Okay, story time.
The camera store I worked at was located next door to a big hotel. They
frequently had conventions there, which made the location good for business,
especially since there was a popular restaurant two stores down from us. The
other thing that was good for business was our manager; the guy is, putting it
bluntly, one of the most impressive people I've ever known. He is brilliant at
reading and dealing with people and he understands that the key to success in
business is to give people the best service you can. This made the job fun, too,
because he treats his employees like family, and he likes to kid around. There
was no job he wouldn't do himself, including cleaning out the store's toilet or
going in on his day off to complete the inventory. The guy could (and still can)
schmooze with almost anyone. I learned to schmooze here, and it was easy to be
friendly with the quality customers we tended to have as a result.
So there we were, a specialty shop, specializing in being as nice as we
possibly could. One week, the hotel next door hosted the annual convention of
recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. For those of you who are
unfamiliar with this, the CMH is the highest military award in the United
States. You can only get it in combat, can only get it by being nominated by the
men who are fighting next to you, and most of the men who receive it do so
Anyway, so we're selling film and stuff, and we start to notice these
guys walking around with these little blue pins with white stars on them. A lot
of the guys came in our store because they were taking pictures at the
convention. My boss, of course, schmoozes with them, and I and the others give
them the same good service we give to everyone. Prior to this, mind you, I had
encountered precisely one recipient of the CMH in my life (giving us a speech
for Pearl Harbor Day at my high school), so it was quite an experience to see
these guys in groups, wandering around. They were generally real nice, real
Well, the last day of the convention comes along, and there I am, in
the store, and the CMH recipients were now running around in tuxedos, wearing
the full medal (it's a star, hanging from a ribbon worn around the neck) because
that night was the formal dinner for them and it was a big deal. This guy, not
dressed up, comes in the store and I go and ask him what I can do for him. He
reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Congressional Medal of Honor. The thing
was all wadded up and it looked like it had been in the bottom of a drawer for
years. He says to me:
"I need some help. I'm supposed to wear this tonight, but it's broken.
Anything you can do?"
I took the medal from him, and sure enough, one of the little rings
that held the star had bent open, and the star was hanging by only the other
ring. So I said:
"Let me give it a try."
I took a pair of needle nose pliers (we had lots of tools for minor
camera repairs in the store, you see) and I gently and carefully reattached the
star to the ring and bent it closed. My repair was successful, and I gave him
back his medal and he thanked me and went on his way, stuffing the CMH
unceremoniously back into his pocket. That's the story.
I remember this event vividly not simply because I fixed the medal,
which was really a pretty unique experience, but because I'll never forget the
man himself. I have no idea who he was, or what war he fought in (my guess based
on age would be WW II or Korea), but I do know that he was a hero.
Because I think about him, and about the other men we saw that week,
and what stays with me is the same thing that stays with me when I think about
all the heroes I've had the honor of knowing in my life. These guys with the CMH
were really pretty nondescript. They were polite and unassuming, and if you
passed them on the street you would never know that each one of them had done
But they are heroes. And this experience has helped me define for
myself just what a hero is. A hero, you see, is someone, anyone, who finds
themselves in a difficult, even an impossible situation, and who does what they
have to do, not just for themselves, but for the person next to them. And they
do it not because there is some glory in it, but because they simply can't
fathom the notion of doing anything else. It is simply a part of their makeup,
of who they are. Often, they are actually embarrassed by the attention they
receive later, because they don't really see themselves as having done anything
extraordinary. They simply did what they had to do.
Hence the CMH stuffed into a pocket or neglected in a drawer. I don't
think this man saw himself as being any more extraordinary than anyone else. I
don't think the passengers of Flight 93, or the firefighters who rushed into the
Twin Towers or the Pentagon, or my friend who gained the courage to lock out her
abusive husband and protect her two children from him would regard themselves as
heroes either. But they are.
The second story comes from a posting on the Flags of the World mailing list. It was contributed by Ron Lahav, one of the regulars there and an occasional correspondent of mine, in response to a discussion, with yours truly participating, about how Civil War campaign streamers (displayed above the flag of the particular armed service) and campaign ribbons (worn on the chest) are displayed: They are both divided blue/gray; units that fought on the Union side display the streamer blue side up, while units that fought on the Confederate side (there are a few, believe it or not) display the streamer gray side up. Similarly, Union veterans wore their ribbon with the blue on the right (their right), while Confederate veterans wore their ribbon with the gray on their right. It's about the last point that Mr. Lahav writes:
I am absolutely positive about the Civil War campaign ribbon being flipped. My father and uncle owned and operated for about thirty years a number of naval outfitters in Norfolk and other parts of Hampton Roads. In the mid-1950s (I am no longer certain of the exact year) the last Encampment of the United Confederate Veterans was held in Norfolk, with about fifteen of the surviving old soldiers who were able to travel attending. We had in each of our stores a large wall chart of all US service ribbons to date issued by Gemsco, the largest manufacturer of US military insignia at the time (these charts were updated every two or three years, but I don't know if the firm still exists). Using the chart, my Dad ordered fifteen of the Civil War ribbons; the company had to make up a special order for him. He then checked with the Public Relations Office of the Fifth Naval District, which referred him to the Office of Naval History, and they informed him at the time of the procedure for wearing the ribbons, which was as I described it [gray on right- NL]. My Dad, my uncle (his brother-in law), my Mom, her sister, and myself (then about 12/13), then attended the Encampment, where my Dad presented each of the old soldiers with their own campaign ribbon, which their relatives pinned on them. Many of the veterans were in tears, and most said that they never knew that they were entitled to a service ribbon at all, regardless of color. Now all of these men had served in the Confederate States Army and not its navy, so I suppose my Dad should have checked with the US Army rather than the naval authorities to see whether the same rules applied for them as well. We had several thank you letters from many of the veterans and their families afterwards, saying that receiving the ribbon was for them a final recognition of the service that they gave to their country. I think Mom threw all of these things out years ago when she got rid of a lot of 'junk', as she called it.God bless all our veterans, and those fighting today.