(A repost from Nov. 2007 that I wrote to honor the veterans I knew as a kid...)
Disappearing Heroes: A Tribute to the Veterans I Once Knew
Once upon a time, there were great story-tellers in my family. That's how I thought of them, anyhow. Truth was, they were veterans- the closest thing to a world traveler one ever met in the boondocks of Nixon Chapel, Alabama. This is a little story about their little stories.
My mother's dad, Dwight L. Moman. (The L. stood for nothing- a perfectly acceptable convention in the 20's South- like my Uncle Billy D. and J.D., etc.) Papa was a hard-to-please person, but he grew a little soft around the edges if he could interest you in a story. He spent WWII as a cook in the Pacific arena, feeding the hungry men fortunate enough to return for the next meal. The impression I got is that he didn't see a lot of first-hand action. Too bad, since he created some of his own from time to time. Like the time he fixed the latrine with chemicals that blew up under the behind of an unsuspecting and ornery superior officer. That was the closest he came to being sent to the front line, or so we hear.
My mother's uncle, Tommy L. Mitchell (his L stood for Lee). I was blessed to grow up around many great-aunts and uncles, and we were super close to Uncle Tommy. Oh, but his stories were amazing. A slight, mild-mannered man who in his post-war days became a professional watchmaker, he defined the word "genteel." So hard to believe he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, spent frigid weeks bundled in foxholes with suicidal comrades, and took Germany a house at a time. He told of an invisible hand that pulled him back onto a transport when he fell off in enemy territory. Of crawling under machine gun fire across snowy fields, of the grenade that finally took him out of the service. He would practically whisper these tales over a watch he was fixing. We tried to record the stories, but he didn't talk loud enough to get it all on tape.
Then there was Mr. Johnny, the one-legged man who kept the community cemetery mowed and weedeeded (I KNOW that can't be correct, but that's how it sounds) for donations left in a little metal box. And how my mom, looking under her bed to check for boogie-men as a child, saw his leg dressed and ready to go and nearly had a heart-attack. My grandmother had 'borrowed'? his leg for some weird reason- like show and tell for her kindergartner class or something. Sick.
And the family member, who shall remain unnamed, who survived years in a Japanese POW camp. He tells no stories, which is perhaps the most interesting story of all.
This Veteran's Day, I want to say thank you to all the veterans and active members of the service. Your sacrifice is... well, beyond words. I exercise the freedom of speech you've protected to say THANK YOU. All the people I've mentioned above are now gone, except for the POW survivor. If you have a WWII veteran left alive in your family, make sure to sit and hear their story one more time. I wish I could.