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The Gentleman in the Mall

At one of the busiest entrances to the shopping mall there he sat, day after day, on a worn out faded caramel colored vinyl couch. As people entered the mall and walked towards him his eyes moved from person to person desperately trying, even challenging someone—anyone—to make even the slightest eye contact. But no one noticed him for it was as if he was wearing an invisibility cloak draped across his shoulders.The cloak seemed to take on a personality of its own, moving around with the host that wore it as if they had been together for a very long time. He was modestly dressed, wearing nothing that would draw attention to himself. That is, except for his well-seasoned blue baseball hat that boasted spit shined gold lettering that indicated he was a WWII Veteran. He sat rather slumped over, his smile leaving his eyes when there was no one walking by. As the next group of people walked into the mall he immediately sat at attention, hat properly placed, and his eyes twinkled as if waiting for someone to glance his way. But once again, all that he received as people walked by was the rush of the breeze that was created by a population and a generation that seemed to care little of the history this gentle soul was part of. 

His face was worn, wrinkled, seasoned. There sat a man that once helped create history—that was part of history. He seemed so very eager to share with someone, anyone, that would just stop and listen to his story. 

How do I know all these details?  Well, I too was one of those people who created that breeze as I pasted this gentle man. At that time of my history I worked at a retail store within the mall, and when my shift was during the day I walked right by him the same way others walked by swirling that invisibility cloak around him. I had no time! I was in a rush to clock in so I wasn’t late— and there he sat. I was just as guilty as all the others. I had no time—tick tock—tick tock. Then one day my husband and I were going into the mall to do a little Christmas shopping. And there he was, as always, wearing his blue baseball hat with gold letters. The mall entrance was exceptionally busy being the Holiday time of year and the breeze rushing past him must have felt like a cold front with straight line winds. But this day we took the time for him, and our time stood still. We started to approach him and his eyes seemed to light up. He stood up as quickly as he could, coming to attention. My husband shook his hand and started having a conversation with him. My husband can strike up a conversation with just about anyone, particularly if that person is on active duty or has a symbol on a baseball hat that indicates they are a veteran. That’s just the kind of person my husband is. He took notice of his cap and what it represents. Oh, how eager this man was to finally get out his words and to tell his story that represented those golden letters. As he spoke to us of a time long ago, this WWII Veteran shared stories with a fellow brother in arms, my husband. My husband also wears a cap with gold lettering which represents a different time in our nation’s history. Back then it was a time when any recognition that someone was in the military was hidden when returning back to the states after deployment.  But, that’s another story. Today he wears his hat with pride and honor.

A wave of regret came over me as I listened. The regret of not stopping sooner to listen to the stories this man, as it was quite evident, needed to share. My father was a WWII Veteran with the 101st.Airborne Division and he only spoke of a few instances regarding that war. Being one of three daughters and having one brother, my dad shared with my brother some of those stories. Or perhaps, my brother asked more questions! Or perhaps my father thought most were too violent and heartbreaking to tell his daughters.  My father was part of that time frame in our history as was this gentle man, and as in any of our nation’s battles there are stories locked up and hidden away. It may be because the stories originated a world away and for reasons many of us who have not witnessed the sorrows of war first-hand could never understand or imagine. At that time and other times of conflict, words may not have been spoken; deep thoughts may have been suppressed when service men and women returned home. This sounds all too familiar as the past melds with the present day. 

So there we stood, listening to this gentlemen’s story, with honor and respect for his bravery and his service. His book was opened and his chapters that were once just memories started to take on a third dimension as he continued to fill in the blanks of his past. We could see a sense of pride come over him. His eyes reflected back a younger time when he was vibrant, young and strong, and standing at attention was not as difficult as it was the day we stopped and talked to the gentlemen in the mall. I swear it appeared as though he grew an inch as he was telling his story. We stood there with him for what seemed to be forever, but I am sure for him it was just a moment of his time. 

 It wasn’t long after that day that we noticed his spot on the couch was empty. People continued to pass by the place where once he sat day after day waiting and hoping for someone to acknowledge his existence. We missed seeing him and we hoped that anyone else, who had stopped to listen, missed his presence as well.

I have always been proud of my father but I never told him and I will regret that forever. Now, I wish with all my heart I could ask him about that time he wore a uniform and served our country.  Now I wish with all my heart I could turn back time and ask him to tell me his stories to perhaps unburden some of his load. 

I told my husband on more than one occasion how very proud I am for his military service having served during a very unpopular war in our Nation’s history. But then, how can anyone say any war is popular. I ask questions and most of the time he talks about it. He now serves our Veterans as an Honor Guard rendering Military Honors at one of our Nations National Cemeteries: The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. I am privileged to know so many who do the same, Veterans and non-veterans, who have a calling to honor those who have served. Perhaps this gentle man in the mall has his final resting place at one of the National Cemeteries as well. 

Every chance we get  we thank our veteran’s and our active service men and women, and welcome them home. It is one of the greatest gestures of patriotism and honor we can think of.

It is past time for everyone to stop, take notice, and listen.
It is past time to WELCOME HOME our military in war time and in peace.

Rest in peace, gentle man in the mall, and Welcome Home …
You are now in a place where everyone sees you and no one is rushing by.

— Mary Donahue written Sometime in 2010
Illustrated by: Dawn Evans