There’s a difference between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. And it has more to do with the contrasting seasons of the year. There’s a different sensibility to the two commemorations. It’s a simple distinction when you stop and think about it. Veteran’s Day celebrates those who served. Memorial Day honors those who fell. One comes in advance of the much-anticipated Thanksgiving holiday; the other, part of the first three-day weekend of summer.
And so it was this year as the early-November curtain-raiser for the holiday season approached. This year’s commemoration distinguished itself from the others in that it was the first Veteran’s Day I’ve had off since I’ve been one. It’s one of the few perks that come with working for a school district. The private sector – in which I spent the lion’s share of my working years – bears no such inclination. They suit up and show up, ready for work, Veteran’s Day or not.
Still, a job is a job, wherever it may be found, and a day off is a day off, for whatever the reason. So, I took the opportunity to do something constructive with my newfound free time. I decided to take my aging Honda Accord in to the dealer for a long-overdue cooling system flush. With Thanksgiving coming up, it would be very bad form to find myself stranded halfway between Barstow and Baker, California in the middle of the bleak and barren great desert nowhere.
It was a fortunate choice as it turned out. Because half an hour into my vigil, the service attendant approached me as I lingered in the lounge with an engaging smile that could mean only one thing – bad news. Sure enough, after 180,000 miles, my radiator gave up the ghost. After a pressure test, it turned out my radiator block had a crack in it, and was just this side of busting loose. So . . . $800 later, my Accord had a new radiator, new hoses, new belts, new coolant and a new lease on life. My wallet was considerably lighter in the process, but out here in the golden west, nobody rides for free.
So, as I sat there, watching nothing in particular on the Sony 60-inch plasma big screen – nothing too good for us Honda owners, particularly when we’re spending big bucks on car repairs – I contemplated the upcoming holiday season, and just what I was going to do now that my plans had vanished down the black hole of a big repair bill.
While I don’t spend my time traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house in the literal sense, I have been known to make my way over the mountains and across the desert to Las Vegas to spend time with what passes for family. I think I may have addressed this age-old maxim in a previous commentary. But it bears repeating. During the holidays, when you have nothing to do, no one to see, and nowhere to go, you go to Vegas. That’s been the plan the last few years, and I must admit, it’s worked out well. Not this year. My coach and four just turned into a pumpkin and a bunch of mice, and my glass slipper shattered on the floor of the maintenance bay of the service center.
Just at that moment, I noticed the program on the big screen, offered up for our viewing pleasure. It was CNN. I was astonished. I don’t get much CNN. Never have. Even during the dark, ominous days of George W. Bush, doing his best imitation of a free-spending liberal, all the while selling the country out to globalist, international mega-corporations, and pushing every open-border initiative that came down the pike, I couldn’t quite deal with CNN. Try as I might, while Fox News was busy drinking the Bush Kool-Aid ©, and ever hot, blonde infobabe on the Fox network harbored secret desires of being taken by force by the president, I simply could not go over to the dark side of the cable news world.
So the day was now complete. This repair bill broke me a day after payday, my holiday season vanished at the stroke of a pen, and a full month stretched before me until the school district I laughingly work for would cough up another monthly check. And what did I have on this state-of-the-art 21st century video marvel? CNN. As they told us during our first year home from Vietnam, “Happy Veteran’s Day, Asshole.”
Even the reporterette de jour – Kyra Phillips, who, on those rare occasions I deigned to partake of CNN didn’t seem too objectionable – was quoting the party line straight up and down this morning. It was Veteran’s Day, after all. And Kyra had one news piece after another related to the ceremonies of the day. Among them:
- Army Maj. Malik Nadal Hasan – What drove him to the Fort Hood tragedy? Was he the real victim? (It was a “tragedy”, not a “terrorist attack”, of course. The word was never mentioned.)
- Barack Hussein Obama at Arlington Cemetery – He shall beat our swords into plowshares and usher in a new era of international peace. (The play on words of Isaiah 2:4 was revolting, but what should I expect? It was CNN.)
- The War in Afghanistan – War on terror or genocide? (And, in a related story . . . )
- Soldiers of Afghanistan – Guardians of our freedom or war criminals?
Then I saw them.
