Quiet Service and Qualities that Matter

Veterans Day 2009 at Soldier Field in Chicago. | Photo: kate.gardiner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In this cacophonous age when almost everyone is shouting to be noticed, quiet speaks loudly. Quiet also reigns in the cemeteries here in Ventura County and across the country where Veteran's Day was just celebrated, although such an occasion, and the men and women we recognize, should not be relegated to one day.

I know they aren't, because we all know veterans. Sometimes we encounter them in chance fashion. Sometimes they are family. I have been lucky to meet my share of both. And almost always they remind me of traits that are important to remember, character not missing in our self-trumpeting times, but simply running quietly beneath the surface, serving to make our world a better place.

Just last week I met a World War II veteran. We met in a bookstore. Leon Cooper is short and stooped with a shock of gray hair and a peppy leprechaun's manner. Leon served in the Pacific.

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When I thanked him for serving our country, his eyebrows bounced and he cackled.

"I had lots of help," he said.

Leon is feeble. He was giving a talk at the book store, discussing several books, fiction and non-fiction, he has written about his war experiences. When it came time to talk the bookstore owner had to help him step up on to the podium, raised slightly higher than a curb, after which Leon leaned a tad shakily into the microphone and gave a mischievous grin.

"My legs aren't so good, but my mind still works," he said.

Leon's frailty should not blind you to the fact he fought in six of the Pacific's most hellish battles, starting with Tarawa and ending with Iwo Jima. As you might imagine, he had his share of difficult moments. He viewed this simply. "I told myself, 'This is what you've been dealt, deal with it'," he said. Leon speaks his mind now, and on mistimed occasion he spoke his mind then. One remark to a superior officer earned him thirty days confinement in his quarters. "It was great," he said. "All I did was eat, sleep, and read."

Leon spoke of his war experiences, many of them horrible, in a light-hearted manner. His face hardened only once, just before we parted.

"I was mad at everything when I got out," he said. "They called it shell shock. They didn't know what to do back then, all of us home and wandering around loose. They call it post traumatic something now." He paused. I thought he was searching for the last part of the definition, but I did not give it to him. I have learned that, when it comes to veterans, it pays to stay quiet. Finally Leon nodded, answer at hand. "I was in a number of battles. A needless waste of human lives and treasures."

When I was sure he was finished -- I knew this because he cocked his head boyishly and looked at me as if I was a prize salamander he might consider jarring -- I told him how much I had enjoyed listening to him.

"Get it while you can," he crowed in a barker's voice. "There aren't many of us left," and with a last eyebrow bob he minced away.

My Uncle Jim was cut from similar cloth. I'm not going to give his last name because Uncle Jim was a private man. I will tell you that Uncle Jim was a soldier and that Leon reminded me of him, two men of similar age, possessed of humility, acceptance, a quiet manner, and, at times, a wicked sense of humor. Some say their generation was different, but I don't think this is so.

Uncle Jim was such a private man that for most of his life he shared little to nothing of his war experiences. For years he sat quietly while all about him everyone else did all the talking. When I was a boy our family would often drive up to visit Uncle Jim and Aunt Margaret in their small upstate New York town, joining other family for the town's July Fourth celebration. At the end of three days, Uncle Jim might have said as many words.

I loved those Fourth of July celebrations. They were something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, a small town that sits beside a lake and celebrates our country's independence with pancake breakfasts and modest fireworks and an old fashioned parade. But Uncle Jim didn't always enjoy it. One year the town leaders asked him to be in the parade; he was, after all, a decorated war veteran. As you know by now Uncle Jim was not inclined to take center stage, but he agreed (I suspect there was some family prodding). He was assigned a car to ride in and the parade organizers festooned it with balloons. When Uncle Jim saw the balloons he became more agitated than I had ever seen him. He refused to ride in the parade and he refused to give a reason. That evening, fireworks exploding over the dark lake, he sat with, and walled off from, his family.

The years passed and Uncle Jim grew old. He began to talk. A lot, at least for him. Still he rarely talked about war. But bits and pieces crept out. I received a letter, eight typed pages: above the first page was the simple title "My Life." The pages were typed by his daughter who wisely thought he should write down a few things about his life, and wisely recognized that Uncle Jim's penmanship was atrocious. Almost all eight pages were about war because much of Uncle Jim's life was occupied with war. He was the son of an army officer. He graduated from West Point. He was a career Army officer. He went first to Korea, then to Vietnam. Much to his surprise, he rose to the rank of Colonel.

Regarding his experiences in Korea, he wrote simply of the snow and the cold and the long marches and the Chinese everywhere. He wrote about one battle. The recounting was matter of fact. A fellow platoon leader, under heavy fire from the Chinese, retreated from high ground. Uncle Jim decided the high ground needed to be retaken. He turned to the men behind him. Follow me, he said and up the hill he went with no idea if anyone would follow. On the typewritten page in front of me I see the reason for his decision. I don't know why I volunteered to go up there and see if I could help out?

The account of the battle itself is short. Uncle Jim did not prattle on when speaking and his writing is the same. They retook the hill. There was shooting. Men died. Air support arrived. The battle turned and so did the Chinese. Eleven days later Uncle Jim was decorated for his actions. He wrote, I was decorated with the DSC for my actions on the 13th. The men who were with me reported that I had done things I do not remember doing. The DSC is the Distinguished Service Cross.

Not long ago Uncle Jim visited us again in Ventura. He was in his mid-eighties. He was growing shorter and more stooped by the year and he walked slowly with a cane, though this did not stop him from getting in his car once a year and driving across the country alone to visit. He had become far more social, so while he was visiting I made a point of taking him places, where often, with no help from me, he met people. They just came up to him. He had an odd magnetic quality. Perhaps they saw beneath the surface.

One afternoon we went to Tony's Pizzaria, little more than a shack just back from the beach but some of the best pizza you'll find. By this stage of his life Uncle Jim existed mostly on coffee, but he ate pizza to keep me company. We were eating quietly when the owner came out and sat down at our picnic table. He introduced himself as Johnny.
"I saw your medal," he said.

Johnny had been a soldier and so he recognized the small fragment of the Distinguished Service Cross affixed to Uncle Jim's worn jacket. The two men talked of mud, and rain, and sleepless nights and soldiers who simply disappeared in an unholy burst. Johnny was Italian and outgoing. He did most of the talking but Uncle Jim volunteered information when he was asked, and so I heard stories I had never heard before and I gained an added appreciation for men and women who can experience things most of us cannot imagine and then return to life and discuss them over pizza on a sunny afternoon.

I won't tell you the specifics. Their conversation was a private matter between them. But I will tell you what Johnny said to me after Uncle Jim rose and began shuffling off to the car.

Grasping my arm Johnny said, "I knew he was a soldier before I saw the pin."

I thanked Johnny for sitting with us. I could tell Uncle Jim had enjoyed the conversation, although I knew it had tired him.

"It was my pleasure," Johnny said. "He is a soldier and a gentleman. There aren't many of his kind left."

There are of course, for World War II gave way to Korea, and Korea to Vietnam, and Vietnam to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and men and women quietly served in them all.

Uncle Jim passed away three months ago.

He was buried at West Point with full military honors, more fanfare than he would have liked.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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