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A story with no words

The morning of the interview, I spent a half hour or so developing some questions for this World War II vet. With my interviewing skills a bit rusty, I wanted to have some questions jotted down, so I could spend my interview time really getting a feel for what this veteran was saying and feeling.

Sounds crazy — I mean I’ve done thousands of interviews in my career, but I was a little bit nervous as I waited for him to answer my knock on his door. Slowly, the door opened, and he greeted me with a broad yet seemingly shy smile. As we shook hands, I looked into his eyes, and I could tell he was a bit nervous, too. After he invited me inside, the two of us sat down in his kitchen, where he had some World War II memorabilia spread out on the table — a few photos, some medals, a couple of papers he wanted me to see.

Before jumping into an interview, I like to chat a bit with the subject of the story. It’s just small talk, but it usually helps to relax the person I’m interviewing as well as myself. I was hoping to learn a little about the man, so I could better write the story about the veteran. Weather, crops, the upcoming winter, his family — kids, grandchildren, his dog that was doing circles around my feet — 10 minutes of small talk usually creates a better interview, a better story.

“So, where do we start?” I asked the 87-year-old man as I finally began my interview. “There’s a lot I’d like to know, but maybe the first question should be this: ‘What is the most memorable moment you have of World War II?’”

Personally, I thought it was a fairly innocent question, but I was wrong. The man’s eyes darted up from the table. As those aged eyes of his met mine, I saw his expression change. Like a bullet penetrating someone’s soul, his eyes stared not at me but through me. Quickly he averted his eyes and looked off into the distance.

A good reporter will know when to speak and when to let the silence prevail. I sat quietly, but what I saw next was bigger than any story I could ever write.

With his eyes still staring off into the distance, I realized he was seeing something I’d never understand — something that happened long ago, yet something that probably happened in his memory all the time. Without uttering a sound, the corners of this proud veteran’s mouth became taut, and I saw his chin begin to tremble ever so slightly. Those piercing eyes of a few moments earlier had filled with tears, and a single tear rolled down his cheek and dropped onto the plastic tablecloth.

A lump immediately formed in my own throat, and the tears in my own eyes quickly matched his.

“I’m sorry,” I said, for lack of anything more profound.

He shook his head and held up his hand as if to dismiss my apology.

“No. I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought I could do this. I thought I could talk about it, but I don’t think I can. I guess you ain’t gonna get much of a story from me.” He looked down at the items on the table, seeming to know his journey through World War II would remain a private one. “I guess I owe you an apology,” he said.

“Sir, you don’t owe me anything,” I said with tears still brimming in my own eyes. “You’ve said more to me this afternoon without saying a word. If anybody owes anybody anything, it is myself and others in this country who owe you a world of gratitude for your service and how that service has impacted your life.”

Veterans. We have no idea what lives in the hearts and memories of those who have so valiantly served this country. It’s time we do the honorable thing and offer our most heartfelt gratitude to our nation’s veterans.

BCR Editor Terri Simon can be reached at tsimon@bcrnews.com. This essay, along with others like it, can be found in Simon’s new book, “Grandma’s Cookie Jar”, available at local merchants, online at www.boxingdaybooks.com or by emailing Simon.

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