I met a hero the other day. Normally, you might expect to meet a hero at a public event with the media present and politicians vying for camera time, but I met him in the service waiting room at an East Texas car dealership.
He stepped down out of his pickup just like any normal person, talked to the service writer and left it to have the oil changed.
He was a senior citizen, as we like to call them now, and as he walked across the driveway you could see that age had taken its toll. He was stooped and his skin was weathered by the Texas sun. He flashed a friendly smile as he headed my way, choosing an outdoor seat over a stuffy waiting room with a blaring television. He was an unimposing guy…jeans, boots and a straw cowboy hat. The hat wasn’t big, or fancy, or expensive like Hollywood cowboys wear. It was a working man’s hat…the kind you wear to shield you against the weather, but it was his go-to-town hat, too. He looked average in every way…medium height, slender build, glasses, and…well, just average looking as Texans go. He wasn’t a body builder, but he appeared fit for his age. He sat down on the bench beside me and we exchanged greetings.
The warm, morning sun had just cleared the hills behind us, and we both commented on the beautiful morning. He carried a Max Brand novel in his hand, but after we exchanged greetings, he placed it on the bench beside him and we struck up a conversation. He had already acquired my interest and I wasn’t going to let him read if I could indulge him in conversation.
We first talked about retirement, and the good old days, and cotton farming, and raising cows. He said he’d loved the idea of raising cattle since he was a kid in high school many decades earlier, but had to forego his plans to put some time in the Army.
It was then that I learned I was sitting beside a hero…a WWII combat vet. I asked him which unit he had been in…though I should have guessed. The former US Army Corporal was a native Texan and a member of the 36th Infantry Division…the Texas division…when they were sent first to Africa, and then to land on the Italian coast at Salerno in 1943.
After some general conversation about the military, he got this look in his eye. He was far away in another time, and in his soft East Texas drawl, he took me along…and I didn’t object.
He said he had wanted to tell his children and grandchildren all about war, but despite the urgings of his family, he was embarrassed to do so. I told him to respect his family’s request. They weren’t trying to humor an old man, they were truly interested. He said he had recorded part of his story on audio tapes, but hadn’t gone into the detail about many of the things that still filled his mind. One of his grandchildren had copied the tapes on a CD, but what he had recorded didn’t include everything he wanted to say...there was still so much to tell. All the little things.
He wanted them to understand what it was really like to be scared every day, but to hide the fear with jokes and bravado, like young men in combat always do. He wanted to explain what it felt like to be exhausted, and hungry, and cold, and wet for weeks on end. What it was like to look across an open field at the enemy whose job it was to defeat you by taking your life, and knowing you would soon meet him eye to eye. He wanted people to understand what went on in your mind when you saw friends die in an instant, and what it was like to cheat injury or death by a turn of fate’s card. He wanted to tell them that the way you dealt with it was to get rip-roaring drunk when you could, or to find a private place to cry until you couldn’t cry anymore. He told me several stories about individual battles, and what had happened to him and members of his unit.
The stories were not boastful tales of triumph, but rather one man’s quiet account of his tiny role in a brutal war fought between powerful countries. He never bragged that he had done anything more than what was expected of him as a member of a mortar squad. I don’t know if he was awarded any individual citations. He didn’t say, and I didn't ask, but he did say he was one of only two men in his original company not killed or wounded. He marveled at his good fortune, but mourned the loss of so many friends. He didn’t complain or speak ill of the government that sent him to war. It was something that had to be done and he was obliged to do his part. His pride was apparent, but his deeds were not demanding of praise or comment. And there was no anger in his voice, only the need to explain how it really was. I was eager to listen, and he was willing to talk about it.
You might wonder why, without medals and fanfare, I’ve referred to the Corporal from Texas as a hero, but that’s easy to explain. He belongs to a generation that’s rapidly disappearing; a generation we’ve selfishly taken for granted…and they’ve not complained. Not enough of us understand their personal sacrifice, nor do we appreciative how they built the world we live in today. The young soldiers that went to war did what was asked and expected of them, and they did it to the best of their ability. Like so many veterans I’ve talked to, he didn’t come home with expectations of being treated special. He did his job, and then he came home to rejoin society and start a family. He could finally get back home to raise cattle and to live the life he loved. When you are a real hero, that’s what you do. No demands. No whining. You quietly get on with life. I’m certain he’d be embarrassed at being called a hero, but in my eyes, he and his generation are all heroes. Their sacrifice allowed me all the comforts I now enjoy, and their labors have given the modern world a standard of living that couldn’t have even been envisioned when they were young.
All too soon the mechanic returned with his truck, and our conversation had to end. I could have listened to him for hours, but like anything good, a small amount makes you appreciate it even more. He apologized for bending my ear, but in my mind, he was passing on a personal record of history and I thank him for both the lesson and the pleasure of his company. We shook hands and I watched him walk away. It was time to do what modest heroes do. It was time to go home and check on the cows.