Wednesday, November 9, 2011
To The Unknown Soldier In Walgreens
I was in a hurry. He was in my way. This stop at Walgreens was just another item on a to-do list that I didn’t feel like doing and now, well, there he stood, right in front of the shelf I needed to reach. I waited impatiently for a minute or so, glancing at my watch while he considered his purchase. Finally, my pressing schedule forced me to interrupt his concentration with a barely polite, “Excuse me?” He stepped back as I reached quickly for the buckwheat pillow I’d come to buy.
“Do those really work?” he asked as I turned to go.
I should have made this my last stop, I thought with annoyance.
“They’re not too comfortable at first, but they really support your neck and head,” I replied. “My husband can’t sleep without one now.”
He listened intently, considering my rapid endorsement. I hoped my courteous answer was enough to let me off the hook here. I had three more stores and the post office to hit before I took everything home where I still needed to start dinner and . . .
My checklist was sidelined as I realized he was speaking to me again. I smiled stiffly, tuning back in until he finished so I could leave.
“I was a prisoner of war in World War II,” he was saying. “They gave me a roll of old material for a pillow. It was all I had for three years, and it was hard as a rock.” Here he smiled and ended, “I’m afraid this doesn’t look any more comfortable than that was.” Then he shook his head, turned, and stiffly walked away.
He had cleared the aisle and rounded the corner before I could think of anything to say. And now it was too late. His tall form, now slightly bent, still communicated strength and character. His gait, slow and deliberate, modeled confidence born of hardship. It’s odd how you can tell so much about a person without even knowing their name. But I never asked his name. Didn’t ask to shake his hand. Never even said thank you. And I never saw him again. Speechless and ashamed of my self-centered agenda, I made my purchase and left the store.
It was a moment born of serendipity. And I missed it. I had an opportunity like none before and none since--nearly fourteen years later--to thank a hero. But I didn’t recognize it. Late one sleepless night, about a year afterwards, I journaled the experience in a letter to the editor of our newspaper, hoping the stranger might at least read my belated appreciation for his sacrifices. But I don’t know if he ever saw it. Just like I never saw him until it was too late.
How much I miss when I walk through life with my head down. I wonder how many other wounded warriors walk silently beside me in anonymity. There are more and more of them now, much younger than this gentleman, putting it all on the line so we can retain whatever freedoms are still left to us.
So once again, to the Unknown Soldier in Walgreens as well as to the others who walk in your shadow, thank you. Only you and God know what you have given and suffered to protect us. May God bless you and your families. And despite ignorant hearts like mine, may God continue to protect the safe harbor He made of these United States of America.
We don’t deserve it, but so far, we are still the land of the free because of the brave.