Fortunately, I do not live in a huge town, so the store was busy, but not packed like they are in some places on Christmas Eve. People moved in and around each other, bumping into each other occasionally, but no one was rude. Everyone, it seemed, had decided to express Christmas cheer.
I stood behind the jewelry counter, waiting for the sales associate to complete my transaction. There was something wrong, she said. She could not quite make out the account number and would need to call it in. So, there I stood....waiting....and watching. People. That is what I do when I am out and about, I am a "people watcher" from way back. Something of an expert at it.
There was the young guy in the camo hat with his buddy looking for something for his girlfriend. His friend asked about her birthstone, but he confessed he had "done that last year." He was experiencing the frustration of an inexperienced suitor. He had a girl, but did not know her well enough to know what she really wanted. He was guessing at what she might like. He was in trouble and he knew it.
Then there was the group of three young women, sisters I suspect, who were looking for a gift for their mother. They were in a great mood and could not wait to see their mothers face when they presented her with their gift. These young women seemed to understand the principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive. They were eager to give and they were filled with joy at the prospect of doing so.
Then, I saw him. He was shuffling along behind one of those rolling walkers with a built in seat. The type of walker that serves the dual purpose of assisting people as they walk and providing them a quick place to rest. He was not moving very quickly and I soon saw that he was assisted by a younger woman. Given their relative ages, I guessed she was his daughter. I was right, she was. Then I noticed his hat. It was not the kind of hat that is bought at Lids or a sporting goods store. No, this hat was earned. It read: World War II Veteran.
I watched the man interact with his daughter. And I watched her proudly talk about her dad to the other customers. Not the kind of misplaced pride that is so common in our culture. But, the kind of pride that was earned on the land, sea and air over Europe 70 years ago. She mentioned to a customer that her dad had recently been in the hospital and was now back at the assisted living center. She mentioned that he didn't get out much. After all, she said, he is 90 years old. but that he had a very special gift to purchase for his great granddaughter. This man who had given so much, wanted to give again.
At that point, my sales associate had solved the mystery of my account and my transaction was complete. But, I was not quite ready to leave. Despite the busyness of the store and the fact I had other errands to run, there was something I needed to do. I walked over to the man and his daughter. They were now surveying the costume jewelry for possible gifts for teenage great granddaughter. "Excuse me," I said, "but can I shake your hand sir?" The gentlemen looked up and me and then to his daughter, uncertain of my intentions. Her daughter looked at me and turned to her father, reassuring him that it was ok. He extended his hand, and I received an unexpected blessing. I shook the hand of a member of the greatest generation.
As we shook hands I said, "Thank you sir. If not for you, my generation would be speaking German right now. Thank you for serving." He got a glisten in his eye and said, "thank you, sir." His daughter shared that her dad had been drafted when he was 18 years old. He had served twenty-two years as a pilot, initially in the Army Air Corps. "That was before there was an Air Force," he said with a smile. He not only had served in World War 2, but had served two tours in Vietnam. I was standing in the presence of a true American hero. And, I was blessed.
It wondered how many Christmases he had missed while putting himself in harm's way for the sake of freedom. How many times had he wished to be in a crowded store buying gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on a battlefield in a foreign land facing enemies who wanted him dead. And, then I thought about our current troops. The men and women who are stationed around the world, doing their duty. And, especially those who are currently assigned to duty in the Middle East. Men and women who were not drafted, but have volunteered to protect and defend the United States. Men and women who would love to be shopping in a busy store on Christmas Eve, but, instead, are ensuring that we can do so in relative peace.
So this year as you gather with family and are giving and exchanging gifts, pause for a moment and thank God for our current, former and retired members of the United States military. They are a gift from God to us. And, if you ever see someone with a World War 2 Veteran hat on, stop, shake their hand and thank them. You just might be the one who receives an unexpected blessing.
Dr. Rob Pochek is the Senior Pastor at