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When Thank You is Just Not Enough …

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Saying thank you is just not enough …

Last week, I stopped in our local Jewel Foods store in Bourbonnais to pick up eggs and a few other items. As I was approaching the entrance, I saw a well-dressed, older man with white hair and a moustache. He was wearing a military-style cap, while holding a change collection can in one hand and a bouquet of artificial red flowers in the other. Our eyes met and I instantly understood who he was and what he was doing. I felt I knew this man, even though I am sure we have never met. I smiled and said, “I’ll catch you on my way out.” He nodded and smiled back. I recognized the cap with the insignia of the American Legion. I knew the red flower to be poppies, an annual fundraising drive the American Legion has engaged in for years.

While walking through the store, my mind raced. As a child and teenager, I had a close familiarity with the men and women of the American Legion. I feel as though I was raised by them in the old Kankakee America Legion building on Oak Street. I knew that building as I knew my own home. I remember how many steps from the equipment room we called “the cage” to the back stairway and how many steps up that stairway to the small barroom where the drum line of the Kankakee Drum & Bugle Corp drilled and rehearsed. I remember the scraping sound the bottom of the metal door made on the freshly repaired concrete at the front entrance. I remember the bartender, who, when you asked for ginger ale, mixed seven-up and coke together and smiled at me because he realized we were the only two in the building that knew his secret.

I remember the old pictures of the troops from Kankakee, in Paris, at the conclusion of World War I that hung in the main meeting room, next to the picture of the Kankakee Drum & Bugle Corps, who a decade later returned and marched in Paris in remembrance of the end of that war. I remember standing at attention in uniform wearing a red white and blue snare drum strapped around my shoulder and wearing a west point style shako pulled down over my eyes while Earl Moran, a wonderful man and our leader, inspected us before loading the busses. Earl was a veteran of World War II and an officer of the Kankakee American Legion Post. After gaining Earl’s approval, we headed up the road for three parades in a row on Fourth of July. Steger, Blue Island and Summit all staggered the starting times of the parades so we could march in all three. And I remember the veterans of the American Legion, VFW and Am-Vets standing and saluting our flag as we marched by. I loved those men and women and l felt so very privileged to be playing that drum in honor of them.

I grew up in Hillcrest Subdivision and there was a veteran in almost every home. The veterans who were such a common sight for me as a child are now almost all gone. I wish I had shaken the hands of more of them. I wish I would have told them how much I appreciated them, but I was a child, I didn’t think of such things. All I knew was the Kankakee American Legion was my home away from home. I always felt welcome and safe there. The veterans who ran the place bought a drum for me to play, put a uniform on my back and gave me a sense of purpose, service and belonging as a teenager. I learned the meaning of discipline and duty from them. As I grew to manhood, the example that the men and women of the American Legion set for me in my most formative years, shaped me into the man I am today.

Last week, standing in front of Jewel, I had the opportunity and privilege to shake this man’s hand and thank him for his service to our country but also for his ongoing commitment to The American Legion. It felt good, but it just wasn’t enough.

As the ranks of the veterans began to dwindle, I am told the Kankakee American Legion was forced to sell their beautiful building on Oak Street and move into smaller surroundings. Many American Legion and VFW Posts are closing altogether. Nothing in life stays the same. Someday that old building that I love will crumble to the ground, burn or be demolished and rebuilt for some other purpose. I am guessing it has been thirty-five to forty years since I have walked those halls but I still have the sounds in my ears and the smell in my nose. I still remember the men and women who met in those rooms and celebrated in that bar. I think back and realize I was walking among the finest people in the history of Kankakee County and the greatest generation that this world has ever seen … and I had no idea that it was so. At the time, I had not a clue, but today I know and remember … and I am grateful.

God bless our veterans past, present and future, and God bless the men and women of the American Legion, VFW and AmVets.

Gary