Dean Hess, Jr. put the photos of his father on the table. In one, Dean Hess Sr. poses with comrades in his naval C-47 squadron. In another, the ship that carried them to Hawaii passes under the Golden Gate Bridge. Hess Sr. flew the big transport planes in the Pacific archipelagoes, landing on tight coral airfields carved into tiny islands, moving supplies for the island-hopping campaign in which thousands of young sailors, airmen, soldiers and marines confronted Zero fighter planes, Kamikaze pilots and suicidal snipers roped to palm trees in the jungle that overhung the edges of quiet beaches.
In John Skudlarek’s album, his father stands in uniform at a post in England. A bicycle leans against the building behind him. The jaunty airman had one of the most deadly assignments in World War II, flying B-24s on daylight bombing runs over the heavily-defended industrial cities of Europe.
Tish Howard, the principal of Washington Mill Elementary, had her own memento on the table in her school’s library, a flag folded in a stiff triangle. A uniformed officer gave it to her at her mother’s funeral. She was a military censor stationed in New Guinea during World War II. “She cut big holes in the G.I.’s letters,” Howard said.
On Friday morning, Washington Mills opened its arms to its extended family and hosted every veteran or actively serving member of the military for a waffle breakfast. Hess and Skudlarek are both veterans themselves.
Like his father, Hess was a pilot. The Air Force took him to Vietnam. His wife is a teacher at Washington Mills. Each year he visits her third-grade class, showing the students his aviator’s helmet and talking about military service. “Most of the time there’s somebody in the class who’s father is overseas,” he said.
Skudlarek’s mother was a nurse in World War II. He himself was an infantryman stationed in Germany during the Cold War. He was excited about the album his wife put together, moving from black and white photos of World War II to himself and his comrades in Germany, often leaning up against one another, grinning. “We worked really hard and we had a lot of fun,” he said. “I had my own jeep with my name on it. I was so proud of that.”
Now he is involved in his children’s Scout troop. “When our kids don’t have that common sense of purpose, we as a community are weaker.”
LT. COL. DARLENE SANDERS, who has two children in Washington Mills, stood by the photographs that went back to World War I, but she was thinking about the future. She travels to Afghanistan on Feb. 24. She has already served a tour in Iraq and done tsunami-relief work in Thailand. “My circumstances are a blessing,” she said.
Sanders was grateful that her husband could stay home with the children. “The thing I always want people to know is we are well taken care of at the forward position.” But the families left behind are “forgotten.”
“See what you can do for the families. That’s the number one thing you can do to support the troops,” Sanders said before being interrupted by a commotion at the library’s door. Three young girls had stopped to give a thumbs-up to the troops.
“Sending [the family at home] a note or a card, telling them you’re thinking about them,” Sanders continued after the students passed on. “People think it’s trivial. But it’s not.”
“If she knows that we’re all okay then it’s less worry for her,” said Sanders’ husband, Mike.
For Howard too, Veterans Day is an opportunity to reflect on family. "In my heart,” she said, when asked to explain the logistics of the Veterans Day breakfast she’s held for the past five years, “it’s my way of saying thank you at a very personal level and thank you at a very global level. The year I started college, my mother died. I was 38.”
Her mother was born in a coal-mining town in western Pennsylvania. She left school in tenth grade and took the train to New York City to become a maid. “The military made a woman of her plus gave her a ticket to see places she never would have seen,” Howard said.
AFTER NEW YORK AND D.C. were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Howard, now an adult herself, was terrified. In confronting her fear, she came face-to-face with her mother and the thousands of veterans and active-duty military personnel whose service was abruptly central to her sense of security. The breakfast, she said, “was my way of coming to grips with my own maturity about exactly what the military is and what they do for us.”
“It’s a way to do this, ‘Whoa! Everybody stop! Let’s sit down. Let us get an understanding of why you do what you do.’ It’s a time-out from hecticness and craziness.”
In the library, red napkins were balled up on blue plastic plates. The group photos had been snapped. But the room was still full. Old men in v-neck sweaters nodded as they listened to young women in crisp fatigues. Vietnam veterans whose children shared Scout troops, classrooms and baseball teams pushed their chairs back from the table to sink into a chat. People lingered. They always do, Howard said.
“There’s lots of blessings. I think that’s what this thing is all about, just a time-out to count, to count the blessings that we have.”