He was sitting on a park bench, hunched and looking low. It was hard to imagine how he’d looked so long ago. His beard was long and shaggy now; his sparse hair white as snow but his steel gray eyes were piercing and I turned away to go.
He looked lonely and forgotten and maybe homeless too. Like life had dealt him a bad hand maybe quite a few. He was probably abandoned by those who didn’t care I wondered what had happened. What drove him to despair.
He said, “Son, I’m a Leatherneck, of wars before your time.” His eyes grew still more piercing as he looked deep into mine. “Your uniform says you’re a Devil Dog, the man I’ve waited for. And there’s something I want to tell you — things I’ve never said before.”
The tattoos on his weathered arm read “Mom” and “Semper Fi.” “Let’s sing our hymn together, son, once more before I die.” As we sang of Montezuma’s halls and the shores of Tripoli, the old man stood straight and tall and he looked down at me.
“Bury me at Arlington; put an EGA upon my chest. Tell all the world I died for them that I was one of the best. I was with the Fifth on Iwo and I fought in Korea too. During that ugly war in Vietnam, I stood proud, and cheered for you.
“Get me a straight edge razor, lad and give me a good clean shave. I want to look my very best as I go to my grave. Cut my hair; shine my boots; let me borrow your best blues. You have them back after I’m gone and all my medals too.
“I don’t want no flowers, an American flag will do. My life was lived and given for the Red and White and Blue. Whisper ‘Semper Fi’ my boy, so loud that all will hear. Fire them rifles in the air; they’re music to my ear.”
As he told me his last wishes. I saw him standing tall. I could see the ribbons on his chest, in the dim light of the Mall. And as he closed his steel gray eyes, I thought about the Corps. He’d lived the life of a real Marine, who could ask for anything more?
“Whisper ‘Semper Fi,’ my lad,” his voice lingered in my mind I thought about all my buddies, those I’d left behind. Today, I’d met a real Marine, a hero through and through.
Forgotten by his country, but not by me and you.
By Cordell Keith Haugen