09 November, 2019


Happy Veteran's Day!

Behold "Gravel Gertie" — a B-29 bomber of the 500th BG, circa late-July, 1945.  This airplane was the periodic office of gunner, Ed Lawson and his story will soon grace this blog!

But hang on for a sec as I must digress.  I'll get back to the B-29 but for now, on this day, it's appropriate to jump the timeline.

Ok?  Ok!

A week (or so) ago, a (highly) decorated Vietnam War vet and I were thumbing through his photo albums.  If you've never had the pleasure of doing-same with someone who's kept a photo album of their life, consider it a 'bucket list' challenge.

There are no guarantees the moment will be fantastic or even mildly interesting. In fact, you can expect that the pages will be flipped and flipped and flipped (mostly) in silence and any commentary, terse and/or seemingly irrelevant.  Going through old photo albums with old people can be excruciatingly boring.

Unless you know what you're looking for and in this case, I did.

My signal wasn't the photo but the reaction of the veteran.  The page turned and had I not been watching for the man's reaction, I would have missed it—a quick twitch of the forehead and reflexive narrowing of the eyes.

A bit of background information—I was given extraordinary permission with this man's documented life to copy, scan and publish just about anything I wanted.  Until I pointed at the particular photo and asked, "Can I take this photo with me?"

"Sure...well—(insert about a four second pause)—No. I'd like to keep that one."

In other words, he wanted to keep 'that one' quiet.  For good reason, too.  Yet, you would have NEVER known its significance on face value.

It was a glossy, black and white snapshot of four crew-cut men seated around a cheap folding table, their faces captured in the moment of enjoying something really amusing.  Their attire was period-correct of civilian of the mid-60s; white short sleeved shirts, dark pants.  The room was sparsely furnished and judging by the sweat stains, the temperature of the time was hot—tropical hot.  A bottle of something stood proudly in the middle of the table, half-drunk glasses at the ready...had I a time machine, I would expect to see a few more empty bottles; hear the groan of metal chairs drug across cheap linoleum and the rising/falling hoots and whispers of buddies "shooting the shit."

"What's so special about this picture?" I asked.


"Do you remember who the people are?"

After a handful of heartbeats, the veteran answered obliquely, "I'm trying to get this story declassified.  Until the (insert government entity) allows, I just can't tell you who they were, even if I did remember all of their names."

"What were you doing?"

"We were toasting something, I can't remember."  He pointed to a dark corner of the photo and said, "Earlier that day, I was told to eat as much of that bread and butter as I could as things could get hairy."


"Because we'd be toasting and drinking for a long time.  It's what they did.  The bread and butter would diminish the effects of the alcohol."

"Did it?"

He smiled, "Not really."

As a leaky pipe can suddenly break apart, the moment opened up to a story that seemed more out of the movie Apocalypse Now than anything else. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes passed and he finished fleshing out the back, side and front-story of the photo to the point where I could do no more than lean back in the chair, fold my arms and say, "Huh!"

"I want to see everyone involved get the Silver Star.  I'm sure a lot of them are dead but their families should know."  He paused, looked at me and asked rhetorically, "Don't you think?*"

Another look at the photo refreshed my perspective.  I now perceived the deep creases of worry lines, the smiles could have just as easily been grimaces and the rigid body language that seemed to say, "I'd rather be somewhere else."

I wondered what I could to help get those men in the picture (and the rest) get the Silver Star.  Of course, I could do nothing other than think the oft-spoken platitude, "Thank you for your service."

Break, break.

I've never served a moment in the military and my sole claim to heroic action has been keeping two ten year olds from beating each other silly at Scout camp.  I'm a writer with a penchant for doodling airplanes and making films. Nothing more and nothing less.  But, according to the analytics, there are more-than-a-few-thousand people who read this blog.  For my lack of experience, I do seem to have a pulpit of sorts...

So.  About that call-to-action promised at the beginning of this post (and yes, I'll get back to the B-29!).

Today is VETERAN'S DAY.  For the most part, military veterans comprise a small percentage of the American population.  According to a report from the PEW Research Center, about 7% of Americans are military veterans and that number is declining.

Yet, while the chances are still good that someone in your sphere has served our amazing and wonderful country, take this opportunity now to do more than "thank you for your service."

Ask to see the photos.  Watch the reactions.  Inquire of the moment, listen and talk about it.  99% of military vets, especially the ones who've seen combat, are 'big people' and won't get offended by a question you may feel is insensitive.  If they want you to know, they'll tell you.  If they don't, no amount of prodding and prying will crack the box.

Chances are good, you won't hear anything incredible, top-secret or mythic.  But you will learn that the military veteran is privy to a camaraderie and understanding of the world that the rest of us simply aren't.  The military veteran experiences both the love of brother/sisterhood and the inhumanity of humanity.  They value chain-of-command as if their life depended up on it and place the same value on individual initiative, too.   Lastly, and arguably most importantly, they're (often) given front-row seats at the moments that define how the rest of us live.  Don't think for a second that a Hollywood movie or public school curriculum (no matter how well intentioned) can even come close to teaching anything about, say, the Vietnam War.

Sharing stories is the stuff that makes us human and who better to learn humanity than those who've seen the greatest depth and breadth?

There's nothing wrong with "Thank you for your service" or any other expression of gratitude.  But, to really value the veteran's service, it requires the things we all can afford—an investment in time, open eyes and a willing ear.

Ok.  Back to the B-29...

So, I'm at a dinner, someone says to me, "See that old guy over there?  He was in WWII and got the Distinguished Flying Cross as a gunner on a B-29!  You should go talk to him!"

And I did.

And the first thing out of my mouth was, "Thank you for your service."**

*Said story is classified and will likely remain so until 2040+.  The veteran's attempt to get the record-book opened is a vain effort and down deep, he knows it.   I recognize that my little bit of prose was tantalizing and meant to spark interest—a cheap writer's trick.  I don't have a problem going into a little more detail if we ever meet but it won't be much.

**Yeah, a platitude.  But, I've found that this phrase is often the start of a great conversation.