One of the things I pride myself on as a traveling mom is that I’m always willing to hop in the car and go on an outing with the kids. So I definitely gave myself some back pats for my plan earlier this week when they were off of school for Veterans Day: We drove an hour to Camden, New Jersey to tour the Battleship New Jersey, which has been decommissioned and is now a museum. The goal was to have fun, visit a new place, and learn about what the holiday means in a direct and tangible way.
My plan did work. The boys were completely engaged the entire time we were on the ship (it’s a great museum – I’ll be sure to write a full post about it later). We all learned a lot about what it’s like to serve in the U.S. Navy and also what role destroyers play in combat. That night when they said their prayers before bed, they both remembered to give thanks for all of the veterans.
But before I dust off my hands in self-satisfaction, I’ll share the story of what happened two days later, when I was reminded that all the plans and museums in the world cannot substitute for lived experience – a lesson that I learn over and over again as I travel with my kids.
We had stopped at a local hot dog joint for a quick meal after music lessons. When we walked in, I noticed a handsome, muscular young man with a face that clearly was most comfortable when smiling. He was eating dinner with an older man I guessed was his father. The younger man was so fit and broad that he could barely squeeze into the small plastic seats. He had stretched out his shorts-clad legs on either side of him, which is why I also noticed that one of them was robotic. He had obviously lost his entire leg, all the way up to his torso.
I didn’t say anything to the boys, as we ordered our food and took our seats at the table next to them. We waited for our food, sipped our milkshakes, chatted about our days, and Teddy, as he is prone to do, moved around continuously until he was standing next to the man with the missing leg. Glancing down, he stiffened, and scooted over next to me.
“Mommy, what happened to his leg?” He said as clear as day. You could have heard him across the room. The young man smiled at us generously as I turned to him and said apologetically, “He’s curious to know what happened.”
“Well, I went somewhere really far away and someone took it from me,” was the answer. The older man who was with him laughed ruefully and said, not unkindly, “It was blown off in the war.”
During this exchange, Teddy had edged closer and closer until he was once again standing next to the young man, looking at his leg in wonder. “I plug it in to charge it,” the soldier said brightly, “just like my phone. I can charge it in my car.” He went on to explain that he is in rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Hosptial in Washington, DC and that pretty soon he hopes not to have to use the solid wooden cane that was leaned up against his chair.
There seemed little else to say. We all stared at the shiny leg. “It’s cool!” Teddy said at last. “Yeah,” the soldier laughed, “It’s my Transformers leg.”
I couldn’t think of anything to add but “Thank you.”
Another laugh as he got up to leave. “Thank you for paying your taxes!” he said. “This thing costs $90,000. But you know, I’ll be walking great, maybe even running soon.” And with that he went out into the night with a smile and wave.
As the week of Veterans Day ends and we head into Thanksgiving, I share my gratitude today for this young man and the thousands of others who have so selflessly given all or part of themselves for our country. And I say a quiet prayer for my own boys, that their journeys to far away places may be without harm, hopefully because we’ve all found a way to be more peaceful on this beautiful planet.