Sometimes, at the odd moment, the world telescopes into an event – one event. Or put differently, one event reminds us of timeless truths, a bucketful in one splash. At the end of 2018, on exactly December 27th, such an event occurred. This column raises a glass to the extraordinary meaning in seemingly ordinary American lives. Sometimes a life resonates.
In 1942, within months of Imperial Japan’s ruthless attack on Pearl Harbor, a 36-year-old American patriot – Richard A. Overton, born in 1906, eleven when America entered World War I – volunteered for the US Army.
He came from a small town in Texas, later resettled in Texas. But in 1942, powerfully moved by duty and love of country, this singular American stepped up. More, he stepped up in a time of great uneasiness for a singular sort of duty. He volunteered to be part of an aviation engineer battalion – headed for the Pacific.
Even in 1942, Americans knew the Pacific was going to be a brutal war zone. There was no way around it. The Doolittle Raiders launched their legendary B-25 medium bombers on their one-way trip in April, 1942, making clear that the US could strike back.
But that raid was just a start – to paraphrase Winston Churchill, not the end, not the beginning of the end, perhaps just the end of the beginning. America needed aviation infrastructure.
By war’s end, 157 aviation engineer battalions had created that infrastructure. Of that total number, 48 aviation engineering battalions were all-black units. They saw service in places like Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Iwo Jima – and dozens of places you have never heard of, never will. It is all history now, but Richard Overton was in one of those units – the 188th.
Three years later, Richard was back home. He spent the better part of the next seven decades living quietly, appreciating the freedom for which he had fought. He openly gave credit to God for getting him home, and every day after that.
But he never got above himself, not in those early years, and not when he graduated to America’s oldest living veteran – which he did several years ago. He did not think himself special when Republican Governor Rick Perry and Democratic President Barack Obama recognized him in 2013, at age 107.
He just powered on, happy to be alive, happy to give back, stating he was grateful. At 107, he said with humility and can-do, “I still walk, I still talk, and I still drive.” He did, too. He drove an F100 pickup truck, still liked to go to church – where he “enjoyed the singing” and liked to take care of his cats.
Last May, Overton turned 112, a day on which he again celebrated America – inviting all of America to share his uncommon good luck on his modest front porch, and countless came to do so.
Until the end, he seemed to enjoy each day fully – publicly said so. He maintained perspective on modern America, remained grateful for family and friends, entertained strangers sight-unseen, had regular cigars, occasional whiskey in his coffee, ready laughter for those of good will. He sported a blue WWII Veteran hat, honoring those who served with him in that great conflict – one that saved America, Europe, freedom and representative government around the globe.
So, what are the lessons Richard Overton taught us, the ones we so readily forget – or many of us do – until an event like his passing last week? How about these: Step up when your country needs you, and be glad you can. Never forget to thank those who stepped up with you, for you and before you.
Take the tough road, and make it count – as the 188th Aviation Engineering Battalion did, time after time in the world’s worst places. Resent nothing, rise to the day, show the power of can-do, return discrimination with invitation, slights with a smile, and acts of little faith with open faith. Sing to the Lord, and remember common bonds that bind us – we Americans, in this lucky place.
Admit your own humanity, don’t let others put you above yourself. Recognize that life turns chiefly on gratitude, charity, modesty, forgiveness for simple vices, faith of the sort that spells purpose, sacrifice for others, and little things that get us out of bed – as they did Richard for more than 41,000 days in a row. It seems – he stood grateful for everyone, and for an America composed of everyone, to the last.
And maybe this was his real, unspoken – but well and long lived – message: If you wish to live a long life, then appreciate each day, laugh more at yourself and less at others, enjoy the little things, and always appreciate America – which in the end means maintaining perspective. Grouse less about what your neighbor is not, and celebrate more what we are together, a much-blessed Nation under God.
If this one honest, courageous, black American patriot, born in 1906, could see World War I and risk his life for three years in World War II, come home to see segregation end, watch America unified, stand by his beloved nation through repeated tragedies – to the age of 112 – then maybe we can all dig a little deeper.
Maybe 2019 is a year in which we pause, as he did with intent and that irrepressible smile, to recall what we all have to be grateful for – starting with each other. Thank you, Richard Overton. May your love of life – and of America – continue to resonate!