World War II was the touchstone of Lou Nolan's life. I suspected as much the first time we met. A mix-up in hotel reservations for an overseas professional meeting had left me without a room. The meeting organizer approached Lou in the hotel lobby and asked if he would mind sharing his room with me. Lou, a tall, lanky, white-haired gentleman, didn't hesitate for a second.
"Sure, he can bivouac with me," Lou said enthusiastically. "Happy to have him."
It seemed that who I was mattered little. I was a fellow in a jam, and he was a fellow happy to help out because that's what fellows did.
That kind of quick camaraderie seemed typical of Lou's generation, the generation of men and women who fought in that war, people of diverse backgrounds who were thrown together and had to share almost everything about their lives.
Lou's life, as he outlined it, was also typical of his generation of middle America: a white-collar job from he which he was now retired, a home in the suburbs, a 47-year marriage, and two grown sons with successful careers of their own.
As I got to know Lou better, he continued to exhibit an optimism, goodwill, and expectation of goodwill in others that struck me as touchingly naive and quaintly antiquated. To me, who came of age in the cynicism born of Watergate and Vietnam, Lou seemed a throwback to what's now commonly referred to as a more innocent America.
Lou also proved himself endearingly discombobulated. He kept misplacing things - his tie, the room key - and I would find them for him. I also made sure he wore the proper attire for the various events we attended.
One day, just before he left the room to explore the city, Lou reached into his pocket to make sure he had money and instead came up with a handful of American coins.
"Oh, that's my GI money," he said. "I better make sure I have some of that other stuff."
To my surprise, I felt a flash of annoyance. Here it was some 50 years later, and he still talked as if he were in the Army. Try living in the present.
Just as quickly, a much different emotion sprang up: profound gratitude. As we stood in that hotel room, far from home, two men a generation apart, I realized that this man, along with his millions of Allied comrades, had saved my life.
For younger generations, World War II is a chapter in a history book. We don't often, if at all, make the connection between what those men did then and the freedom we enjoy now.
It suddenly made perfect sense that the war served as Lou's reference point. In life, time doesn't matter; events do. And World War II was certainly a memorable event, the event of the century.
Despite his talks of bivouacs and GI money, Lou volunteered nothing about his military service. I was curious but refrained from asking, out of courtesy; I was already intruding on Lou's privacy.
But it came up naturally.
We had turned on the television to catch the CNN news from home, and the broadcast happened to include a report from Arlington National Cemetery.
I took the opportunity. "What did you do in the war, Lou?"
The question came easily, almost without thinking, from a distant memory of my own childhood. In the 1950s, children all over America asked their fathers that same question. It was such a common question that it became a cliche; a movie took the line as its title.
Lou said he had served in the Army as a lieutenant. I hesitated to ask the next logical question: whether he had seen action. I'd heard that veterans don't really like to talk about their combat experiences. Such experiences are among the most intense and personal of their lives.
But on the other hand, perhaps some men want to share their combat experiences precisely because they are personal. They may want, yearn, to share an important part of themselves.
I wanted to give Lou that chance - because men like Lou are too often taken for granted - so I asked.
"I was in the Battle of the Bulge," he answered.
"The Battle of the Bulge!" I was so impressed I could only echo him. Then I added, "That was one of the great ones."
"Yes, it was," said Lou, but he offered no more information.
I pressed further, but deliberately worded my next question so he could be vague if he wanted.
"What was the Battle of the Bulge like?"
"I got wounded on the first day of action," Lou said.
"How did it happen?"
I had primed the pump; now the story poured out.
"A German artillery position was shelling us. They weren't very accurate at first; the shells were landing in front of where we were dug in. But each time they shelled us, they got closer and closer, little by little. You could tell they were getting a better fix on our position.
"Well, I had been in ROTC, in college, and we had learned how to figure a gun position from the crater left by the shell. The hole is shaped like a wedge - we called it a hatchet mark - and you measured the azimuth to figure out how far away the guns were. I thought I could get out there between rounds and measure the crater. Then we could get some help, fire our artillery back at them, or call in an airstrike.
"The Germans were firing their rounds at about 15-minute intervals. I thought it would be easy. But the Germans fired another round while I was out there. I dropped to the ground before the shell exploded - you could hear them coming in - but I felt a tug on my leg; a shell fragment had hit me."
"How did you get out of there?" I asked.
"I could get on my feet," Lou explained, "so I hobbled to a farmhouse, where there was a first-aid station. They took out the fragment right there."
Lou spent several weeks in a Paris hospital and then returned to active duty, but this time behind the lines.
"You're the first person I ever told that story to," Lou said.
I was astounded. I thought - I wanted to believe - that he had forgotten.
"You must have told your wife," I insisted, "and your children, too."
Lou bowed his head and his voice dropped to a whisper. "My wife never asked. My sons never asked."
Lou turned away, ashamed. I felt suddenly queasy and embarrassed for having blundered into this awful secret. I was still sure they had asked him something about his war experience, but perhaps they had simply let the matter drop at Lou's recitation of, in effect, name, rank, and serial number.
As war stories go, Lou's wasn't the most compelling, and his wound was less serious than others. But that's not the point. It's not about entertaining war stories or a comparison of battle scars.
Men of that era did their jobs and were silent about it; that's what people expected. But we owe them more. We owe them not only the collective honor of public ceremonies at Arlington, but personal honor, too.
And we confer personal honor when we honor their stories, because stories are among the most powerful ways we tie ourselves to each other.
Lou had obviously wanted to tell his story. But he needed a gentle interrogator. I was glad to do it, despite my blundering, for I needed to hear Lou's story as much as he wanted to tell it. I needed to honor him as much as he needed my recognition.
I hope one day Lou shares his story with his wife and sons.
I pray they'll ask.