I recalled First Sergeant Goldy to active duty for several hours last week to visit Arlington National Cemetery, there to witness and cover the meeting of two World War II veterans I wrote about earlier this year as a reporter.
Floyd Wigfield is a 100-year-old Cumberland resident who went ashore on Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day. In my story, I described the way he talked about his company commander, Capt. Robert D. Russell, was killed the day after the landing.
We subsequently learned that Russell’s brother, Jack Russell, is also 100 years old and living in North Carolina. He has a great-grandson in Florida who read the story online and told him about it.
Russell said he wanted to meet Wigfield, so the Times-News arranged for them to talk via Skype.
They decided to meet in person later in the year at Arlington, to visit Robert Russell’s grave.
I went there last week with Wigfield and his son Steve and our photographer Steve Bittner. Jim Combs, a mutual friend of Wigfield’s and mine, did the driving.
I love Washington, but have no desire to drive around in it. Neither does Bittner. Jim is used to it because he did it frequently. He and Steve Wigfield are retired officials in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Floyd also is a retired electrician, and Jim and Steve arranged for us to visit the IBEW headquarters and museum in Washington.
We were there for quite a while. Several people took us around and showed us the place, and I cannot imagine having more gracious hosts. They treated Wigfield like a hero and gave him several gifts, welcoming the rest of us as honored guests.
Wigfield announced well ahead of time that he was going to wear his World War II Army uniform, and Jim said he would wear his Vietnam-era Navy dress blues (chief warrant officer 4).
I decided that First Sergeant Goldy should join them.
For the most part he has been inactive since Capt. Gary died and we stopped going to Gettysburg to talk to tourists as living historians. Sarge is activated briefly, once a year, to go to Petersburg for Fort Mulligan Day and help Commander Dave Judy’s McNeill’s Rangers fire the Parrott rifle.
Jack Russell’s daughter, Ann Kimmer, emailed me to say that her dad had decided to wear his old uniform, too. I was stoked about it and said, “Wait ‘til they get a load of US!”
I had no idea.
When we arrived in the Welcome Center at Arlington, the crowds soon began to gather around Wigfield and Russell, whose son David accompanied him. (My news coverage of this appears on Page 1A of today’s issue.)
People quickly began lining up to sit next to them and posing for pictures. I told Bittner my jaw muscles probably would ache the next day because of all the grinning I was doing.
And then I realized that this is exactly what used to happen to Gary and me when we were at Little Round Top, or even walking through the parking lot on the way to Gettysburg Eddie’s. When we were surrounded by pretty girls of all ages for a group photo, I would look at a bystander and ask, “Do you understand why we do this?”
I didn’t envy Wigfield and Russell, but was overjoyed for them. Those two guys deserved every bit of the attention and affection they were getting.
And then, don’t you know, people started wanting to have their pictures taken with me. One of them was from the South, and he wanted his buddies to see him sitting next to a Yankee.
A woman sat beside me with her cellphone camera to make a video of me talking about my uniform and describing what my best friend and I used to do at Gettysburg.
For a few moments I really was First Sgt. Goldy again — representing the memory of First Sgt. Theodore Field from Battery C of the First West Virginia Artillery, telling people it put fire down on Pickett’s Charge.
Then folks wanted group pictures of Jim in his Navy dress blues, Wigfield and Russell in their Army khakis and me in my Yankee outfit.
When we started to go through the exit that took us out to the cemetery itself, even more people came up to us.
An older lady put her arm around me and I used one of my old Gettysburg lines: “I’m always proud to have my picture taken with a pretty girl.” She rewarded me with a big smile.
When I went to the restroom by myself, one woman and then another stopped walking to look at me and smile. I touched the brim of my cap, tilted my head, said “Ma’am” to both of them, and the smiles got even bigger. One of them actually saluted me.
So it still works. They love guys in uniforms.
After we returned from the cemetery, a security guard who had been at the exit told us he had been thrilled to see us in our uniforms and began telling people, “Folks! Look there! That’s history right there!”
That’s when they began to surround us.
The guard said, “Maybe they might fire me for doing that ... but I got a few pictures myself!”
Bittner, who like me has developed a bit of immunity to things nobody really should see or hear, seemed a bit overwhelmed. He said he nearly drained his camera battery taking pictures.
On our ride out to Robert Russell’s grave, he kept looking around and saying that he was amazed at how big the cemetery was. There are more than 400,000 graves at Arlington.
He talked about how much he had been moved by the attention that was paid to Wigfield and Russell by grownups and children both, by the way those two men reacted to each other, and the overall experience.
I told him that a couple of times — particularly while he was watching Wigfield and Russell talk to a group of young schoolchildren — he looked like he was about to start crying.
“I almost did!” he said.
I admitted that I had come close to it myself. It was, we agreed, one of the best days we’ve ever had.
I’m rapidly approaching my 72nd birthday, and people keep asking me why I don’t retire.
The reason should be obvious.