There’s this guy who bought the Sunday Strib every week, for years. Never missed it. Never subscribed, either — he liked the old-fashioned ritual of going to the store and picking up a paper from the thick, neat sheaf.
Maybe you saw him. Perhaps you paid no notice. There are lots of old guys around, but few of his particular type: He wore a cap that said WWII vet. A diminishing breed of men who left a part of themselves on a beach or a forest and spent the rest of their lives with a small, familiar ache in their hearts.
You see those men with that hat, you want to say thanks. You wonder what stories it took them decades to tell.
This guy, though — you might think, “What, you went to war when you were 10?” He didn’t look 93. He’d laugh, tell you he went in when he was 15. His father fibbed on his behalf. War duty was better than the poverty of home. Adventure beckoned. He turned 16 as a lookout on a sub chaser, seasick in a roaring storm, watching for the deadly metal fish streaking toward the ship.
His battle station was down with the engines, so when the General Quarters alarm sounded, he heard the clang of doors sealing him in. Down in the dark and damp cramped hold, sucking diesel fumes — did he wonder if life on the farm might not have been a better fate?
Not really, not then, he might have said as he paid for his newspaper and you walked out of the store with him. But maybe he thought about it afterward. On a different ship, his battle station was firing the anti-aircraft guns, a man on either side feeding ammunition into it. A Zero made a run; he fired until he ran out of ammo, and when he looked to see why, he saw that the men on both sides had been felled.
He thinks about them around this time of the year, because that’s when the ship has its annual reunion. There aren’t many left. This year probably will be the last time they gather.
Anyway, yes, he thought about it afterward, and wondered why he was spared. Did he think he was destined for something? (You have to repeat yourself, louder, because it turns out he’s had ringing in his ears for 75 years from the sound of the big guns.) No; just lucky. Going home was destiny enough. He took the long train home and stepped off to see his childhood sweetheart in the crowd. Got a job driving truck, married his best gal and did what a man did: raised a family and worked.
In fact, he still worked. Still drove a tanker truck. “I’ll get out of the cab and get out the hoses and they’ll look at me, this poor old guy who still has to work.” He’d laugh. “Then they’d look at my papers, you know, and look at my name, and look at the name on the truck, and figure it out.”
He’s standing by a black three-wheeled Harley. He stuffs the newspaper in a saddlebag, trading his vet cap for his helmet. Ninety-three, and he drives a Harley to get the Sunday paper. Off he roars. What a remarkable fellow. They made so many, once. There are so few, now.
I don’t know where he bought his Sunday Strib to read my column, but there will be one unsold paper today. Ralph Lileks — father, husband, up-from-nothing businessman, veteran, sportsman, aviator and by-God American original, died at his home this week. I found his WWII cap on the seat of his Harley in the garage.
Thank you for reading, and if you see a man with that hat, thank him, too. We owe them the world.