They were an elderly couple. She was stoop-shouldered, white-haired, and frail. She tentatively ambled along with the assistance of a metal walker on wheels that doubled as a wheelchair. Her oxygen bottle was attached to the metal shaft of the chair, its gauges registering in time with her labored breathing. From the look of her, I gathered she suffered from an acute case of osteoporosis. Her husband was at her side all the way, as if he’d always been there and always would.
He helped her fold down the seat of the walker/wheelchair. And he patiently assisted her into the contraption, after which he poured her a cup of coffee from the courtesy window and sat down beside her. He was a slight man, gaunt, thin and short. He wore rimless spectacles, and bore the indelible mark of a man ravaged by the relentless onslaught of time. His skin was mottled, his flesh hung loose on his neck, his hands trembled slightly. On his head, he wore a simple, baseball-style cap with the logo WWII VETERAN on its crown, and as he took a seat next to his wife, I could see his oversized, gold-plated belt-buckle, which bore an unmistakable insignia – the eagle, globe and anchor of a United State Marine.
They sat opposite me, and I noticed – as Kyra Phillips rambled on about racial harassment of the oppressed army major who gunned down fifty of his fellow soldiers, a member of a subjugated ethnic minority, driven to unspeakable acts of brutality, no doubt, due to the inherent bigotry and hate of the military establishment – how they held hands, spoke softly, and the understated loving care they radiated to each other. A love, no doubt, grown deep and lasting with the passing of many years together, and countless joys and sorrows endured along the way.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Normally, I never miss an opportunity to thank this warrior of the last great crusade against evil for his service, particularly because there are so few of them and their numbers are dwindling daily. But there was something about this couple that spoke of the inherent privacy so typical of their generation. No doubt, they were here for the same reason I was – only for them it was perhaps something as simple as an oil change – and stopped by the lounge like the rest of us, to wait and watch and then go about the business of the day.
But it was Veteran’s Day. And he was a veteran. So was I. Nevertheless, I sat there, watching him tenderly care for the needs of his ailing wife, with whom, no doubt, he’d spent his entire adult life.
It was when Kyra was reporting about the shocking disparity of the racial breakdown among troops in Afghanistan, and how minority soldiers – particularly African Americans – bore an inordinate amount of combat operations that I got up, moved across the lounge, sat down next to him and introduced myself.
I told them I had been to Normandy in 2004 for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, briefly explained how that experience totally reoriented my priorities, thanked him for his service and welcomed him home. It didn’t matter that he’d received a lifetime of recognition for his service to king and country. He was a WWII Marine, and he’d earned my respect.
I was about to ask the specifics of where he served, what he saw, and how he coped, when he extended his hand and said in a raspy voice, “Thank you, son. Horace Gilmartin, 5th Marines, Peleliu.” His hand was bony, warm and dry. His grip was frail, but firm.
Somehow, I knew what a profound admission he’d just given me. And somehow I likewise knew it was all I was going to get. His wife, Emily, smiled weakly. She bore the strained demeanor of an old woman accustomed to living in a world of hurt. We chatted briefly about nothing in particular. Yes, they were in for an oil change. No, they didn’t get out much anymore. Yes, they lived in a local assisted living home. No, he wasn’t planning to attend any Veteran’s Day ceremonies. He didn’t like leaving Emily alone, you see. And she wasn’t up to the strain anymore.
Shortly thereafter, Kyra ran a piece about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s terror trial being moved to federal court in New York, and the possibility that all charges could be dismissed due to illegal evidentiary collection procedures and the failure of U.S. authorities to properly inform the alleged suspect of his Miranda rights. (She actually used those very words – “alleged suspect”.)
Sure enough, they were childhood sweethearts. They’d been married for 65 years, just before he enlisted in the Marine Corps in their hometown in rural Kansas. Like so many returning Marines who passed through California on their way overseas, Horace vowed that if he ever survived the carnage, this was where they would live. He was discharged in December 1945 and they lived in the golden state ever since.
I asked him about the changes he’d seen over the years, and how he dealt with them.
Well, there certainly had been quite a few. And if it wasn’t for Emily and the kids, the grandkids, and now the great-grandkids, it would have been a lot harder to take. But then, men get old, and they long for the familiar things of bygone times; recognizable artifacts they can hang their hat on and in which they can rest easy. The more times change, he explained, the fewer these treasures are, and the more precious they become.
