“You knew Eisenhower?” the young reporter asked. It was, of course, part of the standard questions Steve was asked every Memorial and Veteran’s Day. The reporters were getting younger and younger. Steve knew that there would be a day when he would be one of the last who had met the man in person or the other WWII heroes.
Steve thought about Mr. McLaughlin.
Mr. McLaughlin lived by himself in an apartment five doors down from his, back when Steve was young and wearing short pants. He barely saw the man who rarely left the dark apartment. But then Steve was six and not patient yet with older folks.
Mrs. Sullivan usually looked after him when his Ma had work. But her daughter was too sick to have Steve over and the Other Mrs. Sullivan was away visiting her son. She marched Steve right up to Mr. McLaughlin’s door.
He shakily opened the door. “Mrs. Sullivan –”
“Mrs. Rogers is at the hospital and I’m taking Mary to the doctor. Can you watch Stevie here for an hour or two? His Ma would never forgive me if something happened to him.”
Clutching his crayons and paper, Steve peered up at the surprised Mr. McLaughlin.
“Sarah will be home in a couple of hours, I swear. Stevie won’t be a bit of trouble.”
Mr. McLaughlin arched an eyebrow after giving Steve a careful look, taking in the scrapes and bruises on his legs and one arm. “Fine, Mrs. Sullivan, fine.”
“Thank you, Mr. McLaughlin,” Steve said brightly. He’d been brought up with manners. His Ma made sure of that.
Steve laid down on the worn rug in the living, ready to draw until his Ma returned. Mr. McLaughlin sat down heavily in an arm chair. He was listening to the afternoon radio dramas. He was old, the oldest person Steve knew. "Steve, could you turn up the radio?“
He immediately jumped to his feet and turned up the radio. Despite his uncanny ability to get into fights already at the age of six, Steve was a good little boy who did what he was asked by adults. He looked up at the framed pictures above the radio and bookcase. "Who is that?” he asked, pointing to a solemn man in a top hat.
“Mr. Lincoln! The greatest president we ever had.”
“And that man?” Steve pointed to another picture, a small American flag tucked into the frame. He thought it was an American flag – it didn’t have the same number of stars as the flag at school.
“Ulysses S Grant, the greatest general,” Mr. McLaughlin declared. “I served with the 164th New York, Army of the Potomac. Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Appomattox. I even shook General Grant’s hand after he met with Lee.”
Steve raptly listened to Mr. McLaughlin’s stories about the Army of the Potomac, the Overland Campaign, the seige at Petersburg, and that solemn day at Appomattox Court House where the Civil War ended. When his Ma came to collect him, he shook Mr. McLaughlin’s hand, the same one that shook Grant’s.
Time tugged at Steve in strange ways, a man lost in time who today was the bridge from Appomattox to D-Day and beyond.
Reporter prompted again, “Eisenhower?”
Steve smilled. “Let me tell you about Private McLaughlin, 164th New York, who knew General Grant.”