As little kids growing up in Walla Walla in the 1950s on the corner of University and Bellevue streets, we were surrounded by veterans of the World War II.
Within a three block radius of our home lived dozens of families whose fathers had served in the military, won the war, then came home, fell in love, got married, bought their first house, and started a family.
For young children like us there was comfort in knowing that just down the street lived men who had fought in the jungle, served on a battleship, charged a beach guns blazing, or dropped bombs from an airplane. These were quiet veterans; some had experienced combat, and some had not. All were heroes in our eyes.
We neighborhood kids played at war, usually assuming the role of soldier in the branch of service that corresponded with that of our respective fathers.
We were usually Army; the Watts and Bradford boys Navy. The kids whose dads were in the Navy would oftentimes mimic their father’s real tattoos by drawing on their arms with an ink pen, and every kid could at least hum the tunes of all the service songs.
The Military Surplus Store on East Isaacs Avenue (now the Country Store) served as our “supply depot.”.
Our dad, Harmon, an Army PFC injured in the Aleutian Islands in 1944 would drive us there so we could pick through huge boxes of surplus Army helmets, Navy white dixie cup hats, ammo belts, canteens and backpacks.
Amazingly, many of the helmets and Navy caps were emblazoned with real names and serial numbers. We always have wondered how it was that this personal gear came into the public realm.
The two of us grew up around these hard-working and patriotic men and their families.
We watched our first television show at Norm’s — Gillette Friday Night Fights; we looked to the sky in 1957 for Sputnik, the first satellite to space, from Gabe’s back yard; Bert drove us and his boys many times to his cabin at Mill Creek in the back of his pick-up; we worked at Martin’s Jewelry for Port; Doug was our Pony League Coach; and Judge Al allowed us to dig a giant underground fort behind his house.
The veterans all had standing and credibility in our eyes. It was as if our neighborhood were one giant public swim pool, and stationed around the periphery of the “pool” at regular intervals like lifeguards with whistles were the veterans (and their wives). We toed the line more from respect than from fear. They were our mentors.
Many of the veterans were extraordinary volunteers, serving as coaches for our sports teams, as our PTA presidents, and leaders of service clubs.
Their professions were as varied as their personalities: salesman, house painter, police chief, private businessman, judge, public official. They and their spouses were the thread that bound this community together.
On Veteran’s Day, we solemnly salute them as we knew them. Thank you, Norm, Gabe, Bert, Port, Doug, Al, and Dad, and the many others from Walla Walla who served their country and then their community. We continue to be inspired and blessed by your sacrifices.