He was an old man when I was a young boy. He was gaunt, grayed, and scraggly. His voice had that quality that reminded you of the sound your sneakers make when you shuffle your feet on a gravel road. Beneath a thinning mop of hair was a narrow face with hollow cheeks and keen eyes that were water bug-quick, darting this way and that. He had a long, easy gait and generally wore his white dress shirt with the neck button fastened and the tail tucked too tightly into his slacks.
The thing I remember most, besides the way he could make you laugh with a corny joke or jump three feet with a thunder-crack laugh, was the mechanical hook where his left hand once had been. It was a marvel of modern medicine, it was mechanical wizardry, and it was mesmerizing to a boy of 11 or 12.
The old man loved to freak you out with his shiny silver hook. Pinch your ear. Tap your noggin. Snatch a toothpick from your mouth.
I think the most impressive thing was to watch him roll a cigarette. He eschewed the mass-manufactured sort and stuck to what he knew: a tin of tobacco and Zig Zag rolling paper. It was fascinating to watch him work that hook as deftly as ever a cowboy worked his fingers and thumb. In seconds, he could spread the tobacco neatly on the paper, lick it, roll it, and light it.
Then, he would give a wide grin, take a deep draw, and, with great satisfaction, blow a thin line of white smoke that curled its way toward Heaven.
I do not know why the old man came around dad’s battery and electric shop, where I was already being taught the value of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay (or whatever Dad pulled out of his pocket to give me for my bike fund). I think I remember he was a dog catcher or some such with the city, but that could be wrong. For some reason, for a short time in my boyhood, he was a regular around the shop. I think Dad probably worked on vehicles for the city, including the ones he had in his charge.
I do not remember his name and it would have been the height of impoliteness to ask about the hook, an offense that might have garnered a whuppin’, and I am sure I had reached my quota on those. All I know is that he lost it somehow in the war…the Big One, World War II.
He wasn’t bitter about it. He never seemed to feel sorry for himself. He was “awful proud” to have served his country.
I am awe-full and proud to have known him and hundreds more like him.
As I use my two good hands to hug my kids, shoot baskets with my grandson, cook burgers on the grill, and generally celebrate and enjoy this long weekend, I am thankful for the gravel-voiced, hook-handed old man and all his brothers in arms in all the American wars down through all the years, whose selfless sacrifice have made it possible for me to do this in a peaceful, secure environment.
God bless them. God bless you. God bless America.
Happy Memorial Day!