A few weeks ago, I stopped in our grocery store to pick up eggs and a few other items. As I was approaching the entrance, I saw a well-dressed, older gentleman with white hair and a moustache. He was wearing a military-style cap, while holding a change collection can in one hand and a bouquet of artificial red flowers in the other.
Our eyes met, and I instantly understood who he was and what he was doing. I felt I knew this man, even though I am sure we have never met.
I smiled and said, “I’ll catch you on my way out.” He nodded and smiled back. I recognized the cap with the insignia of the American Legion. I knew the red flower to be poppies, an annual fundraising drive the American Legion has engaged in for years.
While walking through the store, my mind raced. As a child and teenager, I had a close familiarity with the men and women of the American Legion. I feel as though I was raised by them in the old Kankakee America Legion building. I knew that building as I knew my own home. I remember how many steps from the equipment room we called “the cage” to the back stairway and how many steps up that stairway to the small barroom where the drum line of the Kankakee Drum & Bugle Corp rehearsed. I remember the scraping sound the bottom of the metal door made on the freshly repaired concrete at the front entrance. I remember the bartender, who, when you asked for ginger ale, mixed seven-up and coke together and smiled at me because he realized we were the only two in the building that knew his secret.
I remember at 10 years old standing at attention, in uniform, with a red, silver and blue snare drum strapped around my shoulder, while wearing a West Point-style shako pulled down over my eyes while Earl Moran, a wonderful man and our leader, inspected us before loading the buses for our various performances.
Earl himself was a decorated veteran of World War II and an officer of the Kankakee American Legion Post. After gaining Earl’s approval, we headed up the road for three parades in a row on Fourth of July. I remember the veterans of the American Legion, VFW and Am-Vets standing and saluting our flag as we marched by. I loved those men and women and l felt so very privileged to be playing my drum in honor of them.
I remember playing my drum at Memorial Garden’s cemetery for the annual flag-raising event and playing for the draftee’s leaving the train station to report for Vietnam-era duty. Most of all, I remember standing on the courthouse lawn playing for Kankakee resident and hero, Barry Baron, as we celebrated his return. It was that day, seeing Barry in full uniform, but without his legs, that I first understood the sacrifice our veterans make in service to us all.
I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a veteran in almost every home. The veterans who were such a common sight for me as a child are now almost all gone. I wish I would have told them how much I appreciated them, but I was a child, I didn’t think of such things. All I knew was the American Legion was my home away from home. I always felt welcome and safe there. The veterans who ran the place bought a drum for me to play, put a uniform on my back, gave me a sense of purpose, service and belonging as a child, then teenager. They always stood as our flag passed by. I learned the meaning of discipline and duty from them. As I grew to manhood, the example that the men and women of the American Legion set for me in my most formative years, shaped me into the man I am today.
Last week, standing in front of the grocery store, I had the opportunity and privilege to shake this man’s hand and thank him for his service to our country, but also for his ongoing commitment to The American Legion. It felt good, but it just wasn’t enough.
As the ranks of the veterans began to dwindle, the Kankakee American Legion, like most veteran organizations, was forced to sell their beautiful building and move into smaller surroundings. Many American Legion and VFW Posts are closing altogether. Nothing in life stays the same. Someday that old building that I love, now serving a different purpose, will crumble to the ground, burn or be demolished and rebuilt for some other reason. I am guessing it has been 45 years since I have walked those halls, but I still have the sounds in my ears and the smell in my nose. I remember the men and women who met in those rooms and celebrated in that bar. I think back and realize I was walking among the finest people in the history of our nation and the greatest generation that this world has ever seen … and I had no idea that it was so. I was a child. I didn’t know such things.
Now I know … and remember … and I am grateful.
GARY W. MOORE is a syndicated columnist, speaker and critically-acclaimed, award-winning author of three books including the bestseller, “Playing with the Enemy.” Follow Gary on Twitter @GaryWMoore721 and garywmoore.com.