This morning when I looked at my day planner, it looked like just another speaking engagement that has been on my calendar for a couple of months: 11:30 a.m., a lunch meeting of senior adult men at Mount Royal Towers, a local retirement community. It was that, but much more.
A few men were already seated when the guy who invited me walked me into the back dining room. More came in a little late, but it didn’t matter.
The room was small enough that I was able to talk to the men as we ate vegetable soup followed by chicken salad and fruit. I didn’t ask anyone’s age, but I’d say the average age of the men was around 85 or so.
85 or so makes them special to me. 85 or so makes them just the right age to have fought in World War II. As we talked, I soon understood that these guys weren’t just a bunch of retired guys who ended up in the same retirement community. I was honored to eat lunch with them, but when it came time for the speaker, who was me, I didn’t even want to stand up, let alone speak.
To my left was Oliver Atchison. Oliver and his wife have been married for 75 years. He was 18 and she was 17 when they married. Oliver was a fighter pilot in World War II and flew combat missions in the Pacific. He said the P-38 he flew was a wonderful aircraft that out-gunned the Japanese Zeros that he encountered. But, he said he and his fellow pilots learned not to try to outmaneuver the Japanese pilots. In their planes, they could roll over and under you before you knew what was happening. All of a sudden you had one of them in your sights, and in a blink of an eye the situation was reversed and they were directly behind you. Oliver shot down 4 Japanese planes.
Bill Byard sat next to Oliver today. Bill was a radio operator on a B-17. James Spencer is a Navy man through and through. He was aboard the USS Oconto during the war. Lonnie McCullar was in the Navy too. Steve Gester, also in the Navy, was in the Pacific on the RK Huntington a destroyer. Fred Dew was on a ship he said no one had heard of. He was also on a destroyer, the USS Stickle. It had 3 gun turrets with 8-inch guns that rocked the ship when they were fired. William Anderson was in the Air Force Reserve and Gordon Sorrell was the one Marine in the crowd. He was a Marine then and like all Marines, he’s still one today.
We talked and listened during the soup and salad portion of the meal. They had dessert when it was time for me to speak. It actually crossed my mind to say, “instead of me blathering on, why don’t we go around the room and have each of you veterans tell us what America means to you.” It crossed my mind, but I didn’t think that would be fair to the guy in charge of inviting interesting speakers to come and speak. So, instead I spoke of some of the things I always speak about, but I began my talk by simply saying thank you. I ended my talk the same way. The way I see it, we can’t say thank you enough.
These men are happy and proud men. They brag of their perfect grandchildren and they ask about my boys. They were interested in hearing about my brother-in-law, the Marine. Some expressed concern about our country and the path were on. It frustrates them to know young men are fighting in wars that seem to have no end.
I’ve thought a lot about what I heard and what I saw today. Something tells me their words will stick with me a lot longer than mine will be remembered by them. It was a tough crowd.