The V.A. is a terrible place. As I walked in that day, I felt like I was walking into an old Soviet Politburo building. Nothing looked modern or state-of-the-art. It smelled musty. It felt like slow death. I was there on a routine visit to check on my benefits, so I followed the signs down the hallway to the waiting area. No one smiled. No one seemed to care. Like robots in some sterilized factory, everyone walked as if they were in a hurry…yet nothing ever seemed to get done. People just stood or sat. Frozen in time.
I walked into the waiting area. The hallway opened up into a grand room filled with chairs that looked like something from the fifties. WWII décor maybe. No padding on them, no fluff or frills, just wooden chairs that could easily be mistaken for `Ol Sparky in the Atlanta Penitentiary. I saw a few young guys sitting—waiting—God only knows how long. Then I saw him. He was in the corner, an old black man. He looked to be in his eighties. He sat slumped over with his elbows on his knees. Like a statue, not a muscle moved. He had a black cane with a white handle between his hands. His head rested on the handle. He was dressed extremely well. He wore a suit—black—a derby hat, and a fantastic looking pair of shoes that glistened like spit-shined Army Boots. His eyes were closed, and I wasn`t sure if he was awake; but, I chose to sit next to him. I was drawn to him; I didn`t know why.
I sat down next to him as quietly as possible—everything in the V.A building echoes like a cavern in some deep cave. I studied his face. His jaw line was square, strong, and clean shaven. His skin was light colored for a black man, and in spite of his gray hair, his skin was smooth and well kept. He looked like a man with a deep sense of dignity. In my mind, I imagined him to be a war hero. That`s when it hit me. The emotional wave of sorrow was so in-depth and profound that I felt my eyes begin to water. Here was a man that had no doubt given himself over to the barbarism of combat in some foreign land—probably during a time when no cared about a colored man’s plight—and I knew I owed him for my freedom. I wondered if anyone cared. As I sat daydreaming of the mystery of this man and his life—without moving any other muscle but his mouth—he said, “Long wait.”
I answered with a rhetorical, “Excuse me, sir?”
“It’s a long wait. I been here since ’bout nine.” I looked at my watch, and it was 12:13 in the afternoon.
“My name’s Scott.”
“I’m Maurice…folks call me Moe.” Trying to find common ground, I leaned toward—an attempt at humor.
“Mr. Moe, you look like you just came from a wedding. That`s a sharp suit.”
He finally lifted his head and turned toward me. His eyes were a brilliant gold color, set deep in his face with barely a wrinkle. There was a humbleness in his eyes. They were filled with wisdom and grace.
“Mama always said you ain’t gotta have no money to have class.”
“Yes sir,” I answered.
“Mr. Moe, you mind me asking which war you fought in.” There was an awkward, long pause before he finally answered.
“I was in the 761st Tank Battalion in ’44.”
“We fought with Patton `cross France and froze `ar asses off at the Bulge in the Ardennes. Damn, it was cold…wooo weeee. I`s a machine gunner. I loved that ‘ol thirty cal.”
I just sat back and listened to the old man. He settled back into his meditative position—resting his head on the cane handle, his hat was tipped back a bit.
“Them krauts thought us colored boys wasn`t up to the fight…weez less than they was. They learnt’ different…r’ blood was jest’ as red as they’s was. We whooped ’em all the way to the Rhine. ‘Ol Patton himself say he was proud to serve with us no matter who we was.”
I just sat and continued to listen as the old man told me stories of his comrades, their victories, and their horrid defeats. I didn`t dare interrupt. I didn`t move a muscle. Like being shot through time, back in history, I followed Mr. Moe from Normandy to Germany.
Just as I was about to ask him more questions, I heard a voice from the loudspeaker call out for Maurice Denton. Mr. Moe, as I had decided to address him, lifted his head up from his cane. He slowly and a bit wobbly pushed himself up with it and walked toward the desk never even giving me a look.
“Mr. Moe!” I shouted, “Thank you for your service sir!” His back toward me as he walked away, he just lifted his hand and waved. I never saw him again.
When I got home, I looked up his battalion and its history. The 761st was the first African-American Tank Battalion sent into battle on D-Day in Normandy. They were referred to as the “Black Panthers” and their citations proved to be quite impressive. They had at least one Medal of Honor recipient and more than ten Silver Stars awarded in their ranks. Unfortunately, like many other colored soldiers of that day, his battalion had suffered the bigotry and racism of the South where they trained. The sheer glory, in my mind, of a man who would fight for a country that didn`t give a damn about him, brought me to tears. I only wish I would have had the time to ask Mr. Moe more about the memories that lay behind his eyes of gold.