You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
The Purple Heart.
This military award is the ultimate symbol of respect and sacrifice. It is given to soldiers who are killed or wounded in conflict.
The majestic purple and bronze commendation is immediately recognizable. It conjures images of honor and bravery. When worn, or displayed, it announces the recipient has given something of himself that only a few warriors can give.
According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, more than 1.8 million Purple Heart medals have been presented to service members since the award was created in 1782.
Make that 1.8 million and ONE.
The story of this Purple Heart begins on a Wednesday afternoon in September of 2019. The medal of honor has traveled from the Purple Heart factor in Bravery Town USA and sent to Pacific Grove, a sleepy seaside vista in central California, known for butterflies and expensive Air B&B’s.
The Old Soldier with the tattered Korean War Vet hat comes here at least once a week. The transplanted New Yorker, who has lived on the Monterey Peninsula since 1977, has aches and pains, and this is where he comes to temporarily dispel those demons.
His weekly pilgrimage here is one part medicinal and one part routine. He comes to this butterfly burg full of sunshine and salt air as part of a ritual to see his long time friend, confidante and chiropractor.
The two men talk about life, while cracking bones and discussing centered atlases and geo-political events.
The chiropractor is a generation younger than the Old Soldier, but they have much in common. First and foremost they are family men who love their country and dared to give their lives for it.
The Old Soldier is a widower now. He lives alone, after his third wife passed away 2 years ago. There are still lovely pictures of the woman all around his house reflecting another time and space in life’s kaleidoscope.
For a man born in 1934, he does considerably well for himself. He has a gardener who is his friend. The gardener keeps the grounds alive with sunshine and rainbows for all who gaze upon the edifice from the street. He has a housekeeper who comes regularly and keep things pretty. He has a lady who buys meat and dices vegetables. She places each portion on a plate and covers it so he can pop it in the microwave and still enjoy a gourmet meal.
The Old Soldier enjoys football and golf. When asked what he’s doing, he frequently says, “just relaxing.”
The Old Soldier likes to sit on his deck, high on the hill, and gaze at the Pacific. It’s here that he gets to reminisce about a life that few can imagine.
Each day is pretty much the same now, for the Old Soldier. Serene and tranquil. The constant is the sea lapping at time in the distance. Occasionally the wind pushes in from the north and eases the fog across Point Lobos, bathing the bay in a field of white.
There are mornings when the Old Soldier wakes up and gazes out his sliding glass door and he thinks he is in heaven.
Now 85, the old soldier has slowed. He is still ambulatory, but it takes effort. He laces up ankle braces that give him stability to shuffle along. His feet scuff the carpet and falling is an issue for his children.
“I’m doing fine, I walk fine!,” the Old Soldier will snap to those who dare to be concerned.
He has adjusted to the new millennium and the technological advances that Millenials embrace.
For years, the Old Soldier was proud to be the only human on the planet still using a flip phone with gigantic buttons that could be seen from space.
“I don’t need an iPhone,” he would proudly announce at a Big Sur restaurant, displaying his prehistoric communication device.
Millennials sitting nearby, would quietly point and smirk at the Old Soldier.
Did they respect him? Did they know he had lived a life they could only dream about? Or did they judge his book by his cover? An old man, now sitting in a world that has passed him by?
When the old soldier’s wife passed, he inherited her iPhone 10 and his children taught him how to navigate the new technology.
He was confused at first, even intimidated by the interminable array of possibilities the device afforded him.
But like everything else in his life, he adapted, and conquered, and made it work for him.
Now he has the latest phone with the largest upgrade plan. The Old Soldier is beating the Millenials at their own game, using technology, harnessing more data capacity than NASA had in 1969 to put a man on the moon.
When he texts his family, it’s a moment to be savored. The Old Soldier closes his eyes tight and brings the phone close to his lips. He pauses and thinks deeply about what he wants to say and then he talks to Serie like she is a friend.
“Serie, send a Text,” he commands. He uses words like Darling and Sweetheart, terms from an era that has long been forgotten. He always tells people he loves them. He has learned to say comma, to insert a pause in a sentence. He will say exclamation point indicating this is a sentence of importance.
