It was sometime in the winter, probably around 1994.
I was a freckle-faced preteen searching for food and water after church. I left my sisters behind and made a beeline for the table next to the back wall. It had all the good stuff on it: the brownies and the cookies and the cakes that my mother refused to keep in the house. I had to take advantage of the treasure before she could stop me.
I had just loaded up the small paper plate when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t my mom, though. It was my granddad. He knew me well enough to know my antics. He also knew that he was the only one who could tell me to lessen my sugar intake without me arguing. He shook a playful finger at me, had me put a couple of items back, and steered me back toward my family.
My grandma was talking to another man who was about my granddad’s age. On paper, the two men looked similar. Both were probably a little less than average height, with graying hair, glasses, and dark eyes. But anyone who knew them knew they were completely different. My granddad was quiet and playfully grumpy. The man my grandma was talking to always smiled and exuded joy wherever he went. He and my grandma had grown up together, had graduated high school in the same year, class of ’42.
“Hi Lester!” I greeted with my mouth full.
“Heya, kiddo!” he replied, offering me a high five.
That was Lester: always smiling, always full of joy.
It was 1997. Ish.
Mr. Einrem, our Social Studies teacher, had just flicked on the lights. I was only partially relieved as I stretched and turned to look at my classmates, who were unusually silent. The images of the nightmare we’d finished on VHS still lingered in my mind, and they were probably lingering in theirs, too.
The “Memory of the Camps” documentary was infamous at our school, mostly because it required a parent signature in order to watch, which automatically sensationalized it, of course. And though I’d been adequately prepared for the content, the video had still made me feel sick. To be honest, learning the entire unit about the Holocaust had been harder than I’d ever imagined.
I’d been an idealist even then, had an acute sense of right and wrong, and simply didn’t understand evil. I wasn’t sure I ever would. The Holocaust, when read about in textbooks, was comfortably far away. The video of skeletal men, of bodies being dragged through the dirt, however, made it too real for me to remain unaffected.
After going home from school, my mom checked in with me to see how my day went. I told her about the documentary, about the images that had disturbed me the most. “I can’t believe they let that happen,” I’d told her. “And do you know some people are denying it even occurred?”
My mom shook her head. “Yeah, I heard something about that. It’s a good thing you guys are learning about it.” She paused. “You know who you should talk to? Lester Becker. He liberated a camp, you know.”
My jaw dropped. “Lester?” But that was impossible – had to be. A black-and-white documentary had made me lose hope in the world. How did he witness hell-on-earth and come out one of the happiest men I’d ever met?
Partly because I loved history, and partly because I loved Lester, I asked him if I could interview him about his experience. He was more than glad to, was excited that a person my age was taking an interest. I walked up to his house – a brick ranch with a meticulously kept lawn – and knocked on the door. Despite knowing how depressing the subject manner was going to be, Lester welcomed me in with his ever-present smile. He brought me to a dim room full of piles of newspaper clippings and articles from his military days. I distinctly remember a thick binder full of his memories. We spent over an hour discussing each page in it.
He told me stories, and I listened raptly, though I couldn’t tell you anything about them now. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember a single detail. I only remember seeing tears in his eyes when I asked the hard questions, and seeing a smile on his face when he’d follow up with the good things that happened, too. He had been especially proud of his army buddies, the ones he fought alongside with to save innocent lives.
He kept reminding me of the good he’d experienced after telling me a stories about the bad.
It takes a great man to leave an impression like that.
But that was Lester: always smiling, always finding joy.
It was April 2001.
Cheap, shiny streamers were draped over wires that were suspended above our heads in the high school gymnasium. Some gaudy, six-foot, centerpiece that had something to do with a theme I can’t remember was standing a bit more limply than it had just hours earlier, when all of the couples had posed for pictures next to it. Confetti dusted the floor, but despite the filth, I kicked my shoes off. My feet were still hurting from wearing heels the night before.
Prom had been a success, one of the last rites of passage that I would go through as a high schooler. I wasn’t necessarily sad about it; I was the kind of girl who would miss the pasture parties, Friday night football games, and bonfires way more than any formal.
And I did end up missing those things, but I missed moments like this, too: the day after the dance, when our local FFA Chapter held an honorary dance for the elderly: a Senior Citizens’ Prom.
Despite the aging population of our town, only fifteen to twenty people had shown up. About as many teens did, too. Believe it or not, volunteering was kind of “the thing” in my class of over-achievers. At this event, we didn’t have a lot to do, because the decorations were already put up, food was already out, and Lester Becker was enthusiastically choosing which music would suit the audience.
