I’m about to share with you a story. It’s not about me but about someone else. It’s about two lives intersecting for less than a minute under the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. I understand that’s quite the lead in so let me tell it to you the way it was told to me.
My grandpaw and maw-maw were traveling through Texas sometime back in the 1980s. If I remember the details of the story, the town was called Sweet Water. They were in their RV and stopped at a gas station. My grandmother sat behind in the RV, likely enjoying the air conditioner, while my grandfather went in to pay. When he returned, he sat there speechless. My grandmother noticed the look on his face, her exact words, “Honey, what is wrong with you? Are you sick? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” To which my grandfather replied that he had in fact.
My grandmother now confused asked him what he was talking about. My grandfather explained, “There’s a man in that store. I’m certain I saved his life back in ’45.”
“H__, ’45? What are you talking about?”
He told her, “Just outside of Bastogne in 1945. That’s him, I remember.”
Pawpaw was referring to the Battle of the Bulge. He was in Patton’s Third Army that marched in dead of winter, traveling more than 100 wintery miles to relieve the 101 Airborne Division in the Belgian town of Bastogne.
Pawpaw had seen his share of bodies pulverized by tanks, Germans and Americans, while marching across France into Germany. This trip was turning out no different than any of the rest. However, this time after spotting a body sprawled in the middle of the road, he decided then and there to see one less pulverized body. He grabbed the dead soldier under the arms and dragged him into a ditch out of the way of the tanks there were rumbling up behind.
For whatever reason, he studied his face and got a good luck at him. Probably out of pity, I assume. Then again, maybe it was for another reason he couldn’t explain. The moment was brief, as there was more fighting and dying ahead.
Fast forward 40 years later and here this man stood in the same gas station as my grandfather in Sweet Water, Texas. He told this, just as I have told you, to my grandmother sitting there in that RV in the parking lot of a gas station. Mawmaw implored him to go back in there and see if that was him. He was unsure and felt too bashful to try. Forty years is a long time to pass to be sure about much of anything, much less about a boy you think you remember pulling off a Belgium road.
The man by now was walking out of the store and grand paw’s curiosity got the best of him. He got out of his RV and introduced himself. Grandpaw swore that the man had a certain instant familiarity toward him, even an affection almost immediately after looking him in the eyes. My grandpaw asked him if was in the army back in WWII.
“Yes, I was.”
“Were you shot outside of Bastogne in 1945?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Because I apparently saved your life. I pulled you off that road and placed you in a ditch.”
The man dropped what he had in his hands, grabbed my grandfather and sobbed in his chest. “I knew it was you when I saw you,” he told him. He’d always known someone had pulled him off that road. He just never knew who.
My grandfather replied, “So did I.”
He insisted that he come and meet his family, his home being just a few miles away.
The story goes on a few more years. The man’s wife secretly invited my grandfather and grandmother to a family reunion a few years later. And the scene was just as dramatic. The man’s kids and grandkids were present this time, you see. So when he saw my grandfather standing there in his yard just a few years later, he dropped a case of beer he was carrying and ran to my grandfather and cried again just as he did the first time. He took him around to each and every family member there and paraded my grandfather around as if he were a legendary knight, a hero from some storied era in the past.
Grandpaw outlived the man by a few years, but the man’s wife and kids came to my grandfather’s funeral.
A debt and honor returned.