Veterans’ Day — Thoughts While Sitting on the Shoulders of Giants

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

Metalogicon, John of Salisbury, 1159

The shoulders of giants — Arlington National Cemetery — Wikipedia


Veterans Day had come and gone. I had been waiting about six hours to find out whether a relative of mine would be admitted to the VA hospital, or sent home. I was her ride, and feeling sorry for myself, like a hostage in the waiting room in government health care hell, moving from one row of vinyl-covered straight chairs to another, when not forking over dollars to the Starbucks kiosk or a vending machine for the caffeine that keeps me conscious.

I talked on my cell phone to my wife, for the umpteenth time, as she handled the unpleasant family situation we were immersed in to our necks.

A series of squeals came from down the long hallway, to my right, loud enough my wife could hear them over the phone.

The preponderant age in this VA hospital is probably in the 60s, so the voice of a child is not common. This was a toddler, running ahead of her slightly-embarrassed, twenty-something mother, who was trying to corral her without making more of a scene in the process.

I wondered what brought people from this young demographic to a VA hospital. Visiting the toddler’s granddad, or even great-grandfather? Then I saw the wheelchair.

Rolling along at a stately pace, about ten feet behind mother and child, in a humming electric wheelchair, was more likely the reason for the visit.

Dad — not the mother’s dad, but the toddler’s, I was sure — trailed this parade up the hall.

He was not more than twenty-five, although the scar tissue made a better estimate difficult. The stumps of his legs projected ahead of the chair, and were covered up to the cut cuffs of his sweat pants with scarring that looked like the remains of extremely severe burns.

He guided his chair with his right hand, or what remained of it, and his left arm hung as if it did not have enough strength to be of much use. His scalp was bare, except for the scarring, which seemed to have taken away his eyebrows and most of his left ear. I thought, “There’s what an IED survivor looks like.”

His eyes were clear, though, and his head upright. His face didn’t show any particular indication of the pain — physical and mental — that is probably with him every hour of his life.  In fact, when I saw that upright bearing, despite the wheelchair, I thought, “Marine.”

I am not a Marine; in fact, I have never been in any branch of the service. However, I have noticed a posture, a certain stance, a quiet dignity that seems to accompany most Marines, in or out of uniform; in or out of active service. I have no idea whether this young man was a Marine or not. Just a feeling. I don’t know that he was an IED survivor, but there are thousands, by now.

Members of the other branches of service can also be seen with this self-contained demeanor that bespeaks  greater age and experience than the calendar would — or should — allow. They also carry their scars, visible and otherwise.

This demeanor says, “I have seen the worst the world has to offer. You hold no fear for me.”

I had the impulse to speak to this wheelchair pilot, but he seemed to be intent on navigating along behind what I am sure was his family. I was unwilling to violate that silent dignity, any more than I would presume to carry on a conversation with a member of an honor guard carrying the flag at a funeral.

He rolled on by, and I told my wife I would explain later the childish noises she was hearing over my phone. This short, late, but momentous Veterans Day parade came to the end of the hallway on my left, and turned the corner.

The child’s excited speech, and the wheelchair’s electric whine faded away.

My memory of that moment will not.

Happy Veterans Day. Happy Marine Corps Birthday.

I remember that I sit on your shoulders. We all do.

I thank you, and I thank God for you. I wish you well, and I cannot forget what you have done for me.

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