The job suited him well. He made the drive to Sterling, Colorado – almost an hour away – every Saturday night to dance to this kind music: Big Band, he called it…it was even older than the “oldies” music on the AM radio station. He was energetic, definitely in his element.
We made eye contact. He gave me a wide, toothy grin and left the music table, making a beeline toward the gray folding chair that I was occupying. Swifter than most men in his seventies, he extended a hand out to me. “Well, let’s see what ya got, kiddo.”
I returned the grin and accepted the challenge. That night, we laughed as he tried to teach me the jitterbug and an extremely basic swing. I sucked, and he knew it. But he’d find some way to compliment me, asking me if I thought I could play part of the tune on the same trumpet I had used to play the taps at our military funerals.
He did it because he was the kind of guy who laughed, who was nice for the sake of being nice. And he loved that I valued him enough to learn something that made him happy.
That was Lester: always smiling, always showing joy.
It was June 2015.
I was on one of my brief trips to my hometown. With two kids, a part-time job, and a novel to write, I relished my weekends at my house, so my trips to Chappell from Denver were becoming quick overnighters. Some would say that it wasn’t worth the money to travel and only stay a night. But I needed a small-town fix. And not just any small town: I needed my small town.
I had a to-do list when I got there: see my parents, maybe get hair done, see my sister, let kids play with their cousins. But most of the time was spent at my granddad’s. He was over ninety, and Grandmom had just lost her battle with cancer a few months earlier. I didn’t want him to be lonely, and loved my time with him, anyway. I spent most nights at his house, watching a game or a movie and listening to his stories. But I didn’t really get out to see anyone else.
For some reason, I chose to dive into Burgie’s real quick one morning. Burgie’s is truly a small town gem: part bowling alley, part restaurant, part flower shop…and at one time it was a part fitness center and dime store. That day, it was part coffee shop.
I entered the building. A bell chimed with my arrival, and familiar faces greeted me and asked how life was going. I answered their questions and asked a few of my own, letting my heart rest in the comfort of country-goodness.
I saw Lester across the room. I rose and walked toward him. He smiled broadly as I approached.
“Lester!” I exclaimed. “It’s so good to see you.”
He grinned even wider, but tilted his head a little bit. “Now remind me who you are…” he said.
I paused, but just for a beat. My mom had told me his memory wasn’t very good. I’d have to feed him the information.
“I’m Amanda Green,” I prompted, using my maiden name.
He was still happy, but studying me intently.
“You know, Lester,” I said, taking a seat.”You used to dance with me.”
“You don’t say,” he said. He looked at the man on his left for verification. The man nodded, bless him. He probably didn’t know if it was true or not.
“I do say,” I replied, laughing. “You were amazing! I wasn’t very good, but you were patient when you tried to teach me.” I quieted my voice. “You taught me about the war, too, you know.”
“You did.” I grabbed his hand. “And you know what?” I said quietly. “You were a hero.” He looked at me incredulously. “You’re still one,” I added.
He grinned sheepishly. “Well, isn’t that somethin’. I don’t remember doing any of that.” He sat a little straighter. “But I’m sure glad you told me that today.”
And he smiled again.
That was Lester: always smiling, always joyful… even if the cause of his joy was muddled.
Now, it’s November 2015. Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, and it’s for this reason – I think – that I felt compelled to write about one of my favorite heroes. Lester is a veteran. He’s lived through experiences my civilian-self wouldn’t be able to comprehend, and somehow, he came out an even better man because of it.
I see old veterans, now hunched over with canes, rather than marching with strong backs, and I think of the life they’ve embraced after war. I think of the history their lives hold, the beauty they’ve created, even when our world got ugly. Some, like Lester, have lost precious memories of the kind of men they once were.
And I want to tell them, “You were a hero. You’re still one.”
And I see new veterans, who still have their strong backs but nowhere to march, who are trying to cope with the things they’ve witnessed and try start their new life over as a civilians. They bite their tongues as we complain about first-world problems and fight enemies we will never understand in nightmares we will never experience.
And I want to tell them, “You were a hero. You’re still one.”
I see children who have only seen war through the television, who have hidden fears of what this world will be like when they are old enough to run it.
And I want to tell them, “You’ll be heroes. You come from them.”
Remind our heroes that they’re not forgotten, today and every day. Their memories of war- whether old and dormant, or new and threatening – need to be recorded. And their commitment to thriving in this country after the war is over needs to replicated.
We’re blessed to live here, in a country where that’s possible, surrounded by quiet heroes like Lester. It’s because of him – and of people like him – that we all have the chance to have lives where we smile, full of joy.
Source: Amanda Deich