He was a steady fixture of my childhood growing up. He lived in a house on the street directly behind my own.
Never one to shy away from a grin or a boisterous hello, he was a constant throughout my formative, dreadful years of middle school on into high school. I have fond memories of him and his lovely wife, Helen. His name was Lee Brown, although, to me, he was always Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown was a WWII veteran who served in the 5th Ranger Battalion landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy during D-Day 76 years ago as I write this.
I cannot stop thinking of him today. I want to share a few vivid memories I have of him.
A so-called blizzard struck Georgia when I was in the early days of middle school. My parents happened to be out of town, so we stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Brown. I remember watching the entire Star Wars trilogy with Mrs. Brown over several days since icy roads prevented us from driving. They treated us like their grandchildren, providing incredible meals and hospitality. It felt like home.
During our stay, there was a painting on the wall. I will never forget it.
When I was young, paintings always captured my interest almost as much as books. I asked Mr. Brown about it, and he explained it depicted a moment he remembered. Then he took his finger and moved it across the painting, pausing as if pondering what he wanted to say.
"I was ... right about here when I heard, 'Ranger, lead the way,'" he said in a soft voice.
I looked at Mr. Brown as he told me a little more about a story I had only read about in my history classes.
This morning as I was writing this post, I looked up the painting thanks to Google. Now I know it was created by James Dietz. It's hard to describe how I felt staring at that image today.
The blizzard stay at the Browns led to another fascinating memory. I received a middle school history assignment instructing us to interview someone about the past. Because of his painting, I chose Mr. Brown.
I remember hesitating to call him. Of course, he was gracious, and soon I had my interview date set. My heart raced as I walked through the woods to his house. The notebook trembled in my hands. I think I may have even brought a tape recorder. I had never been nervous around Mr. Brown before, but now I was terrified for a reason I cannot explain.
He welcomed me with that bright smile, placing his arm around me as we walked to the dining room for our interview. Mrs. Brown smiled and said hello, quickly disappearing into the back of the house to give us privacy for the meeting. She had placed cookies and milk on the table in anticipation of the conversation.
And the painting was still on the wall.
Our conversation started with the days before D-Day and soon focused on the events of June 6, 1944. He made it easy on me, answering all of my questions with a nod. I don't remember all the details except that he was generous, taking time to remember one of his scariest days.
Following Normandy, he took part in the Battle of the Bulge and Europe's liberation, including the German concentration camp at Buchenwald. But he left out the horrific details of war and its effects, respecting my age and possibly not wanting to relive details. My grandfather rarely discussed the war, either, so I understood.
The tragedy is that I do not know where my notes went. I do not have the paper anymore. I do not have the recording of our interview. All I have is a lingering feeling of being welcomed into Mr. Brown's memories.
It was the final time I remember being in the Brown's house.
Time went on. I graduated high school, got involved in all the things teenagers do. I occasionally waved at Mr. Brown through the woods, but never again spoke to him at length.
And then I went off to college to start the rest of my life.
My father and I went to see Saving Private Ryan in 1998 over a summer break when I was not taking classes and working construction. On the way home, I'll never forget dad saying, "That movie makes me want to give Mr. Brown a hug."
"Me, too," I said, still reeling from the movie.
But I didn't see the Browns when I was home that summer. I went back to school in the fall.
Eventually, I was told the Browns moved about 30 minutes away. My parents told me Mr. Brown worked as a greeter at a nearby Wal-Mart. I always meant to stop by and tell him what he meant to me, but life has a way of seeming oh so important that there isn't enough time.
Still, I always followed news stories of Mr. Brown over the years, read with interest when, in 2009, he was chosen by the President of France to receive their highest honor for valor, the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.
Time went on. I read a story about him retiring from Wal-Mart at the age of 90 to spend more time at home with his wife. I had missed my chance to see him at the store but thought I would send him a letter soon.
Mr. Brown passed away in January of 2016.
I never sent the letter.
I hope he knew what his stories meant to me. I wish he knew how much I appreciated their kindness and willingness to allow us to stay during the "blizzard."
As I get older, I start to realize more how fast time passes. There are so many events I did not know were important when they were happening. As Moonlight Graham says in Field of Dreams, "At the time I thought there would be other days. I didn't realize that was the only day."
If you are reading this post, I would like to remind you to do those things you are putting off - especially when it comes to friends and family. Talk to those you love or care about and get to know them. There is nothing worse than the cold reality of knowing there is no more time.
For Mr. Brown, I appreciate more now than I did as a middle schooler what he sat down to tell me that day. He was a quiet hero in my neighborhood. I am thankful for his service. I am grateful he took the time to answer my questions about D-Day. I was blessed as a child to have such a stable family next door.
Thank you, Mr., and Mrs. Brown. You are both unforgettable.