I dropped a dollar in his milk jug, and thanked him for his service.
On the way out, I stopped to ask him where he served. "North Africa and Italy" he said, which made me pause--this guy was a WWII vet, probably about 90 years old. I asked him what his job was in the army. "Infantry--I carried a tommy gun, do you know what that is?". Chris is short, about 5'6", with sharp blue eyes and a straight posture. He has a firm handshake and a clear voice.
"You must have seen so much, I can't even imagine what you went through", I said. "I am reading Audy Murphy's memoir, and it is amazing what you guys survived".
I hit a nerve. Chris stuttered, and turned away from me, wiping his eyes. "Excuse me, I don't want you to see..." he said. I was caught off guard, and felt ashamed for making an old man cry. "There was a job we needed you guys to do... " I stammered "... and you did it." He composed himself after a moment and turned back to me. "We did it, what we had to". I asked him about some of his experiences, based on Audy Murphy's book.
"I hear you guys were always hungry, sometimes really hungry" I offered, "that's not something we worry about much these days". We were standing next to a vegetable display, piled high with tomatoes and cucumbers.
"There was this time once," he said, "when we were diggin in in Italy outside of..." (I missed the placename, rats) "...and one of the guys yells, 'Scallions!'. Well, there was this pile of manure with scallions growing out of it. We all dropped our shovels and ran over. We plucked them out of the manure pile, brushed them off on our coats, and ate them."
"In this one town, we went through, and someone told us that we had to meet a local girl. It turned out that she was from Brooklyn. She had come back to Italy to visit her family, and they [the fascists] took her passport. It was 1939, and after that, she was stuck there. So she meets us, and she goes to the wall of her house, and takes a stone out. Behind there is bunch of cheese, and sausages, she had hidden from the Germans. She puts it down in front of us, we had a nice meal."
I asked him about the Germans, was it true that sometimes prisoners were not taken? (In Murphy's book, there is a scene where the Germans tied a pair of captured American officers to the front of a tank, hoping to avoid fire. The GIs hit the tank with an anti-tank gun anyway, killing their own men).
"Not my company, but one that was to the right of us on the line, one of their patrols was captured by Germans. The German officer killed 7 prisoners. After that, well, there weren't any prisoners for the next several months."
"Later, in May, the Germans in Italy surrendered. I was on guard by the side of the road outside of the village where my company had stopped. A German jeep came up the road, with a couple of officers in it, holding a white flag. If those guys had made a sudden move, I would have let them have it. I told them to keep that white flag high, and showed them the road to the general, where they could surrender"
"I never kept that tommy gun on safe. You had to be ready all the time. The whole time I was on the front."
I shook his hand, and held it for a moment. "You should write this all down," I told him, "You should save your memories for your great grandchildren. It's a treasure. And it will keep your mind young."
"If I could get the money together,", he said, "I would go back to Italy. The people are so wonderful, and the food is so fresh."
If you see an old guy selling poppies for the VFW, stop and say hello. Thank him for his sacrifices, because chances are that he may have gone through hell to protect our way of life. He may have lived in mud. He may have been wounded, and watched his friends be blown to pieces. He probably buried some of his friends in far away fields, the names of which we are forgetting. Maybe buy a poppy, to help the old soldiers keep their memories fresh, and keep our history from fading.