|Henry and Me, strolling through the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.|
I met Henry Stad on a retrofitted school bus bound for Boston Logan International Airport.
It was 5 a.m., and before I even sat down next to him, Henry offered me fair warning."My wife says I talk too much," said Henry, who, at 91, had a lifetime of stories to keep me entertained for the next 15 hours. Our journey together -- from the Bedford VA Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., to Washington, D.C., and back -- was courtesy of Honor Flight New England, which for the past 18 months has been flying World War II veterans round-trip to the nation's capital to see their memorial, part of a national network that launched five years ago.
Although I'd been on previous Honor Flights, including New England's inaugural flight, this was the first time I went without the usual trappings of a news reporter -- leaving my camera and notebook behind meant my professional objectivity was suspended.
I was there to serve as Henry's "Guardian" -- a pivotal part of the program that matches veterans with someone who will be "no farther than an elbow away," making sure they are safe and having the time of their lives.
That would be a tall order, considering the life Henry Stad had experienced so far.He was drafted into the Army Air Corps at 22 and served in the European/African/Middle Eastern Theater. I expected his arsenal of war stories would include tales of great heroism and tragic loss.
What I quickly learned about Henry was that the circumstances of war itself did not faze him. Rather, it was his own brush with death after contracting malaria that changed the way Henry would live the rest of his days.
"My parents died when I was just a kid, both of them one after the other," said Henry. "So I always figured my days were numbered anyway. When I got sick in Africa, they didn't know what to do with me, so they shipped me back home. I had lost so much weight nobody knew how to cure me. They said I was a goner, and they pretty much left me to die."
But Henry's wiry body wasn't quitting. For no good reason, he recovered from whatever strain of exotic disease he'd contracted. He'd come close enough to death to appreciate life, and so once he was discharged, his only mission was living life to the fullest.
"I was fond of gambling," said Henry, who explained that he spent the next several years in as many tropical and exotic places as possible, chauffeuring high rollers and rubbing elbows with some of the most colorful characters imaginable during the 1940s and '50s.
"I didn't think about getting married or starting a family because I really didn't think I was going to live much longer, given my parents' short lives and the toll being sick had taken on my body," said Stad.But life went on ... and on. Henry finally came to terms with the fact that maybe life wasn't so temporary or fragile.
That's when he met Maria, a woman who had, like Henry, given up much of her childhood to care for siblings after her parents died young. She is 10 years Henry's junior, but they are a perfect match. They have been married 52 years, and Henry says thanks to his later start in life, he still has grandkids small enough to sit on his lap.Age has left him with little padding around his knee joints, so Henry used a cane to stroll around Washington.
True to my oath as his Guardian, I linked arms with him and we strolled together, usually bringing up the rear during walking tours, Henry spinning tales about his worldly adventures, and me soaking it all in.I can't give you the details -- Henry's also a fast talker -- and I didn't have a pen handy. But when I asked him what the highlight of his trip was, he skipped over standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and counting the gold stars on the Freedom wall that represented the war dead -- including his own brother, a bomber pilot who was killed in action.
"All the fanfare, all the special treatment. To have people asking me if they could take a picture of me with their children. That's never happened to me before. I felt like a hero, and I had tears in my eyes," said Henry.
I guess the thing about being a Guardian is that, despite your best efforts to be the caregiver, you are susceptible to being schooled. I will never forget what I learned about life from Henry on our journey together:
War is hell, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. If you're lucky, you'll learn early on that life is a crapshoot: Surviving isn't enough; you gotta play to win. Gambling a little along the way might pay off, so take a few chances. And when you least expect it, you'll find what you didn't even know you were looking for, as long as you've been following your heart. Be open to love. Marry well. Tell your story to anyone who will listen.
About Honor Flight New England:
Launched in June 2009 by retired Manchester Police Officer Joe Byron of Hooksett and sustained by a core group of volunteers, Honor Flight has made 13 flights taking 365 veterans -- otherwise too old or infirm to go it alone -- to Washington to see the memorial completed in 2004 in their honor. Passengers have included a dozen sets of brothers, 18 POWs, a vet who was blinded while serving and a double-leg amputee.
Flights will resume in April. In the meantime, Byron is focused on fundraising, the only way the program survives. He is hoping to find a corporate sponsor.His sense of urgency in making sure the program continues is grounded in the fact that WWII veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day."Unfortunately, we have to take the winter off, due to the weather, and face the fact that in that time we'll lose some of our veterans who are on the waiting list, so it's kind of sad," Byron said. "But it's an incredible thing. I just had a call from a son whose father just returned from our last flight. He told me that his father cried himself to sleep, he was just so happy to know that everyone cared for him so much."