There was a palpable buzz in the air as the crowd waving flags on the sidelines anticipated the coming procession. Upwards of 85 veterans of World War II, men and women from the Pacific and European theaters, escorted by honor guards, would be coming down the main concourse any minute. .
Nearly 70 years after the war wound to a close and these heroes came back to pick up the pieces of their lives, they returned from a whirlwind trip to Washington D.C. to receive a hero’s welcome, complete with an adoring crowd.
They were each accompanied by an active member of their service branch, Army, Navy and Marines. The younger soldiers seemed to relish the honor almost as much as did the veterans.
We took our position as the men and women were wheeled around the corner to the accompaniment of bag pipes and handshakes all around. We spotted my father-in-law, Lawrence ‘Swede’ Higgins, of Highland, before he spotted us. He had to be exhausted, having been up since 2 a.m. as the clock inched closer to 10 p.m.
Heck, all of the veterans had to be spent, but the chance to go to Washington D.C. and see the memorials built in their honor is a once in a lifetime event that many wouldn’t have missed for the world.
After all of these years, they remain a humble generation that is surprised when their accomplishments are given any attention.
In the weeks before the veterans took off early May 14, the staff of Honor Flight Chicago was busy with finishing touches and likely planning ahead for the next flight later this year.
According to their statistics, there are about 21,000 surviving veterans of the ‘war,’ as my father always calls it. Many have taken that Honor Flight to Washington, but many more could and should be honored.
There was a mail call that my wife organized for her father, complete with letters from the sixth-grade class of Pat Scheeringa at Highland Christian School. For many of the veterans, they remember mail call as the most important time of day and it remained so on this trip.
Mail was a link to loved ones, in a way that we could scarcely understand today with our instant messaging and the internet. After cards and letters were opened, the veterans filed into their tour buses for a chance to see a city lined with tributes to their heroism.
It is impossible to overstate what they did all those decades ago. Ours was a nation that had been attacked, leaving behind wreckage and death at Pearl Harbor.
The years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the lean years of the Depression had created a hardened generation of men and women that could tackle any challenge. Today, many of them are still tackling challenges in their own small ways.
My father-in-law continues to mow his own grass, cook meals, take care of an ailing wife and remember all birthdays and holidays. As he prepared for his trip and a chance to meet people who shared his own experiences, he made sure we celebrated Mother’s Day and had someone to stay with grandma while he was gone.
Being a steady influence, that is what this generation is about. In a word that was used a lot this last week, I say “thank you.”