My father-in-law quit smoking his unfiltered cigarettes when he was in his mid-eighties. I always thought that to be an act of willpower almost as magnificent as the extraordinary man who made the decision.
What I remember most about Bill and smoking is the way he would instinctively hold his cigarette backwards, between his thumb and forefinger, cupping his palm around the ash end. In the over three decades that I knew him — spent mostly hunting, fishing, and cooking in the back yard — I must have seen him hold a thousand cigarettes that way. We never discussed it, but I knew the genesis of the habit: a lit cigarette, handled improperly while occupying a foxhole at night, is an invitation for a sniper to take your head off.
Bill went to war at age nineteen. He landed with the legendary 36th Division in north Africa, and then later in Italy where the serious fighting commenced. He came home with five battle stars, earned in some of the toughest battles of the European theatre, but without half of the men with whom he had landed. On more than one occasion he told me that they had started out with unrealistic optimism – “We’ll whip the Germans and be home soon” – but halfway through there wasn’t a single man who truly believed he would step foot on American soil again.
Come home he did, and he was forever grateful. He once told me he was lucky in that, unlike many WWI soldiers, they were never hungry. “We always had rations. But I would sit in my foxhole and dream about just cooking a hamburger or frying a fish.” When he came home he did plenty of that. Some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent cooking hundreds of burgers and frying untold quantities of bass and catfish with him. For him, the backyard was his castle, and he never wanted to eat out. A beer in one hand and a burger in the other, he would look at me and say, “Don, we eat like kings, don’t we?” And he meant it.
In this week when we have honored our veterans, I am remembering a special one who not only helped save the world from tyranny, but who more than any person in my life, taught me what it means to be truly thankful.
Rev. Don Underwood