The Honor Due His Story
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.