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Thoughts on Memorial Day: Lessons Learned on an Airplane

Wednesday December 31, 1969

By Cookie Steponaitis

    Going to and from vacations on airplanes is sometimes tedious and at other times results in intriguing adventures. On one such trip the passenger next to me was a man of ninety plus years who was traveling to attend his great-grandson’s christening. Clad in a flight jacket and a hat showing military service, he seated himself and asked with a smile where I was traveling to. As the conversation flowed, the emblem on his hat struck me momentarily silent since it was the marking of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Seeing me staring at his hat he chuckled and asked if I knew what it meant. A bit tongue tied, I assured him I did and asked if he would be willing to share with me some of his stories from his time in World War II.

     Over the course of the plane ride I learned as much from the inflection in his voice, the glint in his eyes and the firmness of his grasp I as did in the facts, figures and events he calmly and proudly took me through. Repeatedly the pride in America and his own service came through. I was struck by the determination and tenacious approach he took to protecting pilots, many of whom did not want him in uniform or even flying as their escort. When I asked him if he was excited about seeing his great grandchild he took a small box out of his pocket and handed it to me. The gift he showed me was for his namesake, a child born sixty plus years after the World War II conflict into a time of turmoil and strife, but one that was stronger because of the efforts of this man and his generation. Nestled in the box was an identical set of wings to the ones he wore on his hat and jacket. Shiny, polished and obviously new, they gleamed in the box with the promise of being treasured by the newborn they were to be presented to. When I asked simply what his wish was for the child, the airman simply answered, “That one day he will wear them with pride as I have.”

      The flight was over too quickly and the pilot disappeared into the crowd as he headed down to his next gate and to the plane that would take him home to his family. Moving through the crowds with an ease of a man half his age, he attracted some attention and some smiles as many imagined him in his role of great grandfather, while being cognizant of his role as an airman. Being left with plenty to think about, what hit home the most was the one request he had made of me as we rode together and I listened diligently and wrote down  his stories. “Please do not use my name,” he requested. “Which U.S. Airman I was is not what is important. What is important is that we served proudly and continue to love this country today.”

      Just recently I watched thirty VUHS sophomores and freshman as they placed over 700 flags in cemeteries in partnership with American Legion Post # 14 honoring Americans who served and lost their names in war. While some of the stones carry dates that go back to the American Revolution and are faded into the edifices of granite that bear witness to the passing of time, others stand clear and show the name of the soldier who served. The faces of the youth replacing the old flags marking each veteran’s graves showed reactions ranging from shock at the numbers of flags to quiet moments of reflections at graves of neighbors, loved ones and relatives. Yet, with care and a large amount of respect the task was carried out. As they boarded the bus to return to school their conversations centered on the idea of service and they brainstormed different ways to serve a town, a city, and a nation. Intermingled with the monuments of marble and granite and the act of replacing weathered American flags with new ones came not only the recollection that occurs each year at Memorial Day, but a grounding in what it means to live in a participatory democracy and being a citizen of a free nation. While not all will serve in uniform, all are called on to serve and benefit the lives of others.

      So as the flags fly this year and we stop to reflect on the sacrifices, messages and impact that American service men and women have and continue to have on our lives, I will remember my plane ride and a chance meeting with a man who fought not only an enemy he could see and target, but the undercurrent of racism that he faced in his quest to defend the country he loves to this day.  Perhaps our greatest legacy from the

     “Greatest Generation” is that they still feel their names are not important and that their service is what sets them as models. To all Americans, as you enjoy Memorial Day this year, pause and reflect on what is owed to those who keep us safe, generation after generation; those who serve and silently stand guard so that a nation may celebrate and remember and live each day in freedom.

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