More and more these days I take it upon myself to wear my black veteran’s hat when running errands round about. Not only is it a way of displaying the pride I feel personally in being an American veteran, but as a surviving representative of millions from a generation passing from view at the rate of thousands every day. (Fifty percent of my Korean War comrades are already gone.) An added and invaluable side benefit accrues as a result of the dozens of conversations that arise from the practice virtually every day. I and those fellow Vets who wear those proud symbols invite others to pause and think for an instant about the things we all have to be grateful for; an oft-heard comment is “thank you for being willing to show your pride”.
Shopping at a Wal-Mart store last week I was approached by another “old-timer” who pointed at my cap as he put his hand out “Ahh Korea” he said, “I was there too.” We compared some details of our respective time and places of service, and then he added almost casually, “I was in World War Two also, serving with the 40th Division across Italy”. I looked at him with a new respect, thinking he doesn’t look old enough. Posing that question caused him to give off a big smile. “Why I’m 99,” he announced almost joyfully; “I gave my country 27 years of my life!” I was honored to render a hand salute to Sergeant Spendlove before moving on in an America still free thanks to a phalanx of men and women such as he.
By some quirk of unspoken communication, veterans seem able to recognize each other even without some symbolic attire. My wife and I were enjoying lunch at a well-known local restaurant one day. From my angle in our booth I observed just kitty-corner from us an older, disabled gentleman similarly engaged. I couldn’t help but notice him looking at me with uncommon interest from time to time. I was wearing no identifiable headgear on this occasion. As the couple rose to leave, his wife helping her husband into his walker, they headed right for our booth. Placing one hand on my shoulder he asked warmly “where and in which branch did you serve?” After a nice exchange of information, I asked him how he had identified me. All he could say was, “I knew as you walked in and the way you handled yourself the whole time.” It was not the first time I have had that experience, often with roles reversed.
Among veterans of the American Civil War there emerged a comment of special respect when referring to another combat veteran: “He is one who has seen the elephant” they would say. In “soldier speak” the reference carved out a special niche of honor for those who had seen frontline combat. In those days traveling circuses were not all that common, nor was the likelihood of getting to see the largest of its animal stars. It was a way of paying a special compliment in public knowing that only other veterans nearby would recognize the meaning.
As a small boy I knew veterans of the Spanish-American War, including an uncle who had ridden with Teddy Roosevelt, and of course World War I, including my own father, his twin brother and others in our town including Louie Meyer who had fought for the Boche. Later I would study under teachers who suffered from poison gas attacks all their life. Then there were those men with white beards, wearing black “slouch” hats with the emblems “GAR” as they rode by in parades; “Lincoln’s Boys”. Members of the Grand Army of the Republic.
I have noted that at least 50% of all the young men who stop to shake my hand and say “thank you” turn out to be veterans of the Gulf Wars today when I press them. They are serious, sincere and unmistakable bearers of that true sense of brotherhood which knows no generational boundary. They make me proud all over again.
I have worn out one black hat and now have a new one.