As always, through his 10 decades of life, the Old Soldier has adapted and overcome.
He is old school. He is a patriot who bleeds red white and blue. He is simple and content.
If possible, Frank Sinatra would sing the theme song to the Old Soldier’s life.
Now that his wife has passed, he has 3 cars in his driveway. He often chooses which car to drive based on low battery warnings and which car needs to run to keep a charge. 3 cars is excessive for one 85-year-old man. He knows this. He often laments that three cars is excessive and some day, in all the days left, he will do something about it.
And in many ways, this too is the story of the Old Soldier’s life. Excessive and comfortable and full of procrastination.
The Old Soldier rarely travels any more. A trip to the post office in downtown Carmel By the Sea is more than plenty. The post office is his daily quest, one he relishes. It gets the Old Soldier out and about, keeps the juices flowing.
Sometimes he stops on Scenic Drive, usually the South side of Carmel Beach, near 13th Street. This is where the tides push the seaweed onto the beach in a gigantic decaying funk. The smell is in-congruent with the picturesque beauty of sea otters lounging on their backs cracking abalones, and the waves crashing onto the neatly manicured fairway of Pebble Beach beyond.
The Old Soldier will often marvel at the horizon, at the undulating waves that ripple endlessly across the spectrum of time. He drives a convertible Jaguar and of course the top is down. He has 500 horses under the hood; remember excess? He turns the car off. Somewhere in the speaker system of this majestic automobile, the sounds of a Frank Sinatra ballad bathe the moment.
In a way, the Old Soldier is looking at his life. It goes as far as the eye can see. Somewhere along that hazy horizon it both begins and ends. In between is a sea of existence, waves of time, crashing on the beach, but also silently swelling for thousands of miles unnoticed, free and without worry.
Sometimes the sea has been turbulent, but more times than not, it is like this moment, filled with equanimity of a life well lived.
When he arrives at the post office, everyone says hello. He is Mr. P.O. Box 7496. He’s had that geographical postal location for the better part of 6 decades now.
People stand in line and talk to the Old Soldier. For a man born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, he is still loquacious and astute. He is quick with his political take on the world, and he has an understanding of the mechanics of life.
The Old Soldier rarely leaves his home without his tattered Korean War Vet hat. It is his symbol, part of who he is.
There was a time when the Old Soldier wore a cowboy hat to define him. He had a thick beard and mustache and it projected who he was. There was a time when the Old Soldier wore a bright red English Driving Cap. It was dashing and sporty and it too reflected who he was.
But now, the Old Soldier, as he circles the sun for his 86th year, is resolute that his final image is that of a man who sacrificed in a far away place that is still so foreign to so many.
Time catches us all, regardless of what hat we choose to wear. “I don’t feel old,” he will often say. “Then I look in the mirror and wonder who is that old man looking back at me.”
There have been many seismic events over the course of the Old Soldier’s life; WWII, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watergate. But nothing has provided more of a blue print for the Old Soldier than the Korean War.
The devastating sequence of events that took place there 70 years ago, forged his young life. He was like human iron thrust into a hearth. The metal tender and hot, easily malleable, ready to become anything it needed to be.
Some thought that the Old Soldier would pass away when his wife suddenly died. She was the Ying to his Yang. They completed each other. For 30 years they sat on the same couch, watched the same TV programs, pet the same dogs, called the same grand kids, and enjoyed each other’s smiles.
They lived in a Doris Day world full of different sensibilities and expectations from people and life.
Then, in a flash, she was gone and he was alone.
The Old Soldier cried and his heart was full of pain. But the Old Soldier has lived life, survived the land mines that God throws at all of us. He could’ve surrendered to the heartache, moved closer to the final abyss. He could have surrendered in a final white flag moment, but the Old Soldier is not a quitter. When the love of his life passed, he reloaded his six shooter and he moved to higher ground. He forged forward, like that malleable steel, changing, continuing down the path that he alone has chosen.
