I was at a Memorial Day celebration in Boston, Massachusetts last month when I saw a group of World War II Navy Veterans hanging out together. They were all in remarkably good health and swapping stories of what it was like on their ship in the midst of the chaos. Proud of their service, they all wore identical navy blue hats embroidered with "USS Massachusetts."
That got me thinking of a man I had met while walking in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last year. He was a World War II veteran of the Soviet Red Army. Judging from his appearance, he was an ethnic Kyrgyz guy who served in the Red Army when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet Republic. He must have been in his late 80's or even early 90's. Our paths crossed in one of Bishkek's many lush parks. The Red Army veteran wore a charcoal gray suit, white sneakers, and a top hat. The suit was a bit baggy on him, probably fitted when he was a bit younger and heavier. Nevertheless, he looked very distinguished. What caught my eye were the numerous Soviet service medals pinned to his chest.
When I saw him, I was immediately fascinated and introduced myself. He spoke only Russian, but luckily he was accompanied by his son, who looked to be in his 40's and spoke a bit of English. The old Kyrgyz veteran was proud to explain what each metal meant, and was delighted to have his photo taken. One of his metals had Lenin's profile, which may have meant that he was a decorated Officer.
Since he didn't speak English, his son was translating between us. At first he thought I was British, but when I told him I was American, his eyes really lit up. I think I was probably the first American he had met in a very long time. We ended the conversation with a handshake, and I gave the Kyrgyz veteran a salute for good measure.
When I saw the Navy veterans in Massachusetts, I thought about the Soviet Red Army veteran I had met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. For a minute, I wondered what it would be like if they could have met and the interesting things they would have talked about. Judging from the reception I got from the Kyrgyz Red Army veteran, I think he would have loved to speak about his experiences with World War II veterans from America. As a 30 year old carrying no emotional baggage of World War II or the Cold War, I would have loved to have listened to that meeting. Would there have been tension, debate, laughing, drinking? We can only imagine, but this chance encounter really made my day!