We are not a family of soldiers. I know only of one family member who ever served in the armed forces: my great-grandfather's brother who is buried in the American cemetary in France. Instead, we are a stoic clan who keep to ourselves, farmers mostly, who can most often be found in very rural areas and only engaging in polite conversations. We do not like making waves; I have a sneaky suspicion that we are pacifists at heart--though no one will admit it.
In fact, the only soldier I have ever known on a personal level was a veteran of the Korean War--a Marine named Norman.
When I was a child, my mother waited tables at an old-fashioned diner. The decor was a seafoam green and salmon; the sign outside advertised the best waffles in town, complete with a chubby looking illustration of a Campbell's soup kid scarfing down a heaping plateful of syrupy goodness; and sitting at the counter one could see short refrigeration cases with single servings of desserts, a giant stainless steel box that housed non-fat and whole milks, and a side for mixing malts and shakes with a giant box dispenser of cake cones with some more illustrations of pasty-looking, chubby cartoon children gorging themselves on a delicious chocolate cone.
Norman was the cook, and my mother's boss. He was a giant of man with leathery skin and he always wore a white apron and one of those white cook's hats that these days you would only see in a movie--a flat, paper hat with a single thin red stripe. The hat was a simple rectangle and would pop open to create a hat, and at the end of the day it was thrown away. Norman was a bachelor, had tattoos on his arms that were indistinguishable from age and their poor quality, having received them abroad while in the service.
He was uncomfortable around children, which I didn't realize at the time because he was such an imposing figure. To be honest, he scared the Hell out of me. My mother, though, loved him. And since her own father had died before she was born, I think she always considered Norman a father-figure in her life.
My sister and I often would go with my mother to work in the mornings. At 5:00 a.m. we would sit and race each other, twirling circles in the chairs at the counter waiting for the school bus to pick us up. Some days Norman would make us pancakes.
There was almost a ceremony to this special treat. My sister and I would be sitting at the counter; often I would be amused watching the second hand go around the glowing milky white clock near the restrooms that advertised Wisconsin being the dairy state. When it was pancake day, Norman would deliver the pancakes himself. He'd come out from the kitchen, which was adjacent to the counter, usually with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he'd set down the two large plates in front of me and my sister.
These were no ordinary pancakes. On my plate there was a pancake in the shape of a "J" (my sister had a "T") for our first names; then there was a pancake in the shape of a boy or a girl--similar to the ones you see on restroom signs, and finally a series of three pancakes making a smiley face. A pad of butter created a nose for the face, and always the syrup was already on the plate. We were the only kids who ever received these specially made pancakes--at least that is what my mother has always said.
He'd make some chit-chat with my sister and I--mostly talking to me about my Matchbox cars (which I carried everywhere with me and often raced down the counter, despite my mother's constant warnings). And then he'd go back toward the kitchen and prop himself up against the door frame to watch the show.
Before even thinking of picking up a fork, my sister and I would reach for those plates and tip them up--syrup, depending on the angle, would either drip onto the counter or onto our laps--and a deep baritone laugh could be heard from the side of the room. We knew that either under the edge or on the bottom of the plate there would be a single quarter fastened with scotch tape--the syrup pre-placed on the pancakes for Norman's enjoyment, and a cause of constant irritation for my mother.
A few years back, Norman passed away. My mother flew up from Texas for the funeral, and though that may not sound like a big deal--it is. My mother never flies anywhere--she has to be sedated to the point of a coma to avoid a heart attack from the sheer stress flying causes her.
So, as I was sitting here reading everyone's wonderful pieces on Memorial Day--knowing I had nothing meaningful to contribute--I drafted this small reflection, which I know fails to embrace the depth of emotion attached to this holiday. But, sometimes something as small as as a quarter on a plate can have lasting meaning--and today, I'm going to make myself some pancakes, and later on I'm going to give my mother a call to share a toast in honor of the only soldier I have ever known.