It was a cool Saturday afternoon in the middle of August when I decided to ride into town to pick up something to read. It was my first visit to Brunswick, Maine and I had a few hours to kill before attending a wedding at Bowdoin College.
Just as I was pulling into a parking space on Main Street, I heard a man in a Volkswagen blow his horn at a Volvo that was in front of him. The man in the Volvo continued to back up until he bumped into the Volkswagen. The drivers of both cars were trying to get into the same parking space.
By the time I got out of my car, the man in the Volkswagen had jumped out of his car and was beating furiously on the driver?s side window of the Volvo. After calling the man a ?dumb**s,? he asked him whether he realized that he was ?too f***ing old to be driving.? He beat on the window again, demanding that the man get out of his car. A few seconds later, he realized that people were watching and he quietly slipped back into his Volkswagen. Moments later he found another parking space.
I walked over to the space where the man in the Volkswagen had parked and looked at his bumper. When he got out I said, ?It looks like there?s no damage to your bumper after all.? He was one of those body-builder types who appeared to be in his early thirties. While obviously embarrassed, he still pretended to be victimized.
As I walked off towards the bookstore near the Bowdoin campus, I saw the man in the Volvo get out of his car. He had to lean against the door while he reached in the back seat to get his walking cane. He must have been eighty years old. Disgusted by the whole scene, I just shook my head and walked away.
After I picked up a magazine at the bookstore, I walked into a deli on Main Street to order some lunch. After I was finished eating, I was heading out the door when I noticed that the old man was sitting at a table for two in a corner by himself. I took a moment to go over to him and apologize for the behavior of the man in the Volkswagen. I told him that a man his age should never be treated so disrespectfully. The man just smiled and thanked me.
Before I walked away, I noticed that he had an embroidered hat sitting on the table in front of him. When I saw the writing on the hat, I realized that the man was a veteran of World War II. I had been feeling pretty proud of myself for trying to comfort him. But then it occurred to me that I should thank him for risking his life so that my generation could be free. Without him we might all be speaking German. Not to mention driving Volkswagens.
I was reminded of that incident last week when I was discussing the war in Iraq with my friend, Barry Whitehead. We both agreed that this nation would be in serious trouble if we had to fight another war like World War II today. That brave generation of men who stormed the beaches of Normandy has been replaced by a generation of metrosexuals trying to get in touch with their feminine side. Even the body builders become emotionally unraveled when they think that someone might have scratched their plastic bumper.
I am reminded of the spinelessness of my generation almost every day. With every column that I write and every speech that I give, people react by telling me that I should be careful lest I lose my job or be labeled by vindictive liberals.
Every time I hear such admonitions, I think about my grandfather who spent his 19th birthday getting trench foot in a foxhole in France in World War I. When he was finally able to crawl out, he was hit with a piece of shrapnel from a German hand grenade, which became permanently lodged in his spine. I can still see him in his later years walking across the room in a walker as a result of that injury. Come to think of it, he looked a lot like the man I saw getting out of that Volvo.
My parents took me to see my grandfather many times when I was a child. I got to hear the same war stories on every visit, but they never got old. We all need to take the time to hear these stories from our aging war heroes before they are gone for good.
The next time I see a World War II veteran sitting alone at a table for two, I hope I remember to thank him for his courage and sacrifice. Our injured veterans shouldn?t be driving around town by themselves. Nor should they be eating alone on a beautiful summer day.
They should be telling us about the battles that they won. They should be reminding us of all we have to lose.
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