I first saw him hobbling down the aisle of a small gun show. He was obviously of advanced age: white-haired, frail and walking with a pronounced limp, his bony left hand grasping one of those spiral thornwood canes that look like a kudu’s horn. It was that cane that first caught my attention – without it, the man would have been invisible.
His pained but determined pace picked up when he neared a table only two away from mine. The table’s owner displayed military battle rifles. The old gent stopped there, but I became distracted by customers of my own and did not notice him again.
The promoter held two shows a year in that small town, and I became a regular vendor. After that first time, I started noticing the old gentleman at every show. He always carried that magnificently polished, deep brown cane. He always went steadfastly to that same dealer’s table. He always came on Sunday morning when the crowds were thin.
Clearly not well off financially, the old man’s clothes never varied. His shoes were of brown leather, the toes curled up from age, deep cracks at the toe bend and the heels worn to a smooth curve; but they were carefully brushed to a soft luster. His slacks were khaki cotton, a semblance of a crease still showing down the front of each leg, but an irregular outline on one thigh that bespoke of a liquid stain long ago acquired. His sports jacket was dark brown wool, its herringbone pattern all but obliterated by age. Its pockets sagged as if he’d once limped home –in a driving rain- with oranges in them. The dulled and faded miniature of a military ribbon adorned the jacket’s left lapel. Under the jacket he always wore a white shirt so thin his sleeveless undershirt showed through. On his Western-style bolo tie, a walnut-sized, blood-red stone mirrored the man’s jutting Adam’s apple. Raising the stooped figure to perhaps five-feet six, a grey fedora hat rode. Now battered, sweat-stained and misshapen, the hat characterized him as much as the liver spots on his pallid, papery skin.
I could catalog those details because of his laborious gait. He’d plant the tightly clutched cane, then half-shuffle, half-slide his crippled left leg forward, and finally his still-spry right: tap, drag, step; tap, drag, step. Just watching him brought a dull empathetic ache to my hips and knees.
Neither his appearance nor his habits ever varied: he’d shuffle past my table, spend a few minutes in front of the rifle collector’s display then leave, unnoticed.
And then, one time, he failed to appear.
Just before the show ended that Sunday afternoon, I ambled over to the rifle table. On one end were a few P-17 Enfields and Springfields, a couple SMLE’s, one or two ’98 Mausers and an Arisaka. At the other end were several .30 M-1 carbines, a Garand and even a rare Johnson rifle. It was interesting stuff, but I really wanted to ask about the old man.
“Yeah, I’ll miss him,” the dealer said. “I heard he passed away last month.” He shook his head ruefully and looked down.
“You know anything about him? Your table was the only one he ever visited, as far as I saw.”
“Not much. But it wasn’t my table that he visited. It was this,” he said, pointing to the Garand.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s like this…the first few times he came by, I tried to wait on him. But he never spoke a word – like I wasn’t even there. He’d walk up, stand there a bit, and then he’d lightly touch the Garand. With just his fingertips, as though it was his lover or something, you know? Then one time I said, ‘You seem like you know that rifle. Carry one in the Army?’ He shook his head a little and kept right on caressing that rifle’s stock, but he said ‘Marines.’
“So then I looked at him a little closer. You know that little blue pin in his lapel? That’s the Navy Cross, and it’s the highest they give except for the Medal of Honor. And so I had to ask him where he got it, and he finally looked up at me. His eyes were brimming, as if some nightmare just came back to him, and he choked out one word: ‘Tarawa.’
“After that, I’d sell any rifle on the table, except that Garand. It would have killed him if I had. I never will sell it, now.” He stood silently for a second, then concluded, “Those two words and that ribbon are all I know about that old man, but they’re all I need to know.”
As if drawn to it, I stroked the stock of the Garand and whispered, “Thank you.” I’m not sure if I meant it for the dealer, or that rifle, or the hovering spirit of that departed hero. Maybe all three.
A note: I read recently that as many as 2,000 veterans of World War II pass away every single day. That’s more than were lost on many days of the war. If you know or even meet a veteran from that conflict, thank them from the bottom of your heart…while you still can.