Friday, November 11, 2005

Saying thanks

I was already running late to a deposition in the suburbs this morning, and was still about ten minutes away when traffic slowly began to grind to a halt. Up ahead, I could see half a dozen police cars parked around one of the main intersections in town, and began to hear the unmistakable sound of a marching band approaching in the distance. Soon, an endless row of high school students began to march past, playing their instruments and tossing their batons into the air. The sidewalks were filled with people and it became clear that traffic would not be moving anytime soon.

"This is just god...damn...great," I muttered to myself, thinking that there was no way I would be able to make it to my opponent's office before he just went ahead and cancelled the whole thing. And all just so East Bumble High could get psyched for tonight's football game against their crosstown rivals, or some equally pointless reason. As I sat there brooding, I noticed a change in the make-up of the participants in the parade. Instead of young students in bright yellow band costumes, the street began to fill with men in their seventies and eighties, slowly marching past in all types of military dress uniform. Then I sheepishly remembered that today was Veteran's Day, and quickly pulled my car over and walked up to join the crowd. I could see that the parade stretched on for over one mile, and all along the procession were dozens of various high school bands and veteran's groups lined up, representing all of the major actions from World War II through the current Iraq war.

The parade came to a momentary stop while the traffic was cleared at an intersection further ahead along the route. Right in front of me was a 1940's-style jeep, with a sign indicating that the occupants were veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Just before Christmas in 1944, the German army had launched a desperate, surprise attack at the Allies, and the individual soldiers suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by about 600,000 crack German troops, completely cut off from reinforcements or supplies. Try to recall the coldest day you ever experienced, and then imagine living in a frozen hole in the ground without winter clothing while artillery shells exploded in the treetops all around you on a daily basis. The soldiers in the Bulge endured that, and more, and eventually turned the tables on the Germans and chased them back over the Rhine then straight on through to Berlin. Between both sides, over 1 million men were either captured or became casualties during that battle.

Those 18 year-old kids who held their ground while surrounded and outnumbered were now 80 year-old men who had endured, triumphed, and returned home to build their lives in peace. You could see the humble pride in their faces as they waited before the thankful crowd. I caught the eye of two gentlemen sitting in the backseat of the jeep and just waved my hand and said "Thank you." I didn't know how to even begin to properly acknowledge their sacrifice. They smiled and waved back, and soon the parade was off and moving again.

Every year there are fewer and fewer veterans from that era still living. Time succeeds where the Axis armies failed, and they go off to join the friends that they lost in the forests of France, or on the islands of the Pacific, or in the deserts of North Africa. It's a shame that their service is officially honored only once a year. They should be thanked in some small way every single day that we are lucky enough to still have them here with us.