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Last updateTue, 04 Nov 2014 9pm

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Average people who did extraordinary things

When I was a student living in Scotland, I attended the Methodist Church in downtown Edinburgh. It was a friendly place, and I was particularly fond of the minister. He was gentle, kindly, witty and had wonderful insights on life and the world. He was also bald, terrifically overweight, and because of all that extra girth, occasionally had trouble getting up and down the stairs.
What can I say? When he was around, no biscuit and no doughnut was safe.
Though the British don’t celebrate a holiday like Veterans Day, they still honor Nov. 11. That’s the day the first World War ended and the Sunday nearest that date is called “Remembrance Sunday” in honor of those who served and those who fell in war time. It’s also traditional on that Sunday for British war veterans to wear their medals. Some do, some don’t. The British, by nature, are a bit reserved, but Reverend McPherson wore his.

It was just one medal hanging on a ribbon that fit rather tightly around his rather ample neck. After the Remembrance Sunday service I asked him, politely, though I guess a bit presumptuously, what the medal was. He smiled, and said, “…it’s called the Victoria Cross.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. I knew what the Victoria Cross was and was a little embarrassed for asking. It’s similar to our Medal of Honor, and I later found out that he received it for charging, singlehandedly, a German position in North Africa.
This was something that watching this happy man consume every bite in sight, was hard to imagine. But, every year about this time, Nov. 11 prompts the same memory of Reverend McPherson and leaves me thinking about how many other average people, when called upon, have done extraordinary things in the service of their country.
Not everyone who served in the cause of freedom won a medal. Some just did their jobs. Bricklayers and construction workers from all over America built air strips in Europe and the Pacific. Men who had been clerks and bakers, factory workers and farmers, became infantrymen and fought in the snows of France and Belgium - others in the far-flung reaches of the Pacific. Later veterans from other generations would fight in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf.
It forever changed them. They saw combat, they saw death, they saw their best friends get hurt or killed, and they knew comradeship in a way that most of us who have not had that experience simply can’t imagine. Old prejudices engrained over a lifetime melted away in the face of the reality of war.
I remember one story about a sailor who spent a night on Iwo Jima. It was pitch dark. He wasn’t really prejudiced, but he had grown up in a prejudiced household. On that dark night he talked, in a whisper with the man who shared the shell hole which was now their refuge. All he knew was that the man was from New York and in a phrase used back then, “he seemed like a really decent Joe.” Only in the morning did he realize that his foxhole mate was black. At which point, he said, for the first time ever in his life, it didn’t matter — a realization that stuck with him the rest of his life.
The pattern is the same in every war. But what’s even more remarkable, is that when the wars ended, and the fight was done, these same men went home. And in every respect, they went on with their lives. But they were changed. Many, because of their experiences, took on a new sense of purpose. Others had problems. But, all, no matter what their circumstances or experiences, went back to being regular citizens again. Some, like my dad, talked a lot about their war experiences while others just sort of let it be and didn’t say much.
Today, they are almost impossible to pick out. The soldier who might have driven a Sherman tank in the Ardennes is possibly the same man who is minding his grandchildren after school. A young nurse who left home many years ago to serve in the Army or the Navy could be the elderly lady next door. The soldier or marine who fought in the grinding combat of Vietnam could be a coworker, your child’s teacher, or a friend. But they all have something in common: For a short while, these average people did something extraordinary and on this Veteran’s Day we owe them all a debt of gratitude.
You may reach David Kerr at
kerr @journalpress.com.

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