Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before. On second thought, I take that back. Even if I have shared it, this one bears repeating and is probably more relevant today than it was when the incident occurred — back when I had all my hair, among other things.
We were having a party at our house. We have lots of parties at our house. Naturally, I had forgotten something and my lovely wife, Lisa, sent me to the store, just minutes before our guests were to arrive. I was in a hurry, understand.
I picked up the items I needed and headed for the express line, thankful that I only had a half-dozen items in my buggy. That’s a shopping cart to my Northern-bred brethren. All of the regular registers had extremely long lines and, like I said, I was in a hurry.
There was an old man, gray-haired and bent over, heading straight toward the express line and he clearly had more than the allotted 10-15 items in his buggy. I could have sped up and beat him to the register, but not without being obvious, so I smiled — maybe I actually grimaced — and let him go first. But I was in a great hurry, remember.
It took that poor man forever to unload his cart and I was getting more impatient by the nanosecond. I am certain that I must have been on my very worst behavior. I probably did a lot of eye-rolling, which I learned from my youngest daughter, and probably crossed my arms and drummed my fingers and let out an audible sigh or three.
Finally the man’s groceries were rung up and the person running the register told him how much he owed. She had to tell him a couple of times as a matter of fact. Then he slowly reached into his pockets and brought out one of those old-fashioned snap purses and opened it up, slowly pulling out a wad of bills. His fingers were gnarled — he obviously had a bad case of arthritis — and it took him forever to count out the bills. I wanted so badly to just run up and slide my debit card through the machine. Did I mention that I was in a big hurry because people were coming to my house?
After he had counted out the correct amount of folding money he began digging around for the correct change and spilled his purse all over the floor. Nickels, dimes, quarters and pennies went everywhere. Exasperated, I got down on my hands and knees to help him pick up the loose coins. The thoughts running through my mind were not filled with Christian charity. Then I saw a ring on one of his bent fingers, emblazoned with the letters “USMC,” and I felt about this tall. (This is where you imagine me holding my thumb and forefinger really close together — almost touching.)
My resentment went out of me like the air out of a balloon. “What years did you serve in the Marine Corps?” I asked him, when our eyes met. We were both on our hands and knees at this point.
“I went in on the Monday after Pearl Harbor,” he told me, “and was home for Christmas in 1945.”
“See much action?” I asked him. He rattled off the names of a lot of Pacific Islands he should have never heard of — like Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and a few others.
“Lose many friends?” I asked somberly, because I didn’t know what else to ask.
By this time we were standing and he looked right through me, into his own past. “Some of the best boys in the world,” he said, not to me but to posterity. Then he repeated, “Some of the best boys in the world.”
It is Memorial Day weekend. I plan to celebrate. I’ll swim and cook some ribs and maybe even have a fish fry. I’ll make homemade ice cream and party with my pals and if I get lucky I will get to play a round or two of golf and if I am really lucky I might get invited to my friends’ lake house. If it rains I will watch a war movie or two.
But I will never forget why we have Memorial Day. I will never lose sight of the fact that millions of Americans have gone off to war on behalf of this nation. Far too many have laid their lives upon the altar of liberty. Like the old man in the grocery store said, “Some of the best in the world.”
I hope you will celebrate Memorial Day, and I hope you will remember who paid for the party.