joankingMy daughter was treated to a most unusual story that turned her lengthy grocery shopping trip into a “wow” day and left her with a warm feeling, while standing in line at the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s in Bayside a couple of weeks ago.

While the white-haired man ahead of her in line was paying for his items with a check, he told the cashier that he was in town visiting and helping out his 80-some year old mother.   The girl commented on his “pretty check” and he showed her that it was a John Wayne checkbook. When he said he had actually met John Wayne, he piqued the cashier and my daughter’s interest even more. The man my daughter knows as Jeffrey began his story.

Years earlier, as a returning wounded Vietnam veteran with a cane, he said he was accosted by war protestors who jeered and threw eggs at him at the Los Angeles airport.

Feeling discouraged after leaving the restroom where he wiped the egg from his army uniform, he said he bumped into a man with a suitcase, sending his own cane and also the man’s suitcase flying. The other gentleman helped the wounded and visibly upset veteran to his feet. In an unmistakable drawl, the stranger said something like “Where ya’ from, son?”

A stunned Jeffrey said he replied, “From Milwaukee, Sir. I’m coming from Da Nang, Vietnam.”

We’re mighty proud of what you’ve done for us, Jeffrey said the man he recognized as veteran actor John Wayne said to him.

The anger and hatred that greeted him when he stepped from the plane was the lowest point of Jeffrey’s life, he said.

“He (John Wayne) changed my life,” the veteran told my daughter and the cashier.

Over coffee and lunch suggested by the actor, Jeffrey said he shared his story with his hero – how Jeffrey’s father had died when he was 4 and how John Wayne became his hero; how he hoped to go to school and work in the movies some day.

Before they parted, Jeffery said he had a first-class airline seat to Milwaukee, his hero’s business card and an offer of a future job in California. He said he will always remember John Wayne’s heartfelt actions and added that he did go to California and secure a job with Wayne’s help.

While I don’t know if the tale the man told is true, it’s a good reminder of the returning unsung heroes whose sacrifices for their country have gone unappreciated by many.

The story was with me for days as I thought of numerous comparisons – peaceful protests versus angry, everyday people who are the real heroes; and how this story relates to occurrences in the Bible.

There’s the woman at the well offering Jesus a drink and receiving in return his promise of New Life; the good Samaritan binding the wounds and providing a place of recovery for the beaten and bruised man he did not pass by at the side of the road; how the faith of the good thief at the crucifixion was rewarded by Jesus’ promise of joining him that day in paradise.

We have three opportunities to honor those who serve. This Saturday is Armed Forces Day,  an excellent time to remember those who are defending our country. On May 28, we will observe Memorial Day, a day when we remember the servicemen and women who have given their lives in defense of our country. And we need not wait until Veteran’s Day to thank all who have served so that we may enjoy the freedoms we have. 

This Saturday, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, fly the flag in their honor at your home, wave the Stars and Stripes at a local parade and give a heads up to all veterans you meet.

(King, a member of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, North Lake, is married to Thomas. They have seven children, 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.)

  • Milwaukee Archdiocesan Cemeteries will celebrate Mass at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 28 at the archdiocesan cemeteries: Calvary, Holy Cross, Holy Trinity, Mount Olivet and St. Adalbert in Milwaukee, Resurrection in Mequon, St. Joseph in Waukesha and All Saints in Pleasant Prairie.