Cumberland Times-News

Columns

May 4, 2013

Gratitude, in this case, works both ways

Going to Little Round Top at Gettysburg is a lot like getting up on Christmas morning used to be when I was a little kid.

Capt. Gary and 1Sgt. Goldy never know what we’ll find under our tree (a huge oak that provides wonderful shade on hot days).

Some things surprise us, but other things don’t.

A gaggle of teenybopper girls had gathered nearby at the statue of Gen. Gouvernor Warren, and a tall one who was all arms and legs was maybe 10 yards away from us.

When she saw us, her eyes went wide open, she clasped her hands under her chin and developed what I interpreted as a smile of shy anticipation.

She was bouncing up and down a little.

The captain gave her a “Come on” wave, and the bouncing intensified. It continued all the way to the rest of her group, where the bouncing spread and the herd bounded in our direction.

We were surrounded for a few moments by a dozen or more of them. They were jostling to get into the picture and didn’t stand still long enough for me to count them.

This has happened before, and it never gets old. As long as teenybopper girls remain adorably cute, happy, giggly and bouncy, the Republic will continue to thrive.

Women of all vintage love guys in uniform. One who was of my age or a bit older made a fuss over the two handsome soldiers.

The captain suggested that she hand her camera over to another tourist so she could have her picture taken with us, and I added that we are always glad to be photographed in the company of pretty girls.

The fuss-over-us level rose considerably, and it went on for some time.

Invariably. we run across what Capt. Gary refers to as “Somebody who became an expert on the Civil War after reading one book.” Inevitably, the captain loses patience and wanders off, which is fine with me. I enjoy such folks.

One time we met a guy who said he was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam (there were about 250, and a friend of mine says he’s met all 6,000 of them). When he told me his age — which was far too young — I thought, “You can’t fill a straight from the Nine to the Ace: It won’t reach.”

After he said he had won three Silver Stars, the captain (who had 27 years in the military) left me to deal with him.

I heard wonderful things and concentrated on remembering them, so I could regale my veteran buddies back home and give them a chance to hoot and snort in derision. (They did.)

This year, I found myself alone with a yuppie type who had the politics of the Civil War all figured out.

That’s right in my wheelhouse, because such matters are sufficiently complicated that you can always find something to counter whatever the other fellow is saying.

So that’s what I did. I don’t know that I convinced him of anything, but I could tell from the look in his eyes that I had at least confused the hell out of him.

It helps that I spent 20-some years covering the courts for the newspaper and had the benefit of seeing how lawyers create and manage discombobulation.

Somewhere in New England, a newspaper has been published with a front-page photo of the captain and me standing beside the cannon, holding a copy of that newspaper.

I wish I could remember which newspaper it was, but it’s like I tell people: If it has a name, I will have a problem with it.

We met an Army veteran who was impressed with the fact that the captain and I both knew what a 90-mm recoilless rifle is.

This is a bazooka-like shoulder-mounted weapon that, as the saying goes, kills at both ends. It fires a self-propelled round that comes out the front end, while a backblast of amazing proportions comes out the back. You really don’t want to be standing behind one of them when it goes off.

The fellow said the only time he used one, it set the woods behind him on fire.

“There we were,” he said, “trying to put out a forest fire with five-gallon Jerry cans of water.”

We met our first visitor from Holland, a lady who said she had been to the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, where my cousin Beverly Hayes is buried. Bev was a B-17 crewman from Frostburg who died when his bomber was shot down during a raid over Germany during World War II.

She said she was grateful to America for her country’s freedom.

I said I appreciated that, and that as an American, I was thankful to her country ... which seemed to surprise her.

Then I told her that every one of the 8,301 graves in the Margraten cemetery has been adopted by a Dutch family who takes care of it and places flowers on it on the soldier’s birthday, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and Christmas.

My friend Ralph Peeters, who lives in the Netherlands, has sent me a photo of Bev’s grave. Bev’s adoptive family had just put flowers on it, and so had he, along with a photo I had e-mailed him of Bev in his Army Air Corps dress uniform.

I told her that we have met a number of folks from Europe and Asia who tell us they are grateful to America for their freedom.

That being the case, I said, at least some of us Americans are grateful to them. Many of her countrymen risked and even lost their lives to help the Allies win the war.

They rescued American soldiers and airmen who might have been captured and returned them in small boats to England. They also brought supplies and information to the undergrounds who were fighting the Germans. The value of their service is incalculable.

The way I see it, I told the lady, her countrymen helped to preserve my country’s freedom. For that, and for the loving care they are giving my cousin and his buddies, I am most grateful.

“I never looked at it that way before,” she said.

Not everyone does, I said, but I do.

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