Most of you are aware that a few days ago was the 70th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied landing at Normandy during WWII. I happened to see a tweet from the city of Asheville that a bunch of D-Day veterans had taken a bus trip up to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. They were returning yesterday afternoon, and the city asked people to show up and welcome them home. Those of you who know me know that I’m a left-leaning war-mistrusting type whose attitudes toward American military activity overseas were largely shaped by Vietnam. And I’m definitely not the flag-waving anthem-singing type.
But I thought I needed to go down and see these guys – they probably won’t be around for the 80th anniversary (even if I am).
I guess there were maybe a hundred people waiting at the steps of the county registrar. Lot of Boy Scouts, Army Reserve, motorcycle groups, American flags being waved. It’s not my normal crowd, but these aren’t normal men that were showing up on the bus.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Asheville – exactly the sort of weather you’d want for a such an event. It woulda been nice if the whole town had turned out, but it was only because of a random tweet that I even knew about it.
First interesting thing… the buses pull up and people start cheering. Some guy in the middle of the crowd starts chanting ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!” I thought, “Oh man – I might have to leave.” Guess what – nobody else picked it up, and he quit pretty damn quickly. Any jingoism that was present was well hidden. The men started coming off the bus, along with one or two helpers for each. Lot of walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks were being deployed. But man, the crowd went wild.
The vets made their way (walking, pushing, being pushed) through the crowd, and however far they went, somebody would come up to them, say a couple of words, and let them move on.
After I got a few pictures, I put the camera away and went up to as many as I could reach. It’s one of the few times where I found myself at a loss for words. So I’d shake their hand, look them in the eye, and say “Thank you.” Invariably, they’d look me right back in the eye, and say “Thank you.”
This is where our language comes up a bit short. They were saying thank you to me for coming out to meet their bus. I was saying thank you to them for storming a beach while a powerful army tried to kill them, while their friends died in every possible awful way around them, so that, well, so that western democracy as we understand it could continue for another while longer.
I’m sure they were very tired; relatives and friends were whisking them away, aided by what looked like half the Asheville police department (many of whom stopped to shake the vets’ hands). But even the ones who looked awfully tired would smile at every person who approached them, and say “thank you”.
I’ve not gotten to meet many real heroes in my life, so I’m glad I took a few minutes out of my day to meet the last of a dying breed of true American heroes.