I didn’t notice him at first. I had spent a few extra minutes talking with a gentleman outside the gate, and the event had already started. The occasion was an anniversary – the 70th, in fact, of the end of World War II. People were gathered at a pavilion just inside the Springfield National Cemetery, and the emcee had started the program.
He walked with a cane, and wasn’t moving so fast. I couldn’t get around him without being rude, but I wanted to reach the front so I could see and hear what was said.
He could have been one of a million other people. That’s what I thought until I got closer, and saw the letters embroidered on the back of his hat. He was one of 16.1 million other Americans, only 855,000 of whom survive today. The letters on his hat simply said, “World War II.”
I decided that I didn’t need to walk around this man. I walked slowly beside him instead, just taking it all in – the rows of symmetrical white headstones. We weren’t in Arlington, but rather in one of the dozens of places around the country that looks just like it.
I saw him stop, and swap his cane to his other hand. For a moment I wondered why, perhaps thinking that he had stopped to rest, but he had noticed something that I had not.
During the first few notes of the national anthem, I reacted, snapping to attention and saluting, just as I had always done. The old man’s was not as crisp as mine, just as mine is not as much so as the young Marines who were there. I felt my arm getting heavy. I dropped my salute and took two steps backward guiltily, just long enough to capture the moment before returning to my salute for the rest of the song. Afterward, the old man walked on, and I lost track of him in the crowd. We never spoke, as there was no reason to, and I do not know his name.
We share nothing in common, yet we share everything.