Sunday, November 16, 2014

Any day is a good day to honor a veteran

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

“He was sure back in the sixties that everyone was hip,
Then they sent him off to Vietnam on his senior trip…”
--  “Old Hippie,” The Bellamy Brothers

More than once when he saw me ride up on my bicycle, Jimmy and his Levis would get out of a Dodge Charger and leave his high school buddies and walk across the Dairy Maid parking lot and buy me a dipped cone or a milkshake.

Part of the reason was he had a crush on my big sister. Pretty good reason.

But the other part was that he really did like me, and most everybody liked Jimmy. He was a good-looking senior who had thick hair that seemed to part and layer by itself, who didn’t care much for school, and who had a big smile that was wholesome and not dishonest, a smile that made you think it was OK to not like school and to like girls and a Dodge Charger and hanging around the Dairy Maid instead.

It didn’t seem right to me that they could send a nice guy like that to Southeast Asia, wherever that was. But they did, and when he came home, he knew how to fly a helicopter. He even knew how to fly one with his hands broken, which is what happened when they crashed and then took off again, bullets and mortar everywhere, a lot of guys with him either killing the enemy or getting killed, Jimmy flying some dead and some wounded out of there, a long way from the Dairy Maid and the umbrella-shaded picnic tables and the girls and the ice cream cones.

His smile was different when he got home. I haven’t seen him in years and years, but I wanted to thank him this week, on Veterans Day. He and a lot of other guys I know were veterans – some of them veterans of combat – before they were even 20 years old.

I didn’t grow up with this other friend, but he’s the one I call each November 11 and again on Memorial Day. I was still playing Little League in South Carolina when he got shipped overseas from Cotton Valley, compliments of the United States Army, to spend his final two years as a teenager fighting North Vietnamese, then other people in other places.

For the fateful reason of being a few years older than I was, he and Jimmy and thousands of others went, and I did not. But they’ve never held it against me; no veteran I know ever has.

Our boys went to school together; his son rode with me and my son to a Texas Rangers game one bright May Friday years ago. This veteran and I got to coach Little League together and eat on Fridays during football season together.

We aren't best friends and we live in different towns so we don't even see each other much these days. But I would trust him with my life. He is always a little surprised, or seems that way, when I call him each Veterans Day.

I've never talked to him about the fire fights, or what he saw and heard. He's barely mentioned it. But "barely" was enough for me to understand that while I was still playing electric football, he was learning how to fire a machine gun. At somebody. Who just might be shooting at him.

We can be friends and he can even tell me all the war stories. But we'll never have that shared experience. All I can do is thank him, and mean it, and try to use honestly -- and not abuse -- all the American freedoms he and others fought for.

My friend was fortunate he didn't get killed. He did his part without having to die. But a war changes things. Like the Bellamy Brothers sang, “…and they forced him to become a man, while he was still a boy…”

Each of us owes our lives to men and women who've fought to protect us. Some of them died decades before we were even born. It’s too late to thank them, but it’s not too late to thank, any day, the men and women who’ve served, the ones we see every day.