Veterans Day, observed in the United States every year on November 11, is “a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.” My story shares what I experienced one day at a basketball game while sitting next to a proud grandfather.
You cannot help getting loud at school basketball games. You’re either cheering wildly or trying to make your conversation heard over that wretched game buzzer. You quickly become friends with the stranger sitting next to you, understanding that you attend for the same purpose: to encourage a child you love to do their very best.
And you rarely get a name. It doesn’t matter. There’s a peculiar connection that occurs at a sports event with the people seated in your area. That’s enough for smiles and stories to be shared.
The man next to me wasn’t as loud as everyone else, but he made enough noise to show how proud he was of his granddaughter. We chatted about her for a bit, and I spoke about my nephew and brother and their love for the sport. The conversation was casual, friendly, and free-flowing. He knew enough about basketball that I figured he must have played a bit in his day.
He looked the age of the “greatest generation.” I had just finished Tom Brokaw’s book with that title and asked him if he had served in World War II.
This man who, up until that question, had been transparent, vocal, and generous with his smiles and words became silent.
He stared at me for little while, and his eyes filled with tears. “Yes,” he said.
And he said no more.
He slowly turned his gaze toward the court. As I usually did with veterans, I thanked him for protecting our country and the world. My voice shook a bit as I said it, realizing what I had triggered. He responded with a nod, but he did not look at me when he made that gesture.
He did not speak with me for the rest of the game.
I, too, became quiet, not because of hurt feelings but out of respect. Again, I surmised, this man was protecting a fellow citizen. By his silence, he was sparing me from the horrors of war, yet at the same time reliving something unspeakable.
“I’ll take it for you,” his silence seemed to be saying.
I wondered where this gentle man had served and what he had experienced. Wherever that war had placed him, he took what it had to give and helped secure a safe place for me, born into the world almost 20 years later. And for his granddaughter. And for my family. For us all.
I’ll take it for you.
When the game buzzer brought us both back to the present, I watched him as he slowly got up and walked towards the crowded court.
And there was no looking back.
Image from National Archives‘ Pictures of African Americans During World War II page, with original caption: “Pvts. George Cofield…and Howard J. Davis…guard a newly-constructed bridge site over the Rhine River, built by U.S. Ninth Army Engineers.”