What is it about soldiers that sets them apart from every other person in the world? Those of you who know me, know that I detest war, in fact, cruelty of any kind. I understand that there are times when war becomes unavoidable, but I still hate it.
That doesnt mean that I dont respect the soldier. Anyone willing to put his or her life at risk, to protect others, deserves whatever honor can be bestowed. Courage, to me, does not mean that one is not afraid. It means to move ahead, despite your fears, and do what needs to be done. Heroes are those people who set aside concern for themselves to help others. With that in mind, I want to tell you about something that happened this weekend, but first, I need to give you some background.
The winter of 1944-45 was extreme, across Europe. Temperatures often went below zero, and snow piled up around Allied forces who were struggling against the German onslaught. Frozen ground made it impossible to dig foxholes. In January of 1945, the 3rd US Infantry Division assisted French troops, as they attacked the southern edge of an area called the Colmar Pocket. The 7th Regiment cleared the area between the Fecht and Ill rivers, enduring heavy shelling as it moved ahead. The following weeks brought more combat and shelling, as the regiment moved up the Rhine. Snow melted and the frozen ground turned to mud. Under heavy fire, the 7th marched on, ultimately taking Hitler’s fortified compound, a few miles outside the village of Berchtesgaden, on Kehlstein Mountain. That was the fourth day of May, 1945.
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This past Saturday, I went to a local tire store to get new treads for the Stew Wagon. After being blown off the road in a howling Kansas rainstorm, I thought it was probably time. The people at Peerless Tire, in Northglenn, always take good care of me, so that’s where I went. (Theyr’e great to work with, but you dont want to use their restroom.) In the waiting area, I sat across from an old man. He was alone, one shaking hand on the crook of his cane, and the other on his knee. The skin was wrinkled, thin, and spotted with age. Eyes looking ahead, he didnt speak. A hearing device was clipped to his pocket, and he wore black headphones.
I said, “Good morning.”
“What’s that?”, he asked, leaning toward me.
“Good morning,” I repeated, a little louder.
“Good morning,” he replied, ”I’m sorry. I’m deaf. Lost my hearing in World War II.”
“How did that happen?”, I asked.
He looked surprised. “Concussion!”, his voice was firm. “I was in the 7th Infantry Regiment. We were shelled in France, then in Belgium, and all the way into Germany.” His eyes looked directly into mine.
In my sixty years, I’ve met many vets. Some were proud, others bitter and angry, but I’d never met one who moved me like this man. The seeming helplessness of him contrasted keenly against my mental image of a young, vital soldier in fatigues, smoking cigarettes, and laughing with his buddies. Involuntarily, moisture filled my eyes, as I said, “Thank you.”
“I didnt do much”, he said, “Just drove a truck.”
“You gave up your hearing”, I countered, a little choked up. “What was in the truck?”
“Cans of fuel for our tanks and halftracks.”
Whoa! How terrifying must it have been for a twentysomething boy to drive a truck full of diesel fuel through barrage after barrage of heavy artillery fire! Imagine, all those days, stretching into months, through the snow and muck, and never knowing if it might be his day. Maybe you’d get used to it, but I doubt it. That, in my mind, is courage, deserving of respect.
About that time, a younger man came in. “You ready to go?” As he stood up, so did I. I wanted to shake the hand of this man who sacrificed his hearing for me, all those years ago. It was thin, trembling, and the grip was weak, but I was honored to shake it. One more time, I said, “Thank you”, as the younger man held the door for this hero.
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Life amazes me, by so often putting marvelous people and things into my path. Here’s the thing, though, I have to be open to it. If I had chosen not to greet this man, I would never have known his story. I am so grateful that, over seventy-five years later, I was able to say, “Thank you”.
That’s it for me. Enjoy the Life you’re living.