Cumberland Times-News

Columns

October 6, 2012

Who knows what wars they had to fight?

We wear our uniforms not just to honor those who fought in the Civil War, but to honor all Americans who have served honorably — or are now serving.

My specialty is artillery, and I often talk about artillery with someone who actually has done it for a living. Used to make me as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

I tell them a Civil War gun crew operated in much the same way as a modern gun crew. Each man had a specific chore but could perform any other if necessary.

One swabbed the bore with a “sponge,” which consisted of a round plug wrapped in cloth at one end of the ramrod. It was soaked with water and run down the barrel.

That not only helped cool the barrel, it extinguished any live embers from the last round’s powder bag. If not done, this might result in the rammer’s mother having a bad day. (On the other hand, the rammer would have nobody to blame but himself, because he did both jobs.)

One fellow said, “I was on a 175 (millimeter cannon) crew in Vietnam. We swabbed the barrel, too.”

Another man, somewhat younger, came by with his family. They didn’t stop, and he didn’t look at us, but he raised his head a bit and called out “Go, Artillery!”

I called back, “All right! Get some!” (An exhortation to kill the enemy that dates from Vietnam. I hear it being used today by people who probably have no idea what it means.)

It was the only thing I could think of, and it had the desired effect. He grinned like one of those little kids the captain and I set astride the cannon barrel to have their pictures taken.

Sometimes, it doesn’t take any spoken words to have a full conversation.

A few years ago, a man wearing a ballcap that said he was a Native American Vietnam Veteran walked past. I came to attention and saluted him. He returned my salute and went on, saying nothing, but his chin and chest were thrust forward, and I could see a fierce pride had begun to burn in his eyes.

This year, I stepped out to shake the hand of  man in a World War II Veteran ballcap and said, “Thank you for my freedom, sir.”

The only reason Capt. Gary didn’t get to him first was because I was closer.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by a group of men and their families who belonged to an organization of men who enlisted when they weren’t old enough to do so.

One told us he altered his birth certificate and enlisted in the Army when he was 14. When the recruiter questioned a senior recruiter about it, the boss man looked at the birth certificate, then at him and said, “He’s OK.”

Eventually, the Army found out how old he was and kicked him out. Then he enlisted in the Navy when he was 15, and they found out how old he was and kicked him out.

He went back in the Army, was wounded and was in a field hospital when they discovered he was only 16. Then it was a matter of “Now, what in the hell do we do with him?”

An African-American man said he was 70. His mother would be 100 in a couple of weeks. She was amazing, dressed up in what folks used to call “Sunday go-to-meeting clothes,” with a big hat and an even bigger smile that broke out when Capt. Gary, 1Sgt. Goldy and Cpl. Reggie greeted her with a simultaneous chorus of “God bless you, ma’am!”

She didn’t look 100, her mind was as sharp as a razor and Capt. Gary whispered to me that she probably had less trouble walking up the hill to Little Round Top than any of us had.

When it came time for them to go on, she held out her hand for us to shake. Each of us responded by taking it and kissing the back of it, the way a proper gentleman once did when he encountered a proper lady.

There was an air of gracious warmth and dignity about her that I find more often in older black people than anywhere else. My friend Clifton Brooks, a former Tuskegee Airman, also has it. It makes me feel like I’m with my own grandmother or grandfather.

Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of having to face heaven knows what (Mr. Brooks said he returned from one war in Europe, only to find he still had another left to fight at home), and overcoming enough of it to raise good families and make a better life for them and ... perhaps most of all, faith.

We could have spent hours with her, listening much more than talking.

What we could learn from her? What has changed in her century of life? What hasn’t changed? Does she think there’s hope for us to become what we ought to be?

She must have known people who were slaves ... possibly some of her relatives, or maybe even her parents or grandparents.

Our brother from another mother Reggie portrays a black soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

After the lady and her son left, I asked if he remembered what happened the night Gary and I met him.

“I still think about it,” he said. He was sitting outside Gettysburg Eddie’s in his uniform, and he seemed overjoyed to learn that Gary and I were the two Union soldiers who called out “Give ‘em hell, 54th!” when his unit passed by in Gettysburg’s Remembrance Day Parade.

A young white couple asked if Reggie would mind having his picture taken holding their baby.

He loved the idea, and so did I ... standing there thinking there was a time when I never thought I would see such a thing. Gary said he felt the same way.

Now, I see it from time to time, and maybe there will come a day when it happens and nobody pays any attention to it or sees anything out of the ordinary. (I sometimes tell younger folks I remember when people thought John F. Kennedy could never be elected president because he was Roman Catholic and — even worse — of Irish descent. They have no idea what I’m talking about.)

We three old soldiers — the captain, the first sergeant and the corporal — probably won’t be around to see it.

But we believe in Divine justice and mercy, and we have faith that the Almighty will make sure that we know when it does.

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