His handshake was frail but strong. His eyes piercingly clear but deep. His voice was confident but humble.
In that brief moment, I realized what it meant to meet a genuine hero.
Recently, I found myself at a Memorial Day ceremony. Admittedly most of us, if asked, couldn’t correctly tell you what the day stands for much beyond a wave of special discount sales or gathering in the backyard for a cookout. This, particularly after my experience, is sad.
The person on the other end of my handshake is indeed a hero — a man who, when at an age many might still call a boy, helped change the course of history.
At the age of 90 years young, the words of his experiences aboard a PT boat during World War II are spoken through the eyes of the 19-year old who witnessed them.
D-Day, June 6, 1944, or the invasion of Normandy, is universally regarding as one of a very small number of dates in history in which the future of mankind was altered.
“Our job,” said the voice of the former teenager on watch that night, “was to clear channels of mines so the boats carrying the troops could safely reach land.”
The night was dark — and the water even darker. Looking for floating mines, painted dark colors to help obscure them from visual detection, was a daunting challenge. Knowing the lives of thousands of young men waiting just offshore were dependent on you successfully accomplishing your mission only added to the pressure on this young teenager.
Earlier in the morning another speaker described how many of these men must have felt as they looked out across the water toward the enemy they could not yet see.
“The only way you are going to America, to hurt Americans, is through me.”
These men, particularly those on this day, also knew they could do everything right and not make it through the day.
It is hard for us today to imagine a world in which freedom was on the long end of a losing streak. At the time — in that darkness — the future was truly filled with uncertainty and fear. And in the hearts of each of these troops, weighed the lives of millions of others at home and around the world.
I again find myself thinking of the man at the other end of our handshake. Over the course of 10 minutes and a couple hundred words, I see him differently.
No longer is he the man his body physically and outwardly projects. While time is making daily withdrawals from his life, he is truly much larger and complex than the physical shell that houses him and his experiences.
Our hands separate as he introduces himself to a young boy who is staring at a small replica model of the very PT boat from which that 19-year-old inside watched the world change directions in the darkness on that morning in 1944.
Stepping into the background, I watched as others came forward to greet him. And with the grace and humility forged inside of him 70 years ago, he continues to change the world — one handshake at a time.