I don’t particularly like to go to the grocery store shopping. At one point in my life I actually looked forward to it on Saturday mornings. As a child I went with my mother. I had little choice. My older siblings were pretty much out doing their “Own Thing”. There was no way my Dad was going. He was usually busy in the vegetable garden or running errands. Mom didn’t trust me home alone, so off to the grocery store we went. I was never really bad, behaviorally, with her, but I became bored pretty quickly, like most children do when they are taken somewhere they don’t want to be. She would bribe me to stay close to her by promising me I could select a box of cereal from the cereal aisle or select a candy bar at check-out.
The cereal box was a much better draw for me. There was the chance of a “prize” hidden inside the box, and the week-long benefit of having a sugar-laden cereal “high” daily at breakfast.
When I was a child, no one knew about the poor health risks that were related to eating too much sugar, eating too many fried foods, the dangers of dyes and food colorings, or the ill-effects of residual pesticides in many foods. We purchased and consumed all those items without thought. There were no FDA labels warning us of anything. Looking back, I guess our weekly visit grocery shopping was a hazardous health outing, but it didn’t seem so at the time.
As I grew older I graduated to Mom saying, “You don’t have to go to the grocery store with me if you don’t want to.” It was my way out of going. Later, carrying grocery sacks from the car into the house when she returned home was a given expectation. Things didn’t change much for me at first after marriage regarding my visits to grocery stores. Though my wife and I were both busy with work, our general, household responsibilities fell into a few main categories. If it broke, either inside or outside our home, I fixed it. I always took out the trash. If it was outside the home or in the yard, I took care of it. If it was inside the home, it was a responsibility that belonged to her. I didn’t mind doing the dishes as needed or cooking some meals. At times that might have been a peace offering for something else I did. It could have been an appointment I missed, something important I forgot to tell her about, a check I wrote and forgot to tell her about, or an absent-minded mistake that needed correction. Like most married couples, we settled into responsibility “routines” that we both became comfortable with. The grocery store duties were hers.
Then, I retired.
Retirement meant I had more free time on my hands. I made the mistake once of agreeing to accompany her to the grocery store to pick up, “Just a few items.” That’s a catch phrase every male in America knows very well. The short outing turned into a $400, two shopping carts full of groceries, hour-long trip. I was pretty much well behaved through the filling of shopping cart number one.
Shopping cart number two was more of a challenge for me. Instead of walking beside her, I fell behind. I looked for something, ANYTHING, of interest to me. We finally passed an aisle displaying magazines. My time there was short-lived though as I was summoned along behind her like a wayward child. Men get that way when bored.
The next ray of sunshine for me illuminated the hardware aisle. They have a hardware, in a grocery store? I scanned the offerings. A guy can ALWAYS find something he needs in hardware. I was shocked. Prices were much higher in the grocery store than I saw the same items offered for elsewhere. It was quickly evident that they were preying upon “emergency need” for an item in their pricing.
Hands in pockets I moved on, looking at aisle numbers posted overhead, the items in each aisle printed on the sign that guided novice shoppers.
It was a visible study in luring buyers with beautiful, tempting organization. I occasionally exchanged glances with other men dutifully following wives through the maze of shelved items.
They were easily recognizable. They looked disinterested, vacant, mechanical, obedient, and anxious to be set free. We smiled at each other, each knowing the thoughts and mild suffering going through the other’s mind.
There were moments of educational enlightenment for me. I learned all about “Bascart Etiquette” and aisle traffic routing. I was amazed at how my wife knew where everything was located in a grocery store the size of a football field. I started reading product labels. Calories and salt content jumped out at me! I quickly discovered that anything you eat or drink has salt in it. That was shocking to me.
I learned about all the “health food” items that aren’t in truth, healthy at all. Each outing to the grocery store became slightly less painful and more enjoyable, informative, and more of a loading and unloading challenge in fitting all the grocery sacks and boxed items my SUV. Then one day, an event happened that made me see incredible value in my visits to the grocery store.
I was walking through the produce section, wondering how they timed receiving produce, to selling it before it spoiled. I looked up. An elderly gentleman was following his wife. He shuffled slowly, a few steps behind her. She looked at produce and squeezed and prodded items before placing them in her cart. He was a man of small stature. They both were, with silver-white hair, narrow facial features, and a slow gait. He wore a brown leather jacket as he shuffled along beside her. At times he reached out to support and balance himself on the display cases they were passing.
