An Apology to World War II Veterans
July 18, 2005
|An elderly gentleman gave me something over twenty-six years ago that really belongs to you World War II veterans. I think it's time that I pass it on. I am a thief who took, enjoyed, and hoarded something of yours. He meant for you to have it, but he gave it to me.|
The Mitzels had always been good to me back in Clinton, Ohio--my hometown. When I learned that they were vacationing in Vienna, I took a week's leave to go intercept them. The year was 1977. I was a young soldier stationed in northern Italy.
A friend had written, giving me the Mitzels' itinerary and the name of their hotel. Joan Mitzel, then traveling in Europe with her family, had accompanied me to the homecoming dance in my senior year of high school. We had attended church together.
Arriving in the beautiful city, I got a room and telephoned my friends. Dr. Mitzel answered. When I was nineteen it did not occur to me that I might be intruding. Dr. Mitzel made me feel that he was delighted. We kept my presence in the city a secret until I could sneak up on the family on the front steps of the opera house. Puzzled looks, warm handshakes and hugs, and a few "how-did-you-find-us-here" questions, asked in various ways, marked our reuinion.
The Mitzels graciously took me with them for the day, sightseeing, tasting food, and soaking up the beautiful sights of old Vienna. It didn't matter to me what we did. It was good to be with a family from home and away from the army for a few days.
That is when I encountered the elderly gentleman on the sidewalk. Gray, small, and stooped, walking with effort, he approached slowly, tentatively, almost timidly--unlike a practiced panhandler wanting a handout or a religious zealot with a pamphlet. Struggling to speak the words in English, he asked, "You--are an American? A soldier?"
"Yes, sir." I said. "I'm an American and a soldier."
He reached out a withered hand and touched my arm. His eyes misted. For whatever reason, this was a meaningful moment for this aged gentleman speaking to a stranger on a sidewalk in Vienna, Austria in 1977.
"You are--," he started, but paused, searching for the word. "You are--," he began again, pausing, but then finding the word he wanted, "noble." Then he said it again, all together, "You are noble. You are a noble man." He patted my arm a few times, gently tapping the sentiment into place.
"Thank you, sir," I said. "Thank you very much."
He looked at me as though I were a magnificent statue portraying some exalted luminary. Never had I felt so respected, so immensely honored. No president or general pinning a medal on my chest could have expressed more genuine admiration than the words, touch, and countenance of that bent, wrinkled, humble man. I knew I had done nothing at all to earn it, but I accepted it with puzzled gratitude in that sudden, electric moment on the sidewalk. I said, "thank you," and the man finally turned and hobbled away.
Why? What had I done to provoke such high praise? I was nothing more--or less--than a generic American soldier on furlough in a European city thirty-one years after the end of World War II. My G.I. haircut must have given away that I was a soldier. I wore civilian clothes. Maybe the man had overheard my speech and observed enough to suppose that I was an American.
I had performed no noble act. The man respected me so highly because I was an American soldier. He had no basis for honoring me with such tribute beyond that. I stood in for you to receive the reward. I was the visible symbol who just happened to be there for the man who had to say something.
I accepted the gift, knowing even then that it was for you. You earned the respect that he gave me. Please accept my apology for holding it for so many years before passing it along.
When I watch the old black and white footage from World War II, sometimes I think I see a younger version of the man I met in Vienna. He is waving and smiling at American tanks and soldiers, trying to get your attention so he can thank you. At times, I think I can make out his features on the faces of living skeletons borne away from liberated concentration camps, unable to speak. At least I know that it was supremely important to the man who spoke to me in Vienna to say what he said to me that day.
The vintage films show images of you, too. You are trudging through mud, or flying planes, driving tanks, smoking cigarettes in foxholes, firing rifles, and writing lonely letters to loved ones at home. I never have to struggle to find the fitting word. A meek and gentle man gave it to me on a sidewalk in Vienna. When he looked at me he saw you and told me what he really wanted to tell you. You are--. I cannot bring myself to just blurt out the word that he worked so hard to find and chose so carefully. You are that thing because of what you did for so many imperiled people. You endured hardships to earn the two syllables that he used so reverently to speak of you. Hold still long enough to feel his hand tapping the sentiment into place. Picture his moist eyes and hear his earnest, struggling voice when I tell you what he said to you when he spoke to me: "You are noble. You are a noble man."
By Tim Nichols
Tim Nichols is the author of THE REUNION A Civil War Novel of the 12th West Virginia Infantry. You can learn more about Tim at http://www.timothynichols.com.
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