The old man had slipped out the back door of the Nursing Home, quietly made his way through the trees and out to the sidewalk. He lived in the old Army-Navy Home for Veterans, and had been there for a long time. He was in his 90’s, but still got around pretty good, considering the arthritis that had set up in about every part of him that moved. His family was all gone, a son lost in Korea, another in Viet Nam, his wife long gone with the cancer. He had his old Army Field Jacket on, that he had saved all these years, too big now for his shrunken frame, but still he wore it proudly. His memory was fading fast, names and faces getting harder and harder to figure out, but, he figured, what the heck, about everyone I care a dern thing about have gone on anyway. Parts of his memory would never fade…the parts that he still had nightmares about.
At 17, he got his Mom to sign for him and joined the Army. Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, and was moving through the Pacific Island’s, faster than most people could keep up with the names. He went through training, not too far from home, Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. He was assigned to an Infantry Division and shipped to the Pacific to try to stop the cowardly enemy that had sunk all those ships in Pearl without warning. His Division started Island hopping, making landings on beach after beach, fighting for every square inch of sand and rock and broken sticks of palm trees, his luck holding strong in the early landings. He had a troop ship Kamikaze’d, that sent him over the side, swimming under the burning fuel that was on top of the water, until he finally made it to fuel free water and was picked up by the crew of another ship. It was the job that fell to him after that, which still brought on the nightmares. This enemy just would not quit, when they were licked. They had dug holes and tunnels all through the Islands and he had volunteered to go into the dark holes after them. It was hand to hand, using his Army knife, fighting in the total darkness of the tunnels. He never told anyone the terror he felt in those holes. But, he and others, dug them out of Island after Island, sometimes using flame-throwers, but usually just him, going into the dark alone. The rest of his life, after the War, he suffered from bad nerves, which he learned to cover up and keep going, year after year. Now, he was an old man, no one left that even knew what he would be talking about if he tried to have a conversation about his War years.
This week, just before Memorial Day, he decided to break out of this dungeon of a Nursing Home, go out and find himself a flag and march in the Military parade that they always had. He knew he was coming to the end, mighty soon, and this might be his last chance to feel the pride of service again. He walked down the street of his home town, first time he had been out to do that in years, and tried to remember where the parade used to be held. Seemed like it had been right here on Main Street. He tried to ask people hurrying by him, “Hey, buddy, where is the parade?” People just looked at him funny and kept on walking. An older woman stopped, and asked him what he was asking people…”I’m trying to find the Veterans Parade so I can march in It”, he said. The woman looked at him and said, “Veterans Parade? Why, laws sake, man, they have not had that parade in years, no body wanted to watch a bunch of old soldiers walk down the street.” The old man walked on down the street, crestfallen…no parade…nobody cared about all those boys that didn’t come home? Nobody remembered the vets? Well, he wouldn’t forget them. He had been laying in the sand behind some rocks on the beach of some no-name Island, when the artillery started zeroing in on his unit. He saw the shell hit and kill Judd Simpson, the boy from this very town that he had gone through training with…and Frank Jones, the boy from Georgia that the sniper got, when everyone thought the shooting was over. Bill Davis from Kentucky….Jasper Pugh from Iowa….his Sergeant that took a round through the neck, and they couldn’t get the bleeding stopped…by golly his memory was working mighty good today, and he wasn’t gonna let his friends be forgotten.
The Hardware Store ;had a flag, on a wooden pole, tied to a street light in front of the store. The old man worked with the knots and finally got the cord loose that held the pole on the street light. Hefting the flag and pole on his shoulder, he stepped out into the middle of Main Street, did a sharp right face, and started marching down the middle of the street.. Cars coming up behind him, started honking their horns for him to get out of the way so they could get around.. The old man just kept on a’marching. Then a funny thing happened, Mr. Burkett, who was the owner of the Hardware Store and a vet from Viet Nam, stepped out of his store and walked to the middle of the street with the old man. They were marching in perfect step, as Joe Baker who ran the Dairy Queen, came out and started marching with them. A deputy sheriff car pulled in behind the marchers, turned his emergency lights on and drove with them, cause the deputy was in the National Guard, and had been deployed twice in the past five years. The Marchers started shouting out the cadence call that all military personnel know so well…people were stopping their fast walking , and starting to stand by the street side in amazement. Other vets of the town came out of stores, stopped cars in the street and got out to walk with the old Jungle fighter. It had turned into a real parade. The old soldier walked proud, and when the flag pole started leaning back pretty far cause he had gotten pretty tired, the Hardware man reached over and helped him heft it higher. It was a special time for the old man.
Later, the sheriff deputy gave the old man a ride back to the Vets Home, and they talked about their different Wars, and agreed that the more times changed, the more they stay the same. A soldier’s life is pretty much the same…only the Wars change….sand is pretty much the same, in Okinawa or Iraq, and when someone is trying to kill you, the gut wrenching fear still gets you. So, the old soldier got to march in his parade, and the townspeople remembered what Memorial Day was really all about again.
Late that night, in his cubby hole room in the Vet’s Home, the old soldier was almost asleep…when he heard, or thought he heard, in the far distance…a single bugle as it blew Taps, and he felt a tear trickle down his cheek as he said a prayer for his lost comrades and closed his eyes. The next morning, the Nurse came in to check, and found the old soldier peacefully lying, his old Army Field Jacket, with the ribbons and decorations on the breast, pulled over his body. The Soldier had marched in his parade, and gone Home to Glory. His Generation of Heroes, gone forever. God bless all the old soldiers, in whatever branch of service, that have served their country, and the many that gave the ultimate sacrifice. stan