Sometimes the Old Soldier proceeds recklessly. Many times the Old Soldier forges forward without thought to what might be. But in the end, after 85 years, this is who the Old Soldier is, who he has always been.
So instead of boxing up his belongings, buying a burial plot, and waiting for the reaper of death to knock on his door on the hill, the Old Soldier lived more life.
He stayed on the hill where the waves and the sunlight bid him good morning and the owls and stars tell him goodnight. He did what was comfortable and lived in the couple’s house that is now too big for one Old Soldier.
He takes up very little space in the 3,500 square foot home on the hill. It is cluttered with a life of his, hers and theirs. Generations of furniture and nick-nacks are everywhere.
There’s an entire living room full of clutter that symbolizes all that is right and wrong with the Old Soldier’s world.
There’s a piano in the corner. No one plays it. It is sadly out of tune. The top is covered by 2 dozen photographs of every child and grand child. The memories are delightful. They are often gazed upon by the emptiness of the space. There are wooden figurines standing at attention around the baby grand. There is a couch and a guitar no one plays. There is a painting of all the Republican Presidents playing poker, hanging over a fireplace that hasn’t seen flame in decades.
The old soldier’s children constantly fume, “who wants that? What will we do with this? Dad, we’ve got to reduce this clutter.”
Nobody has an answer. Nobody makes a move.
So the clock tick tocks along. The sun rises, the fog rolls in, the stars wave good night.
Somewhere in that grand room, the penguins stand at attention guarding a piano nobody will ever play for yet another day.
And in the meantime, the Old Soldier lives his life with simple purpose. He goes to bed at night after spending too much time on the internet machine. He sends funny jokes to his friends and pecks away with two fingers on a keyboard that was once used by Mr. Magoo.
He wakes up too early in the morning when the boys, as he calls his Dachshunds, now 15 years old, bark and need to be fed.
They also go back to sleep and wake later in the day when the mood feels right.
In a way, the Old Soldier and the boys are the last members of a platoon. They are in their bunker on the hill where the only enemy now is time.
The Old Soldier has expensive china in the dining room. “It’s worth a fortune,” he will tell every visitor that happens by the cluttered space that is so full of memories that no one can enter.
But the Old Soldier has no use for 16 piece China sets passed down from his great grandmother before the turn of the century. He only needs one dish, one plate, one fork, spoon and knife. He will wash each by hand, and then place them in the cabinet till the next meal.
“No use running a full load of dishes for just me,” he will say when anyone visits.
In a way, the Old Soldier is back in his fox hole with a canteen full of river water and a rock for a pillow. Though he has beautiful dishes and a machine that will wash them using an array of scented cleansers, he opts for the simplistic existence of a plate and a fork. Once a soldier always a soldier, dealing with the possibility of having to make a quick retreat.
The Old Soldier lives in a big house that is cluttered with a life fully lived. Russian end tables are covered with pictures of children and great grand children. There is crystal in the cabinet, there are pewter figurines in the curio cabinet, there are antiquities of varying value taking up space where ever space will permit.
His two little dogs are his constant companions and they stay by his side. When he moves, they move. They are his soldiers. He is their platoon sergeant.
“Oscar’s my velcro,” he will tell me about the little Dachshund who has had more life saving operations than a race car driver not wearing a seat belt. If a dog could have a purple heart, Oscar should wear one. He has survived more than a dog should and he has brought more comforting moments to the Old Soldier than any of us will ever know.
They are a band of brothers, feet and paws and silent love, all living on the hill.
So the Old Soldier enters the chiropractor’s office on this beautiful Wednesday afternoon. He says hello to the receptionist, who he thinks of like family. He makes jokes and brings laughter into the tiny office, lighting up the pedestrian space with an illuminating persona, like he has for years.
But the Old Soldier will soon come to realize that this visit will be uniquely poignant and celebrate a life moment 70 years in the making.
The Old Soldier enters the exam room, the same room he has visited for decades. Now 85 years old, the old soldier wobbles a bit when he walks. He’s a little more hunched over than he once was. But his eyes are still bright and clear and reveal a lust for life that is as vibrant now as it was when he was a young man cutting school in NYC to ride the subways from one end of Manhattan to the other.
