Standing in the rain yesterday at the veterans cemetery where Greenup and Carter counties meet, I was again impressed with the dedication and loyalty of what has been dubbed “the greatest generation.”
The occasion was the dedication of a memorial commemorating those who fought in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Beneath the sea of umbrellas — many of them red, white and blue — stood proud veterans, their spouses and their children.
Some who attended needed the assistance of a cane or wheelchair to approach the monument, but all shared the memory of fighting far away from home.
We often salute our veterans in this country, but I wonder sometimes how much we listen to them. Sitting down with Grandpa may not be as exciting as playing the latest version of a video game for a child, but that may change once their veteran ancestor starts to speak.
I grew up knowing my father had been in World War II, but since everybody else’s was too, that was no big deal. My father didn’t speak much of his war experiences to us; they were still too familiar and raw.
But when his grandchildren arrived and grew to the listening age, he began to tell stories. They weren’t the kind of stories he might swap with a brother soldier; they were other, better memories that helped push back the remberances of gunfire and death.
As the oldest grandchild, my own son became the first repository of that legacy. Fascinated as young boys usually are with guns and mock warfare, he learned about the real thing from someone who spent years in battle.
Once he began to open up, my father shared more with all of us. We heard his story about being outfitted with experimental uniforms, now the common pattern known as camouflage, and how he wound up with his hands in the air shouting his name, rank and serial number to the guards after he was separated from the others and tried to join another group of his fellow Americans.
It might have been easier, he said ruefully, if his name hadn’t been Eicher and his German heritage wasn’t so apparent in his looks and build.
My aging, not his, inspired a new interest in those photos from his younger days. He entered the Army right after graduation from high school. Instead of the man I knew as Daddy, a cocky teenager stared out of the photos, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he leaned against a door frame in France.
My late mother, who had an avid interest in preserving history, put together a book of Daddy’s war letters for each of us girls. Some were written to him; others were written by him.
Together, they draw a picture of a young man who missed home and treasured those ties to it — but also a young man who believed his service overseas was important and essential.
My father died suddenly nine years ago, and I never properly thanked him for those years he gave for the cause of freedom. But while it’s too late to tell him now, there are others of his generation still with us.
So I’m saying it now: Thank you. Thank you for putting your future on hold, thank you for the willingness to risk death serving a country you love and most of all, thank you for helping ensure that the generations which followed were blessed with all America gives us.
CATHIE SHAFFER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org