36: Shorty and Me

36: Shorty and Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Shorty and Me

Heroism is the divine relation which, in all times, unites a great man to other men.

~Thomas Carlyle

It was early morning when I pulled into the parking garage at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. I located the baggage carousels and noticed a banner that read, “Welcome Veterans.”

I found the registration line for “Guardians” and received an information packet and two T-shirts: one for me and one for my hero.

While I was getting organized and putting on my T-shirt, the veterans on the August trip with Honor Flight Cleveland started to arrive. As a guardian for the day, my job was to make sure my veteran was safe and fully enjoyed himself on his trip to Washington, D.C.

I finally located my hero among the sea of handsome faces in wheel-chairs. Before I could crouch down and introduce myself, Shorty — his nickname — quickly stood and took my hand. I was delighted when he looked me square in the eye, as I am six feet tall myself, and we laughed as he told me the story behind his moniker.

“I used to be even taller, but age does that to a body,” Shorty stated and then introduced me to his son who was dropping him off that morning.

Shorty was in the Navy in World War II and had been stationed stateside, in Texas, as a supply officer. He was a pleasant man, not too talkative but bright and cheery nonetheless. We hit it off from the start.

“Let’s get this T-shirt on you, Shorty, so everyone will know it’s your day today, okay?”

We said goodbye to his son and I wheeled him over to the men’s room. All the veterans are required to ride in a wheelchair whether they need one or not. It’s for safety reasons but, truthfully, it makes it a bit easier for us guardians to keep up with some of these guys.

There were a lot of us — enough to fill a large plane — and the excitement mounted as we paraded through the airport to the cheers and applause of our fellow travelers.

The guardians sat at the front of the plane, while the veterans sat together and shared stories with each other. I wished I could have heard some of them, but the point was for the vets to be with each other.

When we landed in Washington the fanfare was even louder, and a number of servicemen stationed in the area had turned out to shake the veterans’ hands. It was so heartwarming that I had a difficult time keeping my composure.

The staff of Honor Flight Cleveland were spectacular and worked with amazing precision to get the veterans on and off the buses at every stop we made. Their hard work and competence made everything go smoothly.

When we pulled up to the National World War II Memorial, the gasps were audible. It is a breathtaking sight. I waited as Shorty stepped off the bus and into his wheelchair and then we slowly wheeled our way inside.

As we entered, it was evident this was going to be a special moment for Shorty. He was quiet and clearly overwhelmed by the enormity of it all as we walked around to read each marble panel. We finally had to sit and take it in as a whole.

“Do you feel like this monument is for you, Shorty?” I asked.

“Yes, I do, I truly do. For all us guys.”

“I think you should claim a part of it, just for you. How about that piece up there?” I said, pointing up toward a corner of a panel that said “Freedom.”

“Perfect,” said Shorty. And then he asked me: “What made you decide to become a guardian?”

“Well, my father was a World War II vet. A Coast Guardsman in what you guys called the ‘Hooligan Navy’ back then. He died before I could bring him here to see this beautiful place, so I thought, since it’s his birthday this month, I’d help another veteran in his honor.”

“I’m so glad you did. I’m enjoying your company.”

“And I, yours, Shorty.”

We sat in silence for a while longer and then he had his picture taken standing next to the part of the monument that was marked “Ohio” and we boarded the bus.

We visited all of the Washington monuments that day. They honored the sacrifices that our servicemen have made, and they served as memorials and as healing places. The healing was in full force when we watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington Cemetery. I was honored to take the arm of one of our frailer veterans who was trying to stand and salute when the guard passed. As he began to teeter a bit I whispered in his ear, “He feels your presence, Sir,” and helped him back to his seat.

After a very long, emotion-filled day, we returned to Hopkins Airport in the late evening. A bagpiper led the way back down to the lower level as well as, much to Shorty’s surprise, several of our Navy’s finest in their starched dress whites.

When we reached baggage claim we were reunited with Shorty’s son, but before we left we made sure to get our picture taken with a group of those Navy men and women, each one making Shorty feel so very special and honored.

It was difficult to say goodbye to Shorty and tears of gratitude flowed down my cheeks as I watched him walk away. I mean, who but God could orchestrate the perfect hero for me, right down to his six-foot frame?

Driving home, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Will Rogers quote that graces the back of my Honor Flight Cleveland T-shirt: “We can’t all be heroes, some of us get to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.”

And some of us, by God’s grace, get to be Honor Flight Guardians.

~Cathryn Hasek

More stories from our partners