Before him stands his chiropractor, and long time friend. The chiropractor is tall with flowing hair like Moses in the Ten Commandments.
The two men share a bond that few friends have. They understand this bond, this friendship and it quietly nourishes each of them every Wednesday, and sometimes beyond.
There is a cell phone video that shows the moment as it unfolds. It begins awkwardly at first.
It shows the old soldier standing against the wall. His long time chiropractor and friend is a retired Marine. He is well respected in the Marines and he has influential friends, as it turns out.
The chiropractor is tall and commands much of the space in the room. The Old Soldier seems small in this moment. He looks up at the former Marine as something wonderful begins to unfold.
The Old Soldier is at ease, but curious. This is not how most sessions usually begin.
On video the retired Marine begins to speak. His tone is solemn and direct. “For the defense of your comrades in arms and the people of the Republic of South Korea,” he pauses. He pushes his hand into his pocket and secures something. Then he continues.
“As a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, it is my privilege, to present you this decoration which symbolizes honor and self sacrifice.”
The retired Marine with the flowing locks of Moses steps forward and begins to extend the item he secured from his pocket. His hands are large and his purpose not yet clear.
The Old Soldier looks down curiously. “What is it?,” he asks.
The retired Marine begins to pin the prestigious award on the old soldier’s pocket without explaining.
“Is that a Purple Heart?” the Old Soldier murmurs his thoughts running wild in that moment.
The person videotaping gasps.
“Oh my God!,” she exclaims.
“MacArthur never gave me one,” the old soldier says calmly.
“He is the one who should have done it at your hospital bedside,” the former Marine says stoically, proudly, as he steps back to admire his magnanimous gesture.
“As a former member of the US Marine Corps, I thank you for your service,” the chiropractor says saluting the Old Soldier, who reciprocates.
The moment is breath taking and poignant. The Purple Heart now affixed to the Old Soldier’s pocket symbolizes a life and death moment 70 years ago, but was never properly memorialized.
The Old Soldier is a puppy of a man. He has big paws that he will one day grow into, but for now he has lived no life, has no stories to tell. He is simply a young man with a burning desire to experience what life has to offer.
The hat the Young Soldier wears is that of a grunt, a fox hole digging, latrine hugging, amoeba. He is a soldier in Uncle Sam’s army and as such he is a one of many who are revered and often thought expendable.
The Young Soldier is only 16 years old. He should be at the high school prom or at a soda shop smiling at teenage girls. Instead, he is in the arm pit of the Earth. He is on a frozen mountain top in North Korea above a God forsaken place known as the Chosin Reservoir.
The winds on this day are unforgiving, blowing from the bowels of hell across a landscape scarred with ice and blood.
It’s so cold here, thousands of men will freeze and body parts will die and become useless.
Marines and Soldiers are here hunkering down for what will eventually become a blood bath. Many historians consider Chosin to be one of the most brutal battles in the Korean conflict.
The wind chill is 40 below and soldiers and marines are not properly equipped with warm clothing or as it turns out, enough fire power.
The Generals, smoking their cigars, and admiring one another’s polished stars, looked at this place on a map and decided this is where they must launch their surprise attack on the North Koreans and the Chinese.
In a place where hope comes to die, the military brass has sent a legion of young soldiers to protect a chunk of frozen rock.
What the general’s maps don’t tell them is this place is unforgiving. It is older than time and it cares not for men. What the generals cannot know in the 1950’s is that Chinese people are unrelenting and fierce.
What the Young Soldier will soon come to learn, is this late November battle in 1950 will prove to be a pivotal moment for not only the world but the course of the Young Soldier’s life.
So it is here, on a speck of frozen dirt, north of the 38th parallel, north of the Yellow Sea, north of Pyongyang that a massacre will commence. It will take place in an environment so cold, it is the true adversary of both sides. The wind incapacitates. The cold devastates. It weakens physical bodies and crushes the spirit of anyone who bares to stare into its savage, unrelenting eyes.
