TCS Daily

I Am Privileged to Know Them

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 11, 2005 12:00 AM

LIGONIER, PA. - I'll be at the corner of Market and Fairfield this morning with my orange reflective vest and radio, directing traffic away from the Diamond (our town square) while a small group of people gather for the ceremonies at the flag pole next to the band stand.

Every Veterans Day, the volunteer firemen provide traffic control at the four approaches to the Diamond during the brief ceremonies. At 11 o'clock the high school band will play the National Anthem. Prayers of remembrance will be offered, a moment of silence will be observed and a few words will be spoken about those who have served their country in the military.  

If it's like other years, I'll get a few motorists who are annoyed that they can't drive right on up Main Street. They'll roll down the window and ask, "What's the problem? An accident?"  

No, I'll tell them, it's just Veterans Day.  

The quizzical or annoyed looks give way to a sheepish "Oh," and they make a right or left on Fairfield. A lot of people forget. When I was a kid, this day was called Armistice Day, and at 11 o'clock we'd line up out at the flag pole by the school and "remember the elevens," recalling that the massive blood-letting of the First World War ended precisely at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, November 11, 1918.  

That war still loomed large when I was young, even though we had gone through a Second World War by then. There were lots of veterans of that first "Big One" still around, like the wiry guy who lived down the road and kept his lawn so neat and had a rattling cough, the legacy of a German mustard gas barrage.  

The town's last World War I vet died a few years ago. Bill Dice was a barber until he retired. He was over a hundred years old. There were no "Doughboys" from his generation to stand at attention when they buried him in the cemetery up on the hill. But there were other brothers in arms there -- fellow veterans, from World War II and Korea and Vietnam, to see him off.  

Just last week a bunch of us guys from town had a little birthday lunch for Hadley Martin. He was 95. His eyes still sparkle. He has his same ornery sense of humor. He has a lot of pain in his legs, though, and finds it hard to get around. I looked across the table at him as we joked and ate and I thought about how I had seen him when I was a kid.  

He was just "Mr. Martin," who owned Martin's Specialty Shop, where we went to buy boots and shoes and clothing. I never knew until I was grown up and moved away that he had been a U.S. Army medic; that he had survived the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the last men out of Bastogne before the Germans ringed it.  

He has a couple of Bronze Stars somewhere in a drawer. He still remembers how bitter cold it was that winter of 1944-45 and how grateful he was for the pair of rubber four-buckle "Arctic" boots that had arrived in a package from his father just before the battle began. He remembers the zing of a German sniper's bullet as it hit the tent pole he held in his hand as his unit was setting up a field hospital.  

But to most folks, he's just "Had" Martin, retired merchant, Rotarian, former volunteer fireman, former councilman, member of the Chamber of Commerce.  

Sitting next to me, across from Had, was Dick McDonald. He's a slim, handsome man with a sort of mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He doesn't look like he's in his 80s.  

You can talk to Dick about politics, about golf, about the places he and his wife have been, or about the old days when his family owned Idlewild, the amusement park down the Lincoln Highway a few miles from here.  

But some days he has a cane with him. When he gets up from a chair he has to make sure his artificial leg clicks into place. And take it from me, you'd have to know him well and even then do some discreet prying, to know about his days as a test pilot with the Eighth Air Force in Europe and the awful moment when he had just walked into the cockpit to check on a new pilot and their B-17 bomber emerged from a cloud and slammed into the English countryside.  

Ligonier is just a little town, so you get to know a lot of people over the years and you realize how many of them are veterans, not only from World War II, but from every conflict since then and the turmoils and watches between. I honor every one of them, and thank God for them frequently. I don't care whether they were ever in the heat of battle or just clerking in a supply depot or supervising a chow line. They all have given time out of their lives to their country -- time they could never really regain.  

Now there are men and women serving in a war whose dimensions are difficult to fathom or foresee -- a war against a peculiar tyranny that thrives on terror. Many are giving and will give their lives in this strange global struggle. But I sincerely hope and pray that most of them will have the luxury of wearing the label "veteran." And as they look back some day on their service to their country, I hope they can wear it as well as my friends Hadley and Dick. I am privileged to know them.

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