Four years ago, on Veterans Day 2016, I had an unforgettable experience that directly applies to where we are right now – in post-election 2020.
A group of dentists and student volunteers spent their holiday offering free dental work to veterans. They provided teeth cleaning, fillings, and extractions for what I believe were dozens (could be more) of veterans from 7AM until around 4PM.
When I arrived, the line was long but steady. Music was playing – “I’m proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood. Grills from a local food truck were blazing. It had the aroma and atmosphere of a large cookout or a tailgating row of cars and trucks at a football game. The temperature was crisp, and all was right with the world. Three days removed from the most contentious election in US history could not deter this moment.
It was as Americana as you could find.
At the time, I was the managing editor of The Apopka Voice, an online news site in Orange County, and I was there to cover the event. I wandered around, looking for a story. The service these dentists and students were providing was newsworthy enough on its own merits, but I wanted to see it from the eyes of a veteran.
Unfortunately, most of the veterans had dental issues on their mind.
Everyone I approached was courteous but clearly in task-mode. I asked a couple of them if they had time to talk to me, but most just politely said no.
Finally, under a group of shade trees, I met a veteran with a story.
Bill was a tall, thin man that looked to be in his 80’s with thick grey hair and a beard. He wore a Chicago Cubs cap, red sweatshirt, faded blue jeans, and black boots. The wallet in his back pocket was chained to his belt loop. As I walked past, he said hello, and I stopped and said hello back.
“What brings you out today?” I asked.
“I’ve had a toothache off-and-on for about a decade. I figured I should have it fixed before I die,” he joked.
Bill was from Holly Hill, a small town kind of swallowed-up by Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. It sits mostly between US1 and the Halifax River in Volusia County.
“Holy Hell is what they call it over there,” he said.
Bill’s friend from Apopka told him about the free dental offer for veterans, and he drove 60 miles to be at the event. Bill is on a fixed income, and a tooth extraction is well outside of his budget and not covered by Medicare.
“I hope they work on veterans outside of Apopka,” he said.
“As long as you have a great Veteran’s Day story,” I said to him. “That’s why I keep talking to you guys.”
“You a writer?”
“It depends on who you ask,” I said. “But that’s why I’m here. To tell a veteran’s tale.”
“Well you’ve come to the right place. Have a seat, and I’ll tell you about the friend I met in Germany.”
I sat down, leaned against a tree to Bill’s left, and began writing what he told me…
“I was a private in the 9th Infantry Division of the Army during World War II,” he said. “My unit fought in Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, and Normandy. In the early months of 1945, we were fighting in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. It was just before the bloody Battle of Aachen and just before The Battle of the Bulge. I was on a late-night watch by myself when out of the darkness, a German soldier walked-up on me, and before I could react, handed me his rifle.”
Bill’s voice went from calm to excited as he told this incredible tale. It was hard to imagine this soft spoken man had fought in so many historic conflicts.
“He could have shot me. And I would have shot him if he weren’t so damn quiet in approaching me. Instead, he surrendered. I wasn’t religious at the time, but I remember thinking that God had to be a part of the timing.”
As Bill walked the soldier back to camp, his commanding officer told him to guard the German because there was no set-up to process prisoners. The two men sat in a foxhole until morning.
For hours they sat in silence until suddenly Bill’s prisoner started talking. “I’m not a soldier. I’m a farmer,” he said. “And I’m not a Nazi. I’m a German.”
Bill learned that the soldier’s last name was Bauer. He, too, was a private, about 20-years-old. Bill was not much older.
“He spoke pretty good English, better than my German anyway.”
Bill explained to me that Bauer fought to defend his country and not because of the politics of the Nazi’s.
“They took over before I was born. No one in my town liked them, but we were still Germans, so we fought to defend our homeland,” he said.
“It was a struggle to talk given the conditions and the language barrier, but somehow we bonded in that foxhole. We were no longer enemies. We were friends.”
Decades later, Bill looked-up Bauer from the small amount of information he had. He knew he was in the German military and that he lived in a small town near Frankfurt. He wrote a letter to a Bauer he hoped was the right one. Weeks later, he received a reply.
Bill wouldn’t tell me what they talked about, except to say that Bauer was very wealthy and often helped him with finances over the years until he died in 1990. The two men had two reunions after the war – in 1986 and 1988.
Bill did not have a moral to his story. It is but one of many soldiers’ tales that should be shared more often on Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any other day they want to tell them.
And I have no moral either except to say this:
If two enemies, trained to kill, armed with rifles in the dark of night on a battlefield, can somehow, by the grace of God, come away not only alive but lifetime friends, then somehow, perhaps, Democrats and Republicans can find a way to get along too. Perhaps supporters and opponents of mayors, city and county commissioners, and school board members can find common ground and build their cities, towns, and communities together in unity.
One last thank you to the veterans of this community, and around the nation. I hope you have a great Veteran’s Day. We will forever remember your service and sacrifice to this country.
And thank you Bill, for your time, for your service, for your patience, and for teaching me a valuable lesson of grace under fire that I will never forget.