I remember the day Harry gave my son the VFW hat. We were at a celebration at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars where they were honoring Harry because he was moving from the area to live with family.
I had taken Jonathan with me so I could grab a photograph for the local newspaper, but also so I could say goodbye to Harry, who I had interviewed years ago about his service during World War II. We had visited Harry at a nursing home a few weeks earlier while also visiting my aunt. My son, Jonathan, was 7 at the time.
I told Jonathan that Harry had fought for our country during World War II and to free the Jews during the Holocaust, something we had been talking about one night when he had asked me some historical questions. I remember how horrified he was about Hitler treating the Jews so awful and because of his age, I left out the worst of it, mainly only telling him how much the Nazis had hated the Jewish people and how wrong it was. After I introduced Jonathan to Harry, who was in the hallway sitting in a wheelchair, Jonathan, without prompting, saluted him.
Harry was touched and overwhelmed. As I sat and chatted with Harry, often having to almost shout since he had lost some of his hearing by then (he was almost 93), Jonathan drew a picture of Harry in the war, jumping out of airplanes and fighting in the Phillipines. Again, Harry was touched and impressed with Jonathan.
So, a week later when we attended Harry’s farewell celebration, we were surprised and emotional when Harry asked to see Jonathan and handed him two of his VFW Commander hats. Harry was thrilled to see Jonathan and smiled and talked to him, thanking him again for the salute and the picture.
We were definitely sad a year later when we heard Harry passed away. He had dedicated more than three decades to the local VFE post, where he served four years as post commander, 20 years as post quartermaster, 10 years as district quartermaster and three years as district commander. During his time at the VFW he had been named an All-American post commander, an All-American quartermaster three times, and also received several awards through the VFW.
When Harry passed away the new post commander, Dan Polinski, told the local paper about the countless times Harry and others of Harry’s generation had stood in all kinds of weather to honor veterans who had passed away. Dan remembered one specific day where the rain was coming down, cold and stinging, against their faces.
“The younger of us, and I use that term loosely, said to Harry, O.C. Spencer, and some of the other World War II guys, ‘Listen, you guys, don’t stay out in this.’ The wind was whipping and it was brutal,” said Polinski. “Harry, and O.C., and all of the old crew — all of the old World War II guys who had stood with this Color Guard guy at many other funerals — just said, ‘No. He would do this for us.’” (Morning Times, Sayre, Pa. August 1, 2014)
I can attest to Dan’s story because I remember those rainy Memorial Days (in fact, I remember more rainy Memorial Days in Bradford County than sunny ones. It seems it always rains when there is a parade or a ceremony to honor veterans here.) I covered a few of those ceremonies for local newspapers and when I first saw Harry, and fellow World War II veteran O.C. Spencer, standing out in inclement or sweltering hot weather, I wondered why someone didn’t get them a chair or an umbrella, or usher them inside. Looking back I know it was because they stood not only to honor the fallen and those who served but to honor our country. They did what so many of us don’t, or won’t, do. They did what they’d done years ago when called to fight; standing when others turned or walked away.
We keep Harry’s hats sealed inside the clear plastic case he handed them to Jonathan in and we keep them in an honored spot next to a sealed American flag given to Warren’s family after his great-grandfather passed away. And when we do pull the hats out we not only remember the man who stood at every Memorial and Veterans day service, no matter the weather, in full uniform, honoring those who served and those who fell, but the man who came home from war, worked with troubled youth with his wife for a decade, worked hard at every job he did, and also showed us how to persevere during the toughest times in life.
It’s hard sometimes to look at the local Color Guard during Memorial Day services and not see Harry standing there, rifle propped against his shoulder, back straight, jaw firm, gaze steady. I find myself choking up at the memory of the dedication he showed and how a new generation is missing out on the lessons of perseverance his mere presence there taught us.
What is important, I remind myself, isn’t that he isn’t here anymore, but that he was there at all and that there are people still around who will work to keep his memory and legacy alive.