen talking about the war at the hospital or McDonald’s. It’s a process that’s irreversible. There’s nothing we mere mortals can do about it. It’s in God’s hands.
But there is something you can do. When you see these men, talk to them. Don’t miss a golden, fleeting opportunity that your children and grandchildren will not get. Listen to them, enjoy them, and remember them.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.”
There’s still time to learn from WWII vets