It is here that the Young Soldier finds himself.
It is in this shit hole of hell that the Young Soldier is about to embark on his life moment that will forever change the path he walks. He shouldn’t be here. He is too young to be a soldier in the U.S. Army. But he lied. He wanted adventure and experience.
He lied, and this lie, for good, for bad, would propel his dominoes forward, crashing one upon the next.
This was a time before computers and sophisticated record keeping.
Lying was easy. If nobody cares about your lie, then your lie becomes your truth.
And so it began for the Young Soldier.
“What’s your name?,” the recruiter most likely said. “OK, And your 18 years old?”
I can’t imagine it took much more than that to be enlisted into the U.S. Army. After all, WWII was over and now the United States was dancing with another world conflict. Bodies were needed to re-engage the war machine.
So the Young Soldier went to basic training. He was smart and had an aptitude for intelligence. The baby faced kid was 16 but he could read maps and think on his feet. It’s not so hard to believe. The army takes felons and miscreants and people running from demons. Is it really that hard to fathom that a 16 year old boy could say he was 18 and they’d rubber stamp his ass into the army?
So there he was in Korea. He was with a brat pack of pimples in over sized fatigues. They all wore dopey looking helmets, armed with grease guns. They were American G.I.’s, full of testosterone and trained to kill.
This is the American Way.
The Young Soldier fit right in. Only he knew the lie and he didn’t care. Everyone in that fox hole with him had a lie they were protecting or didn’t care about.
The Young Soldier had graduated high school in New York City at 16 and now he was in a conflict that would almost end his life.
Did his parents know he was here? No. The Young Soldier lied to them too.
“My mother thought at I was at Fort Dix, ” he would often say with a Cheshire cat smile.
He lied to his parents, and his sister.
He didn’t want them to worry. The lie begat more lies. They always do.
But the lie is the ticket that propelled the Young Soldier down this life path. It was the mechanism that opened the gate allowing him access to this crazy carnival of frozen insanity.
The lie he told to his family and to the Army would be a weight the Old Soldier would forever carry. It’s the reason it took 70 years to get his Purple Heart. It’s the reason his stories of incredible proportion often were met by silent eye roles by distant family members later in life.
But the lie he told is the single defining catalyst enabling him to live the life he has lived; to walk the path he has walked.
In the end, the lie is what brought him truth, his truth.
To this day, it’s doubtful the Old Solder would have done it any differently.
Play your cards and live with the results. The Old Soldier is still a lot like the Young Soldier. Extemporaneous, fanciful, capricious. Like the waves he has so often pondered from his deck, he too is an undulating spirit who proceeds forward at his own risk.
So as a child warrior, wet behind the years, too stupid to even know he was about to die, he finds himself in a dirty frozen fox hole. The protective space is a dirt wall, littered with cigarette butts, the stink of urine and fear.
The Chosin Reservoir is a turd of a place. It’s a canker sore, on a lanced boil of Earth. If given a chance, most people would rather go to the dark side of the moon.
This speck of putrid dirt spawned more death than the mind can imagine. Untold numbers of Chinese soldiers were mowed down like weeds hit by a fire hose spraying poisonous Round Up.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines made the ultimate sacrifice in this toilet of frozen despair. Yet it is here, that countless men fought with resilience and bravery, protecting one another from an invading menace that seemed interminable.
Many soldiers would get a Purple Heart on this day. They were official. They were of age to serve and die.
The Old Soldier’s story of the battle has vacillated slightly over time. There are new nuances. There are different reflections, and sometimes a different spin.
But for the most part the story has remained the same.
It’s hard to forget the moment that you shoot a man who is at the same time sticking a bayonet being through your gut.
That’s a moment that tends to linger in your thoughts forever.
Years later, in his early 80’s the old soldier will sit on his couch in the room with the penguins, piano and poker playing presidents and he will recount this terrible story. Historians now call it the battle of the Frozen Chosin.
“I went up north with the 1st Marine division,” the Old Soldier says.