I had just dropped off my step-daughter to take a test and, with a couple of hours to kill before picking her up, I wandered into a restaurant for a cup of decaf and something wrapped in a tortilla.
I had obviously come upon a morning ritual. I was just about the only non-regular in the place and also just about the youngest customer in the joint.
(That doesn’t happen to me very often. I liked it.)
One more table away what was obviously the South Temple Thursday Morning Philosophical & Problem-Solving Society was in full splendor.
They had pushed two tables together and about eight of them were holding forth on topics ranging from politics to pickles.
I’m not kidding. “Mama used to put garlic in her pickles when she put ‘em up,” one member said, in a voice I’m sure they heard in Belton. “I don’t think any pickles I’ve tasted ever since have been that good.”
They made quite a picture. Headgear ranged from cowboy hats to gimme baseball caps to a little black beret.
Guy with the beret had a handlebar mustache, with each end curled up just perfectly. I’ll bet he’s proud of it. I’ll also bet he spends a considerable amount of time getting it to do that.
I sat there and listened, and enjoyed myself, and a couple of lines from a Randy Travis song floated into my head:
“As long as old men sit and talk about the weather...
As long as old women sit and talk about old men.”
There was one lady with them, obviously at her husband’s side and obviously totally at ease with the company and the conversation. She’d done this before.
She got up once to refill his coffee cup. Yeah, I know that’s supposed to be terrible in 2013 but I’ll bet she did it because she loves him and that’s the kind of easy, natural gesture couples do after decades together and I’ll bet she didn’t even ask him.
And I’d guess he’s done the same kind of thoughtful little things for her a thousand times.
The conversation had shifted toward other topics and I just picked up bits and pieces.
“I don’t know why she didn’t kill the sorry blankety-blank.... He’s gettin’ to go to the Bush Library in Dallas where you have to be invited....They’ll kick you out without an invitation.”
The two little old men got up from their table and toddled over—there’s no other word—to the big table.
For the first time I was able to read the lettering on their identical black caps:
WORLD WAR II VETERAN
They’re getting fewer and fewer every day, those greatest generation members who not too long ago were dying at the rate of 1,000 every single day.
I watched them making small talk with the big table and tried to imagine them in their late teens orearly20s,inuniform,ina world gone mad.
Seventy years ago, April, 1943, they were somewhere, quite probably in harm’s way.
The Allies were chasing Rommel out of North Africa and the Russians had re-taken the key city of Kerch.
The British bombed Stuttgart and the Americans shot down Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto rallied in a heroic, but doomed, attempt to keep from being sent to die in concentration camps.
These two men, a couple of minutes away from finishing their orange juice and biscuits in 2013, were there, somewhere, part of the millions who stopped that particular brand of evil and made possible a place where people can gather and voice their opinions in restaurants and not be afraid who hears them.
The two veterans said their good- byes and slowly walked away, out into a world they helped create, for all its follies, a world that could have been worse.
A lot worse.
I wanted to get up and say something. It would have been something like “thank you for your service,” a phrase that can be delivered with the most heartfelt sincerity but somehow rings totally inadequate.
Besides, I’ve known a lot of World War II veterans and to a man, and woman, they smile that “aw-shucks-The-Right-Stuff” smile and tell you “we just did what we had to do.” It was their time and they played the hand they were dealt by fate.
So, I sat there and watched them walk out.
And wondered how many people for the rest of that day would see those little black caps and know what they really stand for.
And, you know what? I’ll bet it was more than you’d think. We live in an area that’s pretty good about the things that matter the most. And this matters. A lot.