I did a mitzvah for a Marine last week and I almost missed it.
For those of you who don’t know, a mitzvah is a good deed, and this particular good deed—as minor as it was—also helped me atone for an earlier misstep.
I was pulling my cart through the snow on a recent Sunday morning for my weekly shopping routine. I don’t remember much of what was going on, quite frankly, because my mind was wandering all over the place.
Maybe I had zoned out because shopping is one of my least favorite things to do, or it’s just a habit that I’ve fallen into, but whatever the reason, I was barely in contact with Planet Earth.
The snow had clogged the sidewalk down to a narrow path near the corner of Third Avenue and I was dimly aware of an older woman walking toward me.
My mind was still tossing around one random thought or another as I stepped aside to allow the woman to go by first. As she went by she gave me the loveliest smile.
“Thank you!” she said with such enthusiasm.
That shook the cobwebs off my brain. I was barely aware of her existence and yet here she was thanking me profusely for just moving a few inches to the left. As my dad liked to say, I made a mistake and did the right thing.
And then I saw a man behind her on a scooter—presumably her husband—bringing up the rear.
He was wearing a veteran’s cap and a jacket with a U.S. Marine patch. This man also gave me a smile and said something that I couldn’t quite make out, but it sure sounded friendly.
I was holding my cart with the right hand, so I raised my left and gave him a Benny Hill style salute.
I could only imagine what my father, a World War II veteran, would have said if he had seen that crappy gesture.
Bad saluting was one of his chief complaints whenever he watched a war movie on TV—that and the ridiculous battle scenes where one GI with a .45 takes out the entire Third Reich.
But I felt like I had to do something to acknowledge this man’s service to his country and a substandard salute was the best I could do on such short notice.
I’m grateful that some part of my mind was functioning enough that I was able step aside when I did. Sometimes I’m so clueless that I’ll blunder right in front of people and while it may appear rude, I’m really just on autopilot.
And this little encounter took me back to the Memorial Day weekend when I went to Ground Zero last year for the first time since 2001.
It was eerie walking around this spot where the towers once stood. The last time I was this close the buildings were in flames and moments away from collapsing.
Now there are two memorial pools in the towers’ footprints and the names of all the victims are etched on bronze plates around the parapets of each pool. Some of the victims’ loved ones had places white roses in the names.
There were people from the armed forces all the over the complex. As I stood there, just looking around, I saw a young Marine taking a picture of his wife and two young children standing before one of the pools.
But I was too busy spinning my mental gears to even notice.
This oversight irked the hell out of me for several days. How could I be so obtuse?
Yes, I suppose he could’ve asked me to do the honors, but if I had been paying attention I would have saved him the trouble of approaching a stranger in a strange city.
And I know I would’ve gotten something out of making the offer, too. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but kindness is a gift best given without being asked.
So I’m glad I stepped aside for that veteran and his wife. I’m glad I gave him that salute, as lame as it was. I’m glad I made the mistake and did the right thing.