We still had a Spanish-American War veteran in town when I was growing up. Mr. Mudd lived across the street from the Catholic school and church, and we used to go over and grab chestnuts off his lawn during recess in the fall. He was a devout Catholic and went to mass every day, and when (for whatever reason) one of the altar boys didn't show up, Mr. Mudd would put away his Rosary, get up off his ancient knees and totter down the center aisle to fill in. He would have been nearly 90 by then. The little old Irish priest would have been well into his 70s. There was a lot of kneeling and standing and genuflecting, and the two of them would help each other up and down. You sat in the back of the church and prayed that neither one of them took a fall on the steep altar stairs.
We still had an abundance of World War I vets, too -- newly retired men who used to come into the drugstore where I worked to wait for the final edition of the afternoon newspapers so they could check the closing stock market prices. They stood by the paper rack up near the door, waiting for the delivery truck, hands in their pockets, jingling their change, shooting the breeze with men they'd known their whole lives.
The World War II guys were family men in those days. They sat on the school board and the village council. Their Rotary and Legion and VFW clubs took on civic projects and made things happen. They had honor guards of paunchy, middle-aged men in web belts and Eisenhower jackets who presented the flag and fired rifle salutes on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and, of course, Veterans Day.
The Korean vets were the young bucks. We'd seen their war in the newsreel before the cartoon at the movies. It had been cold and brutal, but they were home now, working, raising families of their own, their sacrifices not especially well-recognized, their contributions obscured by their older brother's work in World War II, their war ending in a disappointing truce, not a victory.
It was all but a given that guys my age would get our turn. We did. Vietnam was even more thankless and ambiguous than Korea. We came home to find ourselves misunderstood, unappreciated and years behind people our age who hadn't gone.
There were a few lesser incursions into places like Lebanon, Grenada and Panama after that. Then there were two wars with Iraq, and there's still the war in Afghanistan. We're sending the same soldiers back to war five or six times or more.
We older veterans can only empathize with them. The burdens they're bearing and the sacrifices they're making are more than any one soldier should have to bear.
I mention all these vets -- the vets of my lifetime -- because they're part of a long, unbroken line of men and women who fought and served from Lexington and Concord forward right down to this moment in time. Me included.
We weren't all valorous. We didn't all see combat or become heroes or win the Medal of Honor. We weren't all model soldiers -- God knows I wasn't.
But we served. We went when we were called. We stepped up and swore ourselves in and did our duty. We earned a place in the long, unbroken line, and I think that for many if not most of us, that's all the honor we could want or expect. A place in the line. Just a place in the line.
This time of year, a lot of people who didn't serve walk up to veterans and thank them for their service. I can't speak for other vets. I wouldn't presume to do so. But, personally, I wish they wouldn't.
Saying thank you may make someone feel as if they're honoring my service, but more often than not it intrudes on an intensely personal experience -- one I don't want to open and share with just anyone. Hell, some days, I don't even want to share it with myself.
What's more, there are millions of men and women, living and dead, who did much more, gave much more and deserve thanks much more than I do. People should say thank you to them before they bother thanking me.
So no thank yous for me, thank you. I appreciate the sentiment, but if it's all the same to you, I'll pass. I've got everything a veteran needs.
Peter Smith is a writer in Hopkins.