I met a guy the other night.
He was sitting in a booth by himself at a small roadside restaurant on the outskirts of Richmond, VA. My youngest son and I were there for a pre-golf tournament dinner in the back room of the place.
When we walked in, I saw him there with his World War II veteran hat, so I asked my son to go on without me. I was hoping to hear his story.
He said it was 5:10 in the morning when he jumped. He was a paratrooper with the Screaming Eagles (101st Airborne Division). It was June 6, 1944… Normandy.
On the way down, while in the air, he was hit in the back by two pieces of exploding shrapnel. Once on the ground, he waited for five hours in a contested landing zone before medics got to him and got him out.
After a few months in recovery in England, he was reassigned and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. It started on December 16th of the same year. At 94, he knew his dates cold. (He was born in 1922.)
At one point, he said, “Do you want to see a picture of me in the war?”
“Of course,” I said.
“There’s a little white Ford out there in the parking lot. In the back seat behind the driver’s seat is an envelope. If you bring that in here, I can show it to you. The car’s unlocked.”
When I got back, he pulled out this iconic picture with General Eisenhower. It was taken the night before the D-Day jump.
Slowly pointing, he said in his 94-year-old voice, “See this guy right here.” He pointed to the soldier in the background that’s closest to Ike’s face (highlighted). “That’s me.”
James Early Wood is a 212er and a Smover. His example (commitment, resilience, work ethic) and his kindness (my interruption was greeted with an invitation) inspire me to be a better person in my second half.
I want to be that guy.
A little more…
When I got home after meeting James (he went by J. Early), I spent a little time revisiting WWII history. When I looked around for the iconic Ike picture above, I found a video of the moment (begins at 0:32 … watch it below … unfortunately, there’s no sound). I called the restaurant and gave them my number. They told me he came in every day and they’d give it to him.
I missed his call but he left a message. Here it is (just a really nice guy).
An update below the video…
I learned that J. Early died on Friday, 11.25.16.
I meant to see him or at least call him on Veteran’s Day but didn’t. An obvious regret and a reminder to have a sense of urgency.
No big conclusion below, just a little strangeness…
I did make it back to the restaurant a few days after we met … around lunchtime hoping he’d be there.
A waitress told me he lived on the street just around the corner so I went looking for his car. I remembered his license plate was JEW 1 (James Early Wood). My intention was to show him the video above.
The street was probably a third of a mile long. I drove down it and then back to the intersection with no luck.
I don’t know why, but when I got to the end of the street, I remembered passing a house with several bird houses in the front yard (more like bird apartments). So, I decided to go back and get a picture.
For whatever reason, I took the picture and said to myself, “Just look a little more for J. Early.” Two houses down, in the driveway, was a car with the license plate JEW 2. Gotta be somebody related, right?
I pulled in and knocked on the front door. His daughter-in-law answered with her daughter. Turns out J. Early’s son lived two doors down from J. Early.
We talked and I showed them the video from my computer. Then we called J. Early and learned he was getting a hot dog about 30 minutes away. I let him know we found the video of that moment with Eisenhower and that his family could show it to him. He sounded excited and we said goodbye.
When all this happened, I told the story of meeting him to my family. One of the details I shared was a piece of his career after WWII. He told me he ran a golf cart business for 40 years (closed it in 2015).
On Veterans Day, just by chance, my youngest son texted me a picture while he was at his school … a maintenance cart.