I still remember the rough and wrinkled hands of my great-grandfather. Browned by years of work in the Kentucky sunshine and spotted with age, those hands had carried such a heavy and beautiful weight. By the time I came to slip my tiny hand into his big hands, his hands had become quiet hands. It had been many, many years since my grandfather had held the barrel of a gun or had scrubbed from his hands dirt gouged from the soil of the Pacific Islands. He had turned his hands to the occupation of making beauty. Quiet hours were spent in feeling fibers of cloth sweep across his hands as he sat at his loom and wove rugs that made houses homes. I admired my great-grandfather’s skill and I loved the moments when I could listen to the sound of the loom as it calmly swished back and forth making beautiful things. I loved my great-grandfather for who he was, and I honored him because he deserved to be honored. It wasn’t until much later, at his funeral service, that I realized just how much honor was due.
Standing tall and reverent, the honor guard waited. The moment was coming when the silence would be pierced by the thunderous sound of rifles being fired. The sky hung low as we waited for the moment. The United States Flag that blanketed my great-grandfather’s coffin, slid off into the hands of the soldiers waiting to receive the symbol of all that my grandfather had fought for. Lovingly folded, the flag was placed into the waiting hands of my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother grasped the soldier’s hand. “Thank you,” she whispered. He nodded. It was time. Commands were called out, breaking the silence on the hill where we solemnly sat. Arms were shouldered. Volleys were fired–eight in a row. Eight: The number of times my great-grandfather had been wounded. Eight times God was gracious. Eight times his hands had been held by the mighty hands of a loving God.
Scarred by his years spent in the Pacific during World War II, my great-grandfather became a quiet man who locked within his mind the memory of his heroic deeds. Some things were too painful for him to remember. And yet, he remembered to love. He never forgot the men who died beside him. My great-grandfather never forgot his comrade who saved his life by coming in the room at the moment when a German soldier was about to end my great-grandfather’s life. Only recently have I come to unearth stories about World War II that lay hidden in the memory of the man with wrinkled hands. He was the man who gardened in the summer and always had homemade candy waiting for the eager hands of his great-grandchildren. He was the man who had fought for his country and the freedom of his family. How little I knew him, but how much I owe him.
When we salute the flag of the United States of America, we place our hands upon our heart. We feel our hearts beating beneath the weight of our hand. Let us not forget that the heartbeat of our generation is indebted to the courageous hearts of men and women who “more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” The next time I stand beneath the flag snapping in the wind, I will remember. I will remember my great-grandfather’s voice, his smile, and his love. But most of all, I will remember his heart. His heart to protect what he loved–his heart to put his hands to the great task of freedom and never look back. For that, I say “Thank you.”