Thursday, April 9, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Who’s a Hero?

The week was young. It was only Monday afternoon, the Monday before Memorial Day. It was hectic trying to get all the orders done so that there would be plenty of First Prize hot dogs, Koffee Kup buns and Styrofoam coolers. Did we need to turn on the ice machine? Did we have a good supply of Frisbees and Whiffleballs? The coming three-day weekend would kick off the summer season and we had to be prepared.

With a familiar rattle and bang, an old blue pickup truck with a crumbling white cap and 20 years’ worth of bumper stickers pulled up right outside the front door. Old Gib unwound himself from the front seat and proceeded to the back of the truck where he rummaged and tugged until his arms were full. Tall and lean, he looked for all the world like something out of an Audubon print with his knock-kneed flamingo-like gait, pigeon-breasted chest and hawkish nose.

Gib had supplied the Wayside with fishing paraphernalia ever since we bought the store. We depended on him for the right size and type of Mepps, Zebco rod and reel sets, hooks, nets, swivels and other miscellaneous gear suitable for the worm fishermen who share the famous Batten Kill with their fly fishing brothers and sisters.

Gib was trying to get out of the fishing supply business but agreed to beef up our stock for the weekend. His assortment was a little more motley than usual. Some of the Rapala boxes were wrinkled with water stains, and he didn't have any #8 snelled hooks. But he brought in what he had, and he enjoyed his visits to the store, where he sat at the big round table engaging folks with fish stories. His arthritic gnarled hands, covered with liver spots, gestured woodenly as he told his tales. His mostly expressionless face was dominated by the most peculiar mouth, he teeth of which were yellowed and layered. Where the upper teeth met the lower, there was a perfectly round hole as if he had caught bullets in his teeth in a circus act. He would make a circle of his mouth as if he had anticipated someone's astonishment at the size or number of fish that used to be caught in Hopper Brook or the Green River.

We carried on our business between stories and interruptions until we wrangled out what of his remaining stock would be useful. We sealed our deal with a sales slip written out with a stubby pencil and added up the old-fashioned way without the aid of a calculator.

Gib was active in the American Legion, and someone had once mentioned that it was hard to believe looking at him that he’d been a war hero. I had been working on an employee newsletter and wanted to put a bit at the end about remembering the veterans. While we were concluding our transactions, I conversationally said: “I hear that you were quite a hero in World War II.”

Gib was hard of hearing and always slow to answer, so I was not sure he had caught my remark. Imagine my shock and surprise when I looked up from my paperwork to see those rheumy old eyes brimming with tears that leaked over the folds and down his leathery cheeks. “The heroes,” he said, “are still over there.”

Then he began an amazing tale of volunteerism and bravery, protecting our American tanks from Japanese bombs, landing on the beach at Randova, and going down on the US Army Transport Coolidge in 1942. My knowledge of history was so spotty that I could not follow the story in detail, but I did know that while I was talking to this old Vermonter in the worn shirt smelling of engine oil, fish and sweat, I was seeing what made this country great.

Gib was the only one of the squadron leaders serving together who came back alive. After 60 years the scars or were still visible on his psyche, like keloids bumping up the tender skin. Clearly, war hurt and toughened. But it also tenderized in a mysterious way. Gib came back and devoted himself to countless worthy causes: Boy Scouts, the American Legion, Conservation Camp and Hunter Safety. He wanted this to be a country worth fighting for. Each day we all pick our battles and decide “which hill we want to die on.”

Even constrained by the dictates of duty, we pick to do it honorably or not. There is no question about Gib’s choices.

Gib’s heroes are still “over there.” But one of Arlington’s heroes – indeed, one of America’s heroes – is still among us and drives a beat-up blue pickup with a crumbling white cap.

(This story, which originally appeared in my published volume of "Wayside Country Stories," is reposted today both as a nod to Throwback Thursday and in honor of Gib’s wife Ruth who passed away this week.)


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