I was in the fourth grade, attending the prestigious Pensionado Borja 3. The Jesuit school was essentially a prep school for Colegio de San Gabriel, which eventually led to studying at La Universidad Catolica. There were no finer educational institutions in Quito, Ecuador.
The homework was abundant, the reading was exhausting, and the teachers were increasingly demanding, particularly if you were at the top of the class. I found myself in that position, able to meet these demands thanks to the efforts of my mother, who pushed me to be the very best I could be in school.
Each morning, I rode a bus that motored down the Via Oriental, all the way to La Vicentina, where the working class neighborhoods gave way to office buildings, and the more attractive parts of Quito. There were two minutes of this ride that I looked forward to each and every day.
On Avenida 6 de Diciembre, just past the Military Geographic Institute, rose a building complex painted in pure white, surrounded by a black iron fence. The tallest structure of the complex was topped by a cupola that served as the base for a sight that never failed to take my breath away, the flag of the United States of America.
I’d crane my neck to look up at its stripes, flapping in the Andean wind. The deep blue, star spangled field contrasted sharply with the sky regardless of what the day threw at it. On a sunny day, the colors were so vivid that their resplendence etched itself in my eyes. In the rain, there was something about the darkened fabrics that conveyed strength and resilience. At night, with floodlights aimed to the sky, the Star Spangled Banner was a fluttering of color dazzling against a black mantle.
I learned that the thirteen stripes represented the first thirteen colonies, from which a nation was born. I learned that the blue field embodied justice, and that each star symbolized one of the fifty states. I learned that the white was a commitment to peace, and that the red was a tribute to the sacrifice of its sons to attain that peace.
Four years later, a mural of the flag I adored, welcomed me after our papers were stamped at JFK airport’s customs office in New York City. Two years later, when I was able to read, write, and speak English, I threw myself into the history books and soon I was proud beyond measure of my land of the free, my home of the brave. But my reading paled in comparison with a certain conversation during a Memorial Day in 1995.
I finished up finals and took a job around school just to stay around my friends. My good friend, Jim was having a Memorial Day picnic at his parents’ home in Mercer, Pennsylvania. When I got there, I met my friend’s grandfather, George.
George sat in a wheel chair on the front yard under the protective shade of an oak tree. Despite the balmy day that carried the promise of summer in the air, George wore a nylon jacket and a blanket over his lap. I noticed a patch on his jacket, the head of a screaming eagle on a black field with the word “Airborne” arching over it. I noticed George didn’t have a drink in his hand, so I prepared a cup of iced tea and walked over to him.
“For me? Oh, thank you, fellow,” he said in a kind voice.
He took a sip of his drink and sighed with satisfaction. “You’re Jimmy’s school buddy.”
I nodded. “Yes, Sir. I’m Javier, but you can call me, Jay.” I always offered my initials since many stumbled with the Spanish “J” of my name.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jay. Jim told me you’re a new American.” There was a twinkle in his eyes.
I smiled. “I just became a citizen over a year ago after five years of residency.”
He leaned closer, looking up at me. “Mind telling me what being an American means to you?” His gray eyes fixed on mine, pinning me in place.
“Living here has been my dream since I was six,” I said awkwardly, thinking back on that school bus ride from when I was a kid.
George nodded slowly, as though he liked what he heard. “A dream come true, is it?”
“Yes, Sir. It is.”
He looked around, his eyes on the flag that hung limply from its pole off the front porch of the house. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to live in.”
I silently agreed. “Can I ask you about the eagle, Sir?”
His eyes seemed to cloud in recollection. “I was a wet behind the ears Private in the 101st Airborne back in ’44. Do you know what was happening back then?”
I was about to answer that we were fighting the war, but suddenly I realized how disrespectful that “we” assumption would’ve been to a man who was actually there. “Second World War,” I answered, feeling a chill course through my spine.
George nodded once. “I was crazy enough to enlist. All my buddies were going overseas to kick some Nazi tail. After all the rah-rah stuff, I found my butt on a troop boat headed for the beaches of Normandy, right into the teeth of the beast.”
My eyes widened with surprise. I was familiar with the landing on Normandy. “Oh my God…”
“Sarge barked at us to ready our weapons… even he, sounded scared out of his mind…” his voice sounded haunted. “A lot of those boys wet their pants right there. Others puked their guts out. I remember looking at one another knowing a lot of us were never going to make it to the sand…”
My heart twisted painfully at the image he painted. I was scared that I’d stressed him too much. “Sir, you don’t have to go into it. I’m so sorry, I…”
George raised a shaky, age-spotted hand to stop me. The intensity of his gaze was simultaneously pleading. “Every Memorial day I think of those boys…”
My eyes welled with tears at this glimpse into what it meant to wear the uniform, fighting in a foreign shore for the freedom of others. I realized I was in the presence of a flesh and blood hero, and I felt I couldn’t muster enough reverence for this man.
I followed his gaze, fixed on the flag again, and that’s when it came to me. That image of that beautiful flag snapping in the air on my ride to school, and what it truly meant.
George turned contemplative as he silently cried. I didn’t know what to say or do. I certainly didn’t understand the billowing mass of emotions that gripped me at that moment as an image of rows and rows of white crosses filled my mind. At one point, as I sat there weeping like a child, George wheeled closer to me and squeezed my shoulder.
“We’d better join the party, kid,” he said, remarkably composed.
I knew I had to say something, so I fought thorough the awkwardness and forced myself not to be so damn shy. “Thank you, Sir. This world wouldn’t be what it is today without men like you,” I choked on each word as I took his right hand, feeling the strength of the titan in the wheel chair.
“I appreciate that, son.” He took my hand in both of his. “Welcome to America, young man.”
When I looked up, there was a smile on his face, a smile that showed me the immensity of this man’s strength. The sentiment undid me inside, but I managed to compose myself enough to grant him a grateful, ephemeral smile.
Connie saw her father wheeling himself to the picnic table, and quickly discarded her paper plate to come to his aid. I watched her roll him under a picnic shelter after she heaped a plate with macaroni salad and placed it on his lap. I stood under the shade of that oak for a long time in complete awe.
With all due respect to everyone who served in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, George is to me, one of the men from the greatest generation that ever lived.
He passed away a few years after that, but each May, when the pools open and the aromas of grilling waft in the warm air, I think of that last smile George gave me as he welcomed me to America. This one little exchange taught me so much more than any history book. It gave a whole new meaning to watching our flag flying in the breeze each Memorial Day.
Thank you, George, today and always,
A grateful new American.