Five or six years ago, I went with Tom to the Veterans’ Clinic in Brownwood several times to see his doctor. The room was always crowded, every chair taken and the wait was always long, no matter what hour his appointed time might be. On the second or third visit, I anticipated that the wait would be long as usual. It was. Four hours to be exact. I could have read War and Peace. I chose Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a collection of stories about ordinary people involved in World War II. My reading selection was an inspired one because the patients waiting in two rows of chairs were mirrors of the ones I was reading about in Brokaw’s best seller.
Oh, there might not have been a Medal of Honor winner in the room but I suspect there were some who had earned a Purple Heart. No man dozing in a waiting room chair in relaxed fit pants, and slip-on canvas shoes had a Distinguished Flying Cross pinned to his button front shirt, yet there could have been one present. I looked around the room and mentally began to place these old warriors back to 1941 when they were young men called out to gear up and free the world.
There was the spring of youth in their step then and the strength in both mind and body to answer this country’s call to war. They were ordinary men, many only 17 or 18, not soldiers, not fighters, just guys living at home with their parents or recently married with wives and maybe young children. They had grown up in a society where a man’s word was his reputation, where folks learned to work and work hard for a living. Nobody had much money it seemed and most were glad to get any job that paid. A dollar was pretty average pay for a day’s work.
America was still mostly rural in the ‘30s so many of the men who went off to war had been raised on farms. Farm boys learn early that if something doesn’t work, then they’d better find out how to fix it. Farm boys also know how to “make-do” using what they have on hand. They don’t generally expect anybody to do something for them that they can do for themselves.
Farm boys usually make dependable soldiers. There were a whole lot of farm boys in W.W.II who had never been outside the county where they were born. They saw sights that they never thought they’d see and had experiences that they found hard to write about in letters to family back home. Sometimes, in the darkness of a bedroom, late at night, some of the awful things they had seen would come back as tormenting dreams. Then they’d wake up sweating. Boys who went off to war came back to their families changed forever in many ways.
There were city boys who went off to war too. Kids from the concrete and steel of New York City and Chicago and San Francisco signed up to serve their country. Boys that had never walked in mud or climbed a cliff or shot a rifle at a fleeing rabbit found themselves in a foxhole on some little island in the Pacific that nobody had ever heard of. They learned how to survive being shot at and death marches and prisoner of war camps. Millions learned how to die far from home and family.
I thought about those young men who went off to war and those that didn’t come back and all those who were seated in this room today, waiting. They looked like ordinary men in their late 70s and early 80s. They bore the marks of the usual changes brought on by gradual aging. You’d be hard pressed to pick out the veterans of W.W.II in a crowd. There is nothing on the outside to show that they were part of the massive force that saved the free world.
“You know kids today just don’t appreciate anything,” a man in coveralls and white athletic shoes said.
He crossed and uncrossed his legs while he waited for someone to comment.
“Well that’s sure a fact,” an overweight man in a gray shirt replied. “My grandson and his wife throw away their clothes when they get tired of wearing them, don’t even try to get any money out of them at a garage sale.”
He scratched his head and shook it like he just couldn’t understand. “Just wad ‘em up and stuff ‘em in a trash bag for the garbage truck to pick up. I’ve seen ‘em do it.”
“In my day we dang sure never threw anything away,” a man in a blue cap that read, ‘Napa Auto Parts’, said. “Heck I remember owning just one pair of shoes. When the sole got thin, I’d sit in the shoe shop with one shoe on waiting for the other one to get a half-sole.”
The wife of a still good-looking gentleman, probably pushing 80, spoke up.
“We were just down to our last dollar, or thereabouts, when war broke out. My brother went off to join the army and my folks moved to California and wound up working in an aircraft factory. That was sure an experience for me. I was a teenager and had never been anywhere. I joined the Civil Air Patrol and took aircraft identification. I can still identify all those old W.W.II planes. And the Japanese and the Nazi planes too.”
A nurse appeared from time to time in the doorway and called out a name from her list.
I listened to the conversation and remembered the ‘40s and the war and never did get around to reading much of the book I had brought along, but I felt that I had just been listening to The Greatest Generation Instead of reading about it.
Tuesday, Aug. 14, is the anniversary of the ending of W.W.II, 62 years ago. Everybody old enough remembers clearly where they were when they heard the news. My memories make me smile. I was with my friends at the city swimming pool in Chillicothe. When the announcement came over the loud speaker that Japan had surrendered, we all screamed and everybody jumped into the pool, some in their regular clothes. The resulting splash almost emptied the pool. Then some of us, still in our bathing suits, piled into a jeep and the soldier driving took us on a tour of downtown, where we waved and hollered at everybody. By the time I got home my mother knew that I had been riding around town on public display scantily dressed, and that almost started another war!