I recall another such instance in the early 1990s. I pulled off I-95 in rural Virginia, early in the morning. It was only my fiancé and I—before all the kids we have now. We stopped at a McDonald’s. Sitting there was a group of old men. They were talking about “The Big One,” about “W-W-Two.” One was describing what it was like at the Battle of the Bulge, as the others listened intently.
I wonder about those men at that McDonald’s in Virginia. Are they still alive? Perhaps half of them are, at best.
I’m struggling here to provide a picture of what I regrettably know is a dying breed, a special American that my kids will not encounter in their mid-40s. What a loss that will be. These WWII vets are the essence of Americana. Norman Rockwell would have painted them for the Saturday Evening Post. And they are nearing extinction. Two decades from now, a handful will be left, and they won’t be shooting the breeze in the hospital waiting room or local McDonald’s.
That brings me to another image that sticks with me:
Speaking of Norman Rockwell, I live in a quintessential American small-town: the main street with the flags, trees, barber shops, old movie theatre, churches, and people who know your name. After you cross the railroad tracks to leave town, drive about three miles, you come to a cemetery. Whizzing past that cemetery on Memorial Day literally gives pause. It looks like every second or third tombstone is festooned with a tiny American flag. Could that be possible?
Sure, it could. My town (probably like yours) was founded in the 19th century. From then on, America’s men went to war. From the Civil War to World War I to World War II to Korea to Vietnam, among other conflicts, each generation served and died. Most died years after getting home and starting families with their sweethearts. The flags at the cemetery bear witness.
Sadly, we’re currently amid a period when we’ll observe a palpable increase in the flags at the cemetery, and a corresponding decrease in the gentlemen talking about the war at the hospital or McDonald’s. It’s a process that’s irreversible. There’s nothing we mere mortals can do about it. It’s in God’s hands.
But there is something you can do. When you see these men, talk to them. Don’t miss a golden, fleeting opportunity that your children and grandchildren will not get. Listen to them, enjoy them, and remember them.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."