Ethan gently lifted the glass front to the old barrister bookcase and reached in for the little box containing the medal. He heard the tap-tap-tap of Grandpa Harry’s cane on the wooden floor as he ambled down the hallway.
“What is this, Grandpa?” Ethan asked.
“That’s a Purple Heart Medal,” Harry replied.
“Our soccer team got medals after our last game,” Ethan said. “We didn’t win a trophy but we all got medals for participating. So what did you do to win this medal?”
“Oh, the Purple Heart is not a medal you win; it’s a medal you earn for being either wounded or killed in a war.”
Ethan’s eyes grew big and he gasped, “This is your medal? You were wounded in war? What happened? Did you get shot? Can I see the scar?”
“Whoa, easy there,” Harry chuckled. “One question at a time. How about we sit down and I tell you the story?”
Harry moved to his wooden rocker. Although he still used his cane, he was surprised about how much better he felt since Ethan arrived on Memorial Day to spend a few weeks with him. In a short period of time, Harry had taken Ethan camping, fishing, cutting firewood and a few short hikes in the woods. Ethan was only supposed to stay a few weeks, but Harry enjoyed his company so much he asked him to stay all summer. It had been ten years since Gladys passed and Harry didn’t realize how lonely he had become.
“So how did you get wounded,” Ethan was impatient.
“Well, first, let me tell you a bit about the medal. The reason it has George Washington’s likeness on it is because the history of the medal dates back to the times when Washington was the leader of the Army. Back in 1872, General Washington invented the “Badge of Merit,” to award soldiers that had served with extreme bravery and faithfulness. It was changed to the Purple Heart in the 1900s to be awarded to soldiers wounded in combat or to the families of soldiers killed in combat.”
“You were actually in combat where soldiers killed each other?” Ethan moved to the edge of the chair.
A tear streamed down Harry’s weathered face as the memories flooded back. He had never talked about his days in combat to anyone, even Gladys.
“Yes, I was in combat where soldiers died. I watched many of my friends get killed by bullets or bombs.”
“How old were you?” Ethan gasped.
“Seventeen-years-old; I snuck into the Army because our family was so poor and we had a bad year on the farm so I needed to eat and not be a burden to my family. It was after the Great Depression and we hadn’t recovered from that. Plus, Hitler meant to rule the world including America. We had to fight him over in Europe or we would have been fighting him here on America’s soil.”
“My teacher says we spend too much money on war and we should all get along.”
“Well, you’re teacher is right. We do spend too much money on war and we should all get along but your teacher has probably never been to a country with an evil dictator who wants to rule the world. But if we want America to be free, we have to protect her. It’s like the playground bully; the only thing a bully really respects is someone stronger than him or her. You can talk to bullies all you want, but most of the time you just need to black their eye to shut ‘em up.”
“My teacher says countries need to talk more and get along with each other instead of going to war so quickly.”
“Again, your teacher is right and that would be great if it worked, but there are evil people who want to rule the world and will kill anyone in their way. There was a guy in England named Chamberlain during the war that wanted to keep talking with Hitler and while they were talking, Hitler kept overthrowing more countries. No amount of words will stop people with evil in their hearts. Only a superior army will do that.”
“So can I see the scar?” Ethan asked nervously.
Harry bent over and slowly began to roll his pant leg up exposing the reason for his cane; beginning at his ankle and reaching up his leg was one massive spider web of scar tissue. No one but the hospital staff and Gladys had ever seen his scar. He was embarrassed by it.
“Oh my gosh, Grandpa, that’s awful,” Ethan cried. “How did that happen?”
“A German soldier threw a hand grenade at my buddies and me. When I woke up, two of my buddies were dead and the medics were dragging me across the field. They saved my life.”
Ethan stared at the scarred leg until Harry began rolling his pant leg down.
Silence filled the room. Neither the aged veteran nor his young grandson knew what words should come next.
“Well, there’s some trout down in the river waiting for us to catch them,” Harry broke the silence and rose from his chair. “We’d better go catch us some supper.”
“Grandpa?” Ethan asked shyly. “When Dad was alive he told me that I shouldn’t make sports figures or movie stars into my heroes. He told me that I needed to find a hero in someone that no one would ever make a statue of. Is it okay with you if you’re my hero?”
Harry sobbed as his grandson ran to embrace him.
“Okay,” Harry’s lips trembled. “We need to go fishing.”
Harry grabbed his fly rod in one hand and his vest in the other. He looked at the cane lying on the bench near their fishing gear. He paused, opened the door, and walked to the river without it.