The ground rumbled just a little as it always did when the bus’s brakes squeaked it to a halt. I got on, and found a seat next to an older gentleman reading a book.
We nodded, and swayed back and forth with the motion in the traffic, and over time, I saw a pattern. He’d be there when I got on, and would be there about once a month. While everyone else insulated themselves from the rest of the passengers with their headphones and their smart phones, the older gentleman had his in a book that he was perfectly willing to put down. I made it a point to sit next to him, just to chat.
It took awhile, but I got to know him a little better. He always wore a baseball cap with USMC embroidered on the front, was always friendly, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I got the impression he was going for his monthly checkup at the VA hospital.
At one point, he was holding the book in his right hand, and I saw that he was missing most of the index finger there. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, everything else I could see seemed to be in perfect order, and he was clearly used to it. Eventually I got up enough courage to ask how that happened, expecting to hear some story involving power tools or some action that had been preceded by the phrase, “Here, hold my beer.”
“Japanese sniper,” he said, turning his hand and looking at it, as if for the first time noticing that finger was gone.
“A… a what?”
And the older gentleman on the bus faded into the background as the story of a strapping 18 year old in the jungles of the South Pacific came out. He’d been in the Marine Corps, in the Pacific, during WWII, and they’d been dropped off at the south end of an island, and were to take the airfield on the north end. That was the book he’d been reading, a history of his unit. They had to get there at a very specific time, as a great part of the upcoming battle depended on that airfield being usable, and they had to take it. He showed me the map, and the huge swamp they’d had no choice but to go through, not around.
He talked so matter-of-factly about how they had to hike in triple digit temperatures through jungle, especially through that swamp. He held both arms up high as he showed me how he kept his rifle out of the water and mud to keep it dry.
They got to their destination, where he unknowingly had his appointment with the Japanese sniper, who’d been trained to shoot off soldier’s trigger fingers, and that’s precisely what he’d done.
As we were both looking at that stump of a finger, he lost in his memories while I was trying to imagine what those memories were like, the bus stopped, and we both looked up. I realized I was at my own destination. I thanked him for sharing that part of himself with me, and for his time and his service, and got off the bus, reluctantly coming back from that hot, humid airfield I’d been at in my mind to a street full of honking cars and rumbling buses, grateful for the privilege of the history lesson I’d just gotten first hand.
From someone who had been there.
So, on this Sunday morning, Memorial day, I find myself thinking of and remembering those of you who have served your countries, on the front lines or just as importantly, holding down the fort at home, whether that’s my Opa, or my dad, or my mom and Oma during WWII, Grampa, Grandma, or my uncles on both sides, my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew, or Chris, Buck, Jon, Kevin, Brian, Ralph, Beth, Al, Jae, Denny, as well as so many others who never made it home, or brought back reminders of that time they gave more than we could possibly imagine.