I was late by 20 minutes. That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention to the street signs at Stansbury’s Country Club neighborhood.
Gilbert Major, who was waiting at the curb for me, looked unworried. He stood there like a gentleman with his neatly combed silver hair, dark slacks, tucked-in polo shirt and dress shoes.
Major called me a few months ago to compliment me on an op-ed. Explaining that he was a 76-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who was injured during the Gulf War, he said he appreciated my style of writing and that he was glad someone from my generation championed old-fashioned values.
Then he made a request. He had a hard time writing. Could we meet and, as I saw fit, could I share his thoughts through my column?
Curious, I told him I’d be willing to. Last week, I arranged a meeting. I thought Memorial Day weekend would be a good time to learn from a veteran.
Over lunch at Applebee’s, I asked him how he got injured.
He was 55, serving in Kuwait as a senior chief of a 30-man Navy Seebee unit that gathered unexploded bombs and rockets. One day, as he walked in front of a forklift to inspect a pallet, the driver accidentally stepped on the gas pedal. The equipment hit Mr. Major on the back of his head.
“I was never the same man I used to be,” he said without any trace of bitterness. “I used to be more confident.” He suffered memory and hearing loss. Eventually, he had to quit from the military and his construction business.
I asked him why he called me so many months ago and his blue eyes bore into mine. “I felt like I knew you,” he said. “I felt like I knew your parents and grandparents. You were writing about honoring the country, the Ten Commandments and taking care of family. That’s the way this country started.”
Then he shook his head. “It all changed in the 1960s. There was a conference held for young people. They told them not to trust any American over 30 years old. Have you heard of Woodstock? People started ignoring their families. They went from ‘What can I do for others?’ to ‘What can they do for me?’”
“What’s the solution?” I asked.
“We need to pay attention to our parents and grandparents,” he replied.
He shared a memory of his grandmother Katherine from 35 years ago, at his Uncle Walter’s funeral. On her lap, she opened a little box that contained his Purple Heart, tears coursing down her cheeks.
“I think that’s what made me decide to serve in the Navy,” Major said.
Returning to his house, he pointed at the flag in his backyard. He said, “There she is, the red, white and blue.”
“I have one more thing to say,” he said. “This is a great country.”
I heard the quiet pride in his voice and saw the conviction in his eyes. I thought of how this man’s life was never the same from serving in the military, and yet here he was showing off the flag and every good thing it stood for. My eyes welled up with tears and I couldn’t speak for a long moment.
“It is,” I said, nodding. “It is.”
Jewel Punzalan Allen is a memoir writing coach and a long-time journalist who lives in Grantsville. Visit her website at www.TreasuredStories.net.