Kyra’s last item on CNN came up just as Horace’s name was called and he helped Emily to her feet. It was about universal healthcare, and a massive rally held in a Chicago suburb to celebrate the medical coverage that would now be afforded to the oppressed peoples of color of the Chicago projects. She gave particular emphasis to how the rich would finally be compelled to pay their fair share after so many years of largesse due to the lobbying efforts of special interest groups.
Horace didn’t say goodbye. He simply steadied Emily as she rose from the fold-down chair of her wheelchair/walker. He wouldn’t allow me to assist him. He offered no acknowledgment of our exchange, no goodbyes. He wasn’t being gruff, just reserved and private. I watched as Kyra signed off with a final item of how President Obama – due to the profound change he was ushering in to the national consciousness – may ultimately go down in history as the greatest president this nation has ever produced.
So much for Veteran’s Day 2009. I picked up my car, licked my financial wounds, mourned the passing of the holiday season that won’t be, and was on my way. But I couldn’t help but reflect on my encounter with Horace Gilmartin, USMC.
He was the foundation upon which the postwar world was built. Horace, and men like him, came home from the distant battlefields of the world, and erected a monument of prosperity, stability, and wealth. They had the good timing to hit the ground running when an unprecedented period of opportunity was just beginning. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan spoke of “Morning in America.” It was never more real than for the returning veterans of the bloodiest conflict in history, steadfast patriots and survivors of the Great Depression.
They wasted no time, taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded them by a grateful nation. And those who did not follow the path to higher education and professional careers made their own breaks in the hardscrabble world of the free market. They had witnessed unprecedented destruction, unimaginable poverty and unthinkable uncertainty. And so, they set about the task of building a bright future, providing for the next generation and protecting a country worth defending. If there was a unifying theme or sense of purpose which all of them shared, it was encapsulated in the lament so often heard by their spouses and children in the 1950s – “My children will have all the opportunities I never had as a child.”
And they were remarkably successful. If there was an unprecedented golden age which their children enjoyed in the years to come, it was due to this singular sense of purpose they brought to all matters they encountered. That, and the grace of God.
It is a complex and difficult topic, tinged with frustration and often tragic in its outcome, that the children of this amazing group of Americans were so different from their fathers. The group of pampered, privileged progeny that followed in the wake of the greatest generation was everything their fathers were not. While their parents were painfully aware of the vagaries of life, their children entered the world with a gilt-edged sense of entitlement. Where their parents valued their country, their children had nothing but contempt for it. If their parents spent a lifetime building a world that meant something, their children tore it down in a decade.
The reasons are myriad, fraught with controversy, and way too involved to go into in this commentary. Suffice it to say, Horace Gilmartin lived through some of the most desperate times his country ever faced. He built a life of significance in the postwar years that stood for everything he believed in. His legacy was upstanding, positive, decent, and lasting. And he has lived to see it torn down.
As I watched them depart the service lounge, I wondered what Horace thought of Kyra Phillips’ report. He sat there and listened for the bulk of her report before I sought him out. True to the temper of his generation, he said nothing, betrayed no expression, offered no opinion. It could be that’s what happens to men who reach a point where the only thing to look forward to is the next world. After all, there is only so much any man can accomplish – individually or collectively – before being called home to his rest and reward.
But the groundwork he laid was strong. And a strong basis often comes under strong attack. For the brilliance of its luster, it is ironic indeed that the underpinning upon which our current culture was built lasted but one generation. Out of its crumbling foundation is emerging a land filled with resentment, laden with alienation, consumed with hatred.
We live in a country that has no sense of itself; rotted by the corruption of political correctness, denuded by the fraud of multiculturalism, weakened by the onset of globalism. It is a nation in which terror suspects are tried in civilian courts, possibly to be released on a technicality. It is a society in which an Islamic terrorist is not only permitted to rise through the ranks of the United States Army as an officer and a gentleman, but is lauded as a victim of hate by journalists who all but celebrate his acts of murder, and will not so much as own up to what he is – a terrorist. And it is a culture where evil men are hailed as visionaries, while those who stand to oppose them are condemned as extremists.
It is a land in which Kyra Phillips inherits the earth.