Last week, after our trip to the library for a little same-age interaction, my daughter and I ran some errands. The last place we stopped was the grocery store.
I don’t typically go to this grocery store so I’m not familiar with the layout. I had to spend a little more time paying attention to where I was going and what I was looking for. Luckily, I wasn’t in my usual fast-paced rat-race through the aisles.
While looking over the bananas, I noticed an elderly gentleman nearby wearing what looked to be a ball cap. I knew better than to think it was a simple ball cap, though. My grandfather, a Navy Veteran from WWII, wears his Navy veterans’ cap proudly whenever he is out in public. This hat looked the same. Stiff, flat-brimmed, navy in color, and sitting on top of (not pulled down on) his head.
I peeked around the banana stand to get a better look (while trying oh-so-hard not to be conspicuous) and confirmed my guess. At the same time, he caught my eye. Whoops. I said, “Thank you for your service, sir.” He thanked me, I thanked him again – lots of gratefulness happening in that moment.
A few aisles later I was trying to find paper towels. I was stopped behind a cart, then moved a little bit, and then I stopped to find something, and in the jogging movement through the aisle I noticed the elderly man was behind me. I looked back and smiled while apologized for being in the way. He told me to take my time. As we moved further down the aisle toward the tissue, we both stopped across the aisle from one another. I took this opportunity to speak to him again.
My grandfather is also a Navy Veteran (I said while motioning to his hat).
Yes – WWII? They deployed a lot of us – Okinawa, all over the world.
Yes, WWII. I’m not sure where he was exactly, or what he did (though I should know these things, I know).
Yeah there were a lot of us.
He paused. Grabbed a package of tissue.
My brother saved my life twice.
Oh, wow. (What does someone say to that?)
Without him I wouldn’t be here. I drowned when I was five years old in the river. He pulled me out and pumped the water out of me. We never told our parents.
Never. I thank him every day that I wake up. I have to.
He looked up to the ceiling.
Was he older than you?
Yes, by five years. And he saved my life again – he was part of the crew that dropped the bomb in Japan. I was in the first group to go and they said we wouldn’t have survived had it not been for the bomb drop.
He saved my life twice.
Now I don’t know much about the details of the war in WWII so I can’t confirm what he said, but that doesn’t matter. I very much enjoyed this conversation with this man – at 11am on a Thursday in the grocery store. It was touching and fleeting and made me think of so many stories untold.
We parted ways yet again. When I made my way to the dairy, I saw another man (younger, perhaps a veteran of Vietnam) in his service hat and I thanked him too. He said:
You’re welcome. I’d do it again in a heartbeat but they don’t like the old fat guys.
I laughed and said:
Well you could sit in an office I suppose.
Nah – I was a paratrooper. I want to be where the action is.
Point taken. We laughed, told each other to have a nice day, and moved along.
I made it to the checkout without seeing the elderly man again, however when I was looking for a lane to check out, there he was. In order to not seem like some strange lady following this man around the store, I went into the next lane over.
As we both checked out, I glanced over a few times to see if I could read his hat. I knew most of these hats had specifics on the veteran’s service, and I thought I could ask my grandfather if he was familiar with this area.
It said U.S. Navy LST’s. No number of a ship – just LST’s.
That was the last I saw of him. He finished up and left the store before I was done, though had I seen him again I’m unsure of what I would have done. Stopped him to talk again? About what exactly?
I know I’m not alone in this, though I assume I’m also not in the majority, but I sincerely enjoy speaking with strangers. I find sometimes people can be more honest or more frank with someone they just met because there’s no baggage in the past and no expectation of a relationship in the future. It’s just that moment. Or moments, in this case. He may not remember our conversation, but it was a small treasure for me.