From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

I’ll Never Forget

It is when we forget ourselves that we do things that are remembered.

Eugene P. Bertin

It was a brisk fall day in 1970—brisk by Southern California standards. Mary and Ellen, sisters in their late-forties, stepped off the bus and onto the sidewalk to enjoy the sunlit stroll toward the USO (United Service Organization) building. Rounding the corner, they were immediately startled by the scene unfolding before them.

In the center of a violent crowd, a splash of “olive drab” color was barely distinguishable. “A soldier!” Mary gasped. The women tried to shove their way through the raucous crowd of Vietnam War protesters.

“Oh my gosh!” cried Ellen. “They’re beating him.” The women, desperate to break up the group and help the young man, were repeatedly jostled and elbowed. Unable to get close enough to help, they could do little more than watch the young soldier as the crowd repeatedly kicked him and spat on him.

With a lunge, Ellen tried to break through the enraged crowd, only to receive an elbow in the face. Mary rushed to her sister’s aid, and while nursing Ellen’s bleeding nose, the two women watched as a protester suddenly produced a knife, plunging it into the back of the outnumbered soldier who lay curled up on the sidewalk, trying to shield his body from his attackers.

With that a police whistle blew, and the crowd of protesters attempted to scatter. The police in riot gear grabbed as many of the protesters as they could, including the young man with the bloody knife still in his hand.

As additional police officers ran to the soldier’s aid, Mary and Ellen quickly sunk to the sidewalk. “I can’t believe it,” muttered Ellen, horrified by their violent encounter. Tears were streaming down both their faces.

“How could they do that? He’s just doing his job,” Mary said between sobs.

A paramedic knelt next to Ellen and tried to examine her bleeding nose. “I’m fine,” she said stiffly, pulling away and rising to her feet. “Let’s go, Mary!”

Still in shock, Ellen and Mary stumbled toward the USO building, arm in arm, glancing back over their shoulders every few seconds to see the paramedics who continued to work on the wounded soldier. Once inside, John, the director of the facility, helped Ellen to a chair while Mary ran off in search of a washcloth for her sister.

With tears in his eyes, John asked, “Did you see what they did to that young soldier?” John’s attempt to display strength couldn’t conceal the pain written clearly on his face.

“Yes, we both saw it,” Ellen replied. “We tried to help him, but with that vicious mob we couldn’t get close enough.”

“When I realized what was happening, I called the police,” John began. “I hope it wasn’t too late.”

“Something must be done,” Ellen said vehemently.

Later that afternoon Ellen, Mary and John sat in the lounge, sipped coffee and tried to settle their nerves. Ellen looked toward Mary and said softly, “Remember the old days, Mare?”

“Sure do,” Mary replied with a small smile. “Those were glorious days when Mother and Daddy helped to start the first USO back in 1942. World War II was awful, but at least we stuck together as a nation. Everyone supported our boys back then.”

Ellen nodded in agreement. “What has this country come to . . . wanting to kill the very people who defend us? These protesters don’t understand the respect that we owe our men and women in uniform. Because of them we enjoy our freedom.”

Ellen and Mary, together with John, devised a plan so that they would never again have to witness the horror that occurred right outside their doors. They distributed messages and flyers to all the military bases in the area, urging them to warn military personnel not to walk the city streets in uniform.

In 1970, any man with a short military-type haircut was sure to be a target. Once Ellen and Mary got the word out, young men with long hair began slipping through the front doors of the USO, dressed in tie-dye T-shirts, torn jeans and sunglasses. But once inside, the wigs and sunglasses came off, revealing the soldier or sailor within.

A few weeks later a “hippie” entered the USO’s main lobby while Ellen and Mary were stationed at the front desk. After writing his name on the sign-in sheet, the handsome young man pulled off the sunglasses and wig, revealing a peach-fuzz head and bright blue eyes. With a hearty laugh and a colossal grin he asked, “Hey, how much do they pay you women to work here?”

Ellen smiled back and replied, “Not even a penny.”

With a look of concern the soldier said, “You mean, in this day and age, women volunteer to help U.S. military personnel? You could get into trouble. I hope you’re careful.”

“Don’t worry about us, dear,” Ellen replied reassuringly.

“And what about those pretty young women that come to dance with us on Saturday nights? What do they pay them?” the soldier inquired.

Tickled by the young man’s questions, Ellen responded with a chuckle, “Nothing.”

“No way!” The young man exclaimed. “Why would they spend their time here?”

“Some of us do care, dear,” Ellen said unwaveringly.

The young man stooped down, unzipped his backpack, and as he stood up once again he smiled and presented Ellen and Mary with two small floral bouquets. As he handed over the flowers he said, “Three weeks ago I saw you being pummeled out here on the sidewalk, when the soldier was stabbed.” The two women hung on his every word as he continued. “I saw what you tried to do. You were the only ones who tried to help.” Just then he pulled down the top of his T-shirt to reveal a large bandage stuck neatly to his left shoulder and upper chest. “Thank you for trying to help me,” he said with great sincerity. “I will never forget you.”

The two women immediately ran out from behind the counter; as they cautiously threw their arms around him, they burst into tears. “It was you!” they exclaimed in unison. “It was you! Thank goodness you’re alive!”

Twenty years later the United States found itself embroiled in conflict in the Persian Gulf region. Ellen and Mary, in their late sixties by then, were still tirelessly volunteering at the USO. As the women finished tying another bundle of yellow ribbons to distribute to local residents and businesses to show their support for the U.S. military troops, they heard that the war had ended.

A few weeks later the city sponsored an elaborate parade for the returning heroes. Ellen and Mary were riding atop the USO float. As they waved to the cheering crowd, they noticed a cluster of people gathered near a Vietnam Veterans’ banner. As their float passed, a middle-aged man, his lovely wife and their two teenage children ran over to the float. Standing with his hands behind his back, the grinning man winked. “I promised I would never forget you. Thank you for all you’ve done,” and instantly produced a bouquet of flowers for both Ellen and Mary.

P. Christine Smith

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on United Service Organization World Headquarters, contact 1008 Eberle Place, S.E., Suite 301, Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374-5096; 202-610-5700; email: [email protected]; Web site: www.uso.org.]

The Deep End by Matt Mateo

Reprinted by permission of Matt Matteo.

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