It's happened to me before, running into men who served with my late father in World War II.
This time I was in Greensboro, N. C., at a bookstore. I was signing copies of one of mine.
I noticed the old man at the first of the hour. He stood at the entrance of the store, looking at me.
After the hour, the signing was over. Meekly, the man walked to where I was sitting.
He had one of those faces that said, here's somebody's beloved grandfather. There was a lot of knowledge and caring in it.
Without another word, he said, "Your daddy was my first sergeant in World War II."
I've studied my father's record as a soldier closely and I know he was in France, then in Germany, and I know he later was sent back to Korea.
"He saved my life in Germany," the man continued. "He saved a lot of lives, and they gave him a battlefield commission."
According to a copy of the citation I have, the colonel had been killed and the unit was under heavy German fire. Sergeant Grizzard reorganized the company, running in the open where the bullets flew, and saved himself and his men from certain annihilation.
"If it weren't for your daddy," the man said, "I wouldn't be here today."
How do you respond to something like that? I certainly was proud of my father at that moment - to think this man had carried for half a century the memories of what my father did that day. And to think he would come to me after all this time. It was like he was trying to thank me for something my father did 50 years ago.
I think I managed a "Bless you," or a "Thanks for looking me up."
We shook hands and the old man walked away. My eyes teared as he did.
My parents' generation, I sincerely believe, had more to bear than any other in this country's history. Their lives were affected - and some were ruined - by World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and Korea, and some lost children in Vietnam. And, now, the last of them are fading into the shadows cast by the young they brought into this world.
A national magazine, noting the passing of the presidency to someone too young to have had the World War II experience, offered a spread titled, "Goodbye, Old Soldier."
George Bush was the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy during World War II.
Now he has gone to his retirement, having been replaced by one with no military experience whatsoever, one whose dealings with the draft system still has a number of unanswered questions.
The Old Soldiers have moved out, and the Baby Boomers have moved in.
That is unsettling to me. The country's leadership, save a few veteran members of Congress, is in the hands of those never tested by fire.
Few of my generation really know the meaning of sacrifice. What did we ever want for and couldn't have? When have we ever been hungry? When did most of us ever have to run through a hail of bullets in a foreign land in order to save comrades? I never have and neither has Bill Clinton.
After the man in Greensboro had walked away, I realized I had made a mistake by not sitting with him and asking him to tell me what happened that day in Germany. I would have liked to have known about it from a survivor, not from some document.
But you know how it is. We're all in a hurry. We just don't know where it is we're hurrying to.
Goodbye, Old Soldiers, and thank you.
You are the very best of us.Lewis Grizzard (August, 1993)