NOTE: I wrote this blog post on another site a few years ago and have shared it each year on Veteran's Day as a tribute to my "Paw Paw," my Daddy and all those who have served or are serving for our freedom and protection. "THANK YOU" seems such a trivial response to your selflessness and willing sacrifice for your country and fellow citizens. I am so grateful!!!!!
My son Josh just dropped by for a visit. Goodness how I love seeing that broad grin on his handsome face! Three months ago my “baby boy” moved into his own apartment with two of his friends. Though I do enjoy my moments of solitude on the porch and otherwise, I do miss him! He could’ve moved long before, but because it had been just the two of us for the most part during his growing up years, he felt a responsibility to be around to help me as much as possible. He grew up early on, it seems. Yes, he was all boy and still is, but he has always had the most level head of anyone I know - even more so than me at times! Adversity in a young boy’s life or a young girl’s life has a way of “growing them up” long before it is time. My Paw Paw Rich was a prime example of this. What’s a boy to do when he loses both parents at an early age and then is taken hundreds of miles from where he calls home and shuffled around from relative to relative? Paw Paw learned about grown up ways before he barely had time to enjoy being a child. He probably had few possessions and even less hope to cling to other than a box or suitcase containing a few trinkets and “memories.” Something tells me that he most likely held tight to the few things he had by the way I observed him in his elder years. There was one item in particular that he cherished most of all.
It was just a box - a simple velvet lined box. It had been pulled in and out of Paw Paw’s dresser drawer so many times that it was a bit scuffed and tattered - much like him and every other person who served along side of him. What was in that little box? It was Paw Paw’s greatest treasure, his most vivid memory and symbol of something larger than what the young boy those many years ago could comprehend, and what the elderly gentleman proudly displaying it could adequately express. However, the look in his eyes each time he held that box in his calloused wrinkled hand, told the story magnificently. Every time we went to visit my grandparents, we knew that at any given moment, Paw Paw would retreat into a world of memories, walk into the bedroom, open a dresser drawer and come back with his treasure - Paw Paw’s Purple Heart.
All you had to do was take a moment to sit still in his lap or sit at his feet and before long, the stories would roll off his tongue, then the light would begin to sparkle in his eyes as he would say “let me show you something.” Off he would go down the hall, and then in a flash, be back beaming from ear to ear with that velvet lined box. Slowly, he would open the box and release the sound of gunfire, the dampness of trenches and the excitement and fear on the face of a mere child who found himself across a huge ocean listening to the chatter of languages he was never even able to read. As I mentioned, Paw Paw had quit school in the third grade due to the family tragedy that took both his parents. He was not even able to read anything in English nonetheless a foreign language. One line he learned overseas seemed forever stuck in his brain - “comme ci comme ça.” We knew each time we spent a few moments with Paw Paw, that we needed to ask him how he was doing. This gave him that rare opportunity to respond in a foreign language… “just so-so” he would say in French with his own delightful southern mountain man dialect.
Can you imagine what it felt like to be an orphan of sorts shipped across the ocean and coming face to face with “death?” Like so many young boys during this time, Paw Paw also lied about his age to have the chance to do something significant with his life and for his country. At the ripe old age of sixteen, Paw Paw became a “man” in World War I. The truth be told, from that time until now, there have been scores of boys who left home as a son, a brother, a cousin, a neighbor, a classmate or playmate yet when it was time to return, in their place a man walked down that country road home, or that city sidewalk through town. Some of them never got to walk that road home. Some of them rolled their way, while others were sent back in another velvet lined box and carried “home” by the angels.
Today, as I think of Paw Paw’s Purple Heart, I think of the hearts of the scores of young men and now women who give everything they have to offer with no expectation of anything in return, simply because of the sound of “freedom’s song” ringing in their ears. I wish I could sit with each of them like we did Paw Paw through the years and hear their story, see their symbol of freedom, experience the fear and excitement and feel the sense of pride and honor that radiates from the light in each of their eyes. Since I can’t sit with each of them, I will do what I can to “pay forward” words of hope and encouragement, determination and perseverance - fanning the flame of freedom. This southern girl is so grateful to be free to enjoy a porch swing on a hot summer afternoon, or the melody ringing from a choir loft on a Sunday morning. I am thankful for long lines at a concert or movie, and for collective hours waiting in lobbies for a dinner table. It means I am free to enjoy simple pleasures and so are millions of others. We are not as oppressed as we want to think we are. We are blessed. I am grateful to be able to give thanks to God and to man without fear of harm or censorship. May we never allow the song of freedom fade from our ears or the story of liberty slip from our hearts and souls. I, for one, do not want the sacrifices made by scores of men and women through the years to be in vain. I refuse to bow down to tyranny or give in to selfish oppressors who want to smother our pride and strip away our dignity one liberty at a time. If freedom is worth fighting for, then freedom is worth standing up for with boldness, gratitude and thanks. I hope that by the time my grown boy has a “baby boy” of his own, he too will have memories tucked safely away that he can bring out and share. I hope his children and grandchildren can feel the same joy I have felt each time he might say to them “let me show you something.”