Our eyes caught, and we smiled at each other. He was obviously a grocery-store-visit “veteran.” Then I noticed a small, circular patch of some kind on the breast of his leather jacket. I couldn’t quite make it out as we passed each other silently with a friendly nod. I didn’t want to stare but was more than curious.
As I took a few more steps, I turned to glance back at the elderly gentleman. There, on the back of his jacket, was a large, embroidered, WWII bomber emblem, in a circle with clouds framing it, featuring more writing I could not make out. I was soon to find out that it was his bomber group information.
He had been stationed in England as a young man, freshly enlisted, shortly after the beginning of World War II. He was trained to be an anti-aircraft gunner. I walked back to him and offered apologies for interrupting him, asking him then if he was, in fact, a World War II veteran. His wife turned and looked at me. Both smiled as he said softly, ‘Yes, I fought in the War.” I told him it was a real honor to meet him and that I wanted to thank him for his military service. He thanked me for what he called my “Kindness.” His wife then said, “He’s always been my hero.” I smiled and told them he certainly was a hero. He replied, “That was a long time ago, and people don’t remember that war anymore. It’s faded from memory like most of the men I served with.” We spoke for several minutes in what turned out to be a very enjoyable and memorable conversation.
He told me he flew eight missions over Germany in a B-24 Liberator bomber. He was placed in an anti-aircraft, machine gun turret on the nose of the bomber.
“They put me there because I was so small and could fit into it. It was a very tight fit in there with me bundled up with gloves, my boots and flight suit, and a heavy coat to keep me warm”, he laughed. “We saw lots of action on those missions. Friends died and were wounded.
Some missions were flown very low over enemy targets. Our “Liberator” bombers flew lower than the larger, “Flying Fortress” bombers. Planes were shot down, and entire crews were lost. We were lucky. We always made it back to our base. Plane damage was repaired, injuries were treated and healed, and soon we were off again to bomb more German targets.”
I told him I was sure he wore his jacket very proudly.
“I still have my original bomber jacket at home. This one was given to me on a birthday a few years back. The family had it made up special for me. It was made in China”, he spoke, laughing. ‘’They were an ally of ours in the War. Did you know that?” I told him I learned that in school. He paused then said, “I doubt they teach about World War II in school anymore. The world has changed a lot. Younger people just don’t seem to care about history anymore”. I told him I cared and was honored to meet him.
He told me that he had attended gatherings for those many airmen and women who served with him in England. “It wasn’t just men. Women were stationed and served there too. There aren’t that many of us left anymore. We lose more every year, and my health isn’t what it used to be. It’s not as easy for me to attend them now, but I will never forget the friendships I made and the sacrifices I witnessed. I’m almost ninety-four you know, but things like that, you just never forget.”
He was obviously flattered that I recognized and appreciated him. We shook hands and parted. I could have talked to him for hours. The history and patriotism held in that man’s heart was both humble and sincere. It is sad to think that all he knows and could share with others will pass quietly with him at some time. He and his wife rounded the corner to enter the next shopping aisle. I never saw him again, but the impression he made on me was a dramatic one.
I was born after World War II as a “Baby-Boomer.” In truth, my generation had never known the magnitude of the losses and sacrifices made by those who served in World War II. No war after the Civil War has been fought on Continental-American soil. We are blessed as a nation not to have endured the kind of suffering that enveloped Europe, the South Pacific, and Asia as World War II was waged within those nations.
Though I saw him as a hero, I doubt he saw himself that way at all. He answered a patriotic call at a time when our nation was threatened. He served. He came home and continued his life, but he was changed. How could he NOT be changed after that military experience? We exited the store, and as I was putting grocery items into our car, and it dawned on me that I never introduced myself to him or got his name.
We spoke at length with kindness to each other, with me showing admiration and appreciation for him, as he shared a part of his life with me, but I never got his name. I was more absorbed in his recollections that defined WHO he was as a man, than what his name was. It didn’t really matter. It occurred to me that others like him are all around us, not seeking attention, proud of their service in wars past and present that we continue to wage to protect freedom and our way of life.
I just happened to notice him because of his jacket. Without that jacket he would have been just another guy accompanying his wife on a grocery store outing that day like I was. Through a chance meeting with him, I was blessed to discover that he was incredibly more.
My treat for being a “good boy” out grocery shopping that day was a box of chocolate covered almonds.
The best treat that day was meeting my anonymous hero. I wonder what his treat was that he got to take home. I’m sure he got one.
Your age doesn’t matter. If you are a man on a grocery store shopping outing, you aren’t leaving that store without a reward-treat. It’s one of those unwritten laws all men know about, even World War II, Hero-Veterans.