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You and I can never thank them enough

My first dog was a beagle named Shorty. I got Shorty when I was about 5 years old, and he was aptly named. His legs barely kept his belly off the ground when he walked around the backyard.

I loved Shorty, and I cried when he died a couple of years later. But this story is not about a boy and his dog; it's about the man who gave me that dog.

Henry Foster was a member of the American Legion post in Avondale. It was there that I met Henry. When I was a kid, my daddy would take me by the Legion every now and then to play horseshoes or shuffleboard while he visited his buddies. Any visit to the Legion was always made better if Henry was there.

Henry Foster was like his dog - short. And not just short, but little. I'm not sure how tall he really was, but I'll guess about 5-foot-4, and that might be generous.

But what he lacked in height he made up for with his kindness toward me. He always seemed to be genuinely glad to see me, from the time I was just a kid until I was an adult. Henry always smiled one of those smiles that spread across his whole face and brightened his eyes when he saw me.

I guess it was that kindness that led him to give me that dog. I still remember the day we went to pick him up at Henry's house. Do happier days come in a boy's life than getting his first dog?

As the years went on I made a lot of visits to Henry's house. By the time I was old enough to drive I was loading the lawnmower in our old pickup on weekends to go cut Henry's grass, do some weedeating or other odd chores. He always had a cold drink and a sandwich waiting on me when I finished.

As he got older, sometimes I just went by to check on him. He lived alone, and I figured he would appreciate the company. There were others who did more for Henry, but I did what a teenager could.

Throughout the years I knew Henry I heard him called several nicknames that reflected his diminutive stature, "Little Henry" and "Midget" being the two most common.

I knew most of the nicknames I heard for Henry were about his lack of height, and I also knew the men who were calling him these names were not doing it to make fun of him. They did it because they liked him.

But one nickname I heard occasionally always perplexed me. Every now and then one of the veterans at the Legion would call him "Jeep."

I'm not sure how old I was when I asked my dad why some people called Henry that, but I was old enough to understand the answer - and what it meant as far as how I saw Henry from that point on.

Henry was called "Jeep" because he was a Jeep driver in the Army, my dad said. He drove a Jeep for officers in World War II. As a matter of fact, he said, Henry landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Long before Steven Spielberg made "Saving Private Ryan," I knew the stories about Bloody Omaha. I was always a history buff, and by the time I was a teenager I'd already read several books on the heroes of World War II, especially the men who lived through the hell that was the early morning of June 6, 1944.

As a kid I was amazed by the fact that Henry had gone ashore on Omaha Beach. But I was an adult before I truly understood what Henry and rest of the men who took part in D-Day had really done, how they'd saved us all.

Henry rarely talked to anyone about his war experience, and he never talked about it to me. I never asked even though I really wanted to hear his stories. I always figured he'd earned the right to not talk about it. Knowing Henry, he probably thought a kid didn't need to hear about such things.

Henry has been gone for quite a few years now, but I think about him now and again, especially when life gets hard.

In my fire safe at home I have a small vial of sand from Omaha Beach that my friend Chuck Mattson brought back from France a few years ago. Sometimes when I feel like I can't do something I take out that vial and hold it my hand. Then I'll think about Henry and figure if he could make it off Bloody Omaha, I can certainly face whatever life has thrown at me.

Saturday is Veterans Day. If you have a veteran like Henry in your life, take a moment to thank him or her, whether it's for giving you your first dog or for protecting your liberty.

Or for giving you strength.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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