It was his final breath, and I was honored to be there. To witness it. To hold his hand and kiss his face as he ascended lovingly, peacefully into heaven. I will never forget this moment.
His name was George and he was my father. And, over the years, I was lucky enough to become his friend.
Dad taught me so much — something his “greatest” generation did so well. Interestingly though, what his generation left us with was not any one, singular lesson, but rather, they quietly taught us lessons about lessons. And, typically these didn’t happen through words, but rather, by actions. By doing.
One of those lessons-by-doing I learned came delivered to me in the mail about nine months after dad’s passing. It was a hand-written letter carefully accompanied by 10 printed pictures of dad’s basic training days in El Paso, Texas. These included images of dad next to Richard Widmark, who was then starring in the movie “Take the High Ground” which was being filmed where dad was stationed. Other images included the huts where prisoners of war were housed, images of dad next to his barracks, images of him working, having fun, enjoying his friends. Treasures, these.
The hand-written note read simply:
Dear Mr. Anter,
I recently learned of your father’s death and wish to express my sincere condolences. George and I lived in hut C-9 with three other men during basic training in Ft. Bliss, Texas. I was shipped out to Korea and never heard from any of them again.
George was a good buddy, always performed his duty and kept all of us loose with his great sense of humor.
I’m an old man now and my name is not important, but I do hope you will treasure these pictures.
… and he didn’t sign it … and there was no return address … and it didn’t matter.
Not to him.
The more I read it, the more I appreciated the first part of the last sentence in this man’s selfless note: “… my name is not important.”
Think about that.
Think about the chances of today’s “Me Generation” social media hipster doing this. It just doesn’t seem possible with the high importance we now place on the fame-generating giddiness so fleetingly, immediately experienced when others subscribe to, “like” or “retweet” the self-important feeds of our always-connected, always-online lives.
Yet, the way this anonymous soldier acted was just so refreshing. So thoughtful. In fact, theonly thing that mattered to dad’s comrade-at-arms was not that he received any recognition at all, but rather, that “George’s son” received these memories.
My name is not important.
How giving. How telling. How “not today.”
This is not a holier-than-thou dissertation intended to degrade any other generation, including today’s. Not at all. Rather, it’s a lesson I’m accepting on how character is earned — earned in the form of humility, self-sacrifice and the act of quietly putting others first. It’s about doing and giving – without seeking the boomerang effect of personal recognition as part of the giving equation.
I’m sure dad, in heaven, was just glad I got those memories from his old Army buddy. But, truth be told, I received that and so much more.
I wish I could meet dad’s old soldier friend, buy him a beer, shake his hand — this man who clearly did Take the High Ground. I wish I could shower him with thanks and appreciation, telling him how happy and emotional I became when receiving such an unexpectedly wonderful gift.
But I can’t.
And that’s precisely the point.