57: The Cap

57: The Cap

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Cap

It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men that goes into battle.

~General Norman Schwarzkopf

About fifteen years ago, I happened upon a catalog that sold military clothing, medals, and other related memorabilia. On a whim, I bought my father a World War II cap. At the time, I didn’t realize how this inexpensive hat would provide comfort to him in the most challenging and solitary time of his life, after my mother passed away nineteen days before their sixtieth anniversary. My parents were World War II sweethearts. They married in June of 1942, and my father began his World War II journey just three months later at the age of twenty-one.

My parents were each other’s sidekicks. Although our family is very close and we all live in the same general vicinity, Dad was forced to do some things on his own. One of those things was going out to breakfast, at the local diner, by himself.

The World War II cap became a conversation piece, a reason for a handshake, a wave, a nod, a salute, a tip of a hat, a simple yet sincere thank you, eyes meeting eyes, shared silence, and so much more. The hat has allowed strangers to have a reason to approach my father. Instead of my dad feeling lonely or lost in his own thoughts, the hat has allowed him to know that he is appreciated. In many instances, instead of sitting alone, a complete stranger pulls up a chair and sits across from my father. They share war stories over a cup of coffee or talk about their loved ones who served or who are currently serving. Many of these strangers are young people in their twenties and thirties who want to hear the accounts of World War II firsthand. How many years are left to hear these stories from the greatest generation to have ever lived?

I’m writing this story just three hours after going out to breakfast with my dad. A young man appeared at our table, looked directly into my dad’s eyes, and gave a firm handshake. Not a single word was exchanged, but the young man’s eyes told a story. He was saying thank you in his own way — silence — but I could tell that somehow my father was a link to a time or a person in this man’s life. I didn’t have a chance to say thank you to the man for coming over, and anyway, it felt like a sacred moment not to be interrupted by words.

My dad has been honored for his World War II service many times at this little diner a few miles from his home. Dad will go to pay his check and be told that someone took care of it. Or a note will appear thanking him for his service. Once a small child walked over to his table with a crayon drawing of an American flag. During these times, my father doesn’t feel alone.

One time in particular, my father met a group of young men who were pilots and performed stunt shows in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They had stopped at the diner on their way to a show and noticed my father sitting at the table. They asked questions and they listened as he shared stories from the war. My father told them about his great grandson who aspires to be a pilot one day. These young pilots got my father’s address and a few days later stopped over at his house with all sorts of autographed pictures, pins, and words of encouragement for Tyler to follow his dream.

This past summer, a friend of the family ran into my dad. Our friend is a photographer for a program called the Warrior Watch Riders. This organization consists of a group of men and women (many veterans themselves) on motorcycles who greet soldiers returning from duty. The Warrior Watch Riders escort the soldiers to their homes. For those who have served in the past, they share a picture (a “mug”) and a hug.

Our family friend put the word out to the Warrior Watch Riders and ten days later thirty motorcycles roared down my street. Warrior Watch Riders, along with their friends and family, took time out of their lives to honor the veterans who are so precious to me. My father, my uncle, a close friend — all World War II veterans — my two brothers — Vietnam veterans — and my son-in-law — an Iraq veteran — were all acknowledged. This occurred the weekend just after July 4th — a weekend when most adults are lounging by the pool or heading to the Jersey shore. Many of the Warriors crossed the bridges from Pennsylvania to surprise three men in their nineties who fought in a war more than seventy-three years ago. The old men tried valiantly to hide their tears.

In the past fifteen years, I have learned so much about my dad. The cap has allowed me to listen in on conversations. I learned that my father served twenty-eight months, that he flew 155 missions “Over the Hump” pushing supplies out the back of a plane when the co-pilot gave the signal. He volunteered for this mission because it paid fifty percent more. Over one thousand planes were lost trying to complete that mission.

So if you happen to read this and you are that thirtyish young man who shook my Dad’s hand today — thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you to the tiny children who walk over and say thanks or draw a picture on their placemats. Thank you to the youth who are inspired to learn more about this generation. Thank you to the adults who have served and who have not been recognized nearly enough. How can anyone ever thank a man or woman who is drafted or enlists in a war? You put your life on hold, and it takes years to build your life back when you return.

Please look for those caps and muster up the courage to go over and say hello. My dad is lucky he has generations of family members in his life, but for some of these men you may be the only person they talk to on a particular day.

Search for the caps!

~Nancy Norton

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