In April, I spent the better portion of a couple of afternoons trying to get in touch with a man named Jack Lucas.
I wanted to interview him for a column I was writing. I called several places in and around Hattiesburg, Miss., but no one ever answered and there was no answering machine on which to leave a message. My deadline loomed, however, and the topic was timely, so I wrote the column anyway.
I'll never know how much better that column could have been if I could've talked to Lucas. But now I do know why I couldn't find him.
Lucas had been diagnosed that same month with leukemia and hospitalized. Sadly, on Thursday, he lost the battle and died at the age of 80.
Why did I want to talk to an 80-year-old man who lived 300 miles away? The answer is simple: to hear first-hand what it's like to jump on a hand grenade.
I was writing a column about a Navy SEAL named Michael Monsoor who'd thrown himself on a grenade in Ramadi, Iraq, to save his comrades. Monsoor had a clear route of escape, but chose instead to smother the grenade with his body, saving his fellow SEALs at the cost of his own life.
Lucas had a similar story with two big differences: He jumped on two grenades, and he lived to tell about it.
Since I couldn't ask Monsoor, I wanted to pick the brain of the only man I'd ever heard of to jump on two hand grenades and live.
I wanted to ask him why. How. Did you think about it, or was it a gut reaction? After you'd jumped, but before the explosion, did you have time to wonder, "What in God's name am I doing?" Any regrets?
I wanted to know about that split second, the most important in his life. You can pack a lot into that tiny second.
I fell from a pretty good height one time. I didn't know until that moment what people meant by your life flashing before your eyes.
In about the time it takes you to blink twice, I thought, will it hurt? Will I break something? Will I be paralyzed? Will I die? What about all the things I haven't done? I thought about family, friends - you name it, it was all packed into that second that it took me to fall to the ground.
And that was an event brought on by nothing but my own stupidity, as far a cry as you can get from a selfless act of heroism.
So I wanted to know about the heroes from the only guy who could know. What do you men who jump on grenades to save your friends think? What makes you tick?
The questions weigh on me even more now, as this week the president awarded yet another Medal of Honor to a soldier who jumped on a grenade in Iraq.
This soldier's story is even more similar to Lucas'. Army Pfc. Ross McGinnis was only 19 when he jumped back-first onto a grenade that had been tossed into his Humvee. Lucas was just 17 when he dived onto the grenades on Iwo Jima, having lied about his age to join the service.
Lucas and McGinnis also shared a commitment for the job they had to do.
Lucas' lie allowed him to join at the age of 14. When the Marines finally found out, they gave him a job driving a truck in Hawaii and were mulling sending him home. But Lucas beat them to the punch, stowing away on a ship headed for the Pacific theater.
Why do such a thing? In the book "Indestructible," Lucas answered that question.
'I would not settle for watching from the sidelines when the United States was in such desperate need of support from its citizens,' he said.
McGinnis, who'd been in some trouble while in high school, found his calling in the Army. A fellow soldier told the Associated Press, "when things got serious ... you only had to tell Ross one time."
And I guess that's the key to knowing the essence of these great men. They just do. They just go. When the grenade lands near them, they just jump.
On this, the 64th anniversary of D-Day, we would all do well to realize the significance and honor of having had these kinds of men.
There is one thing that I would've disputed, however, had I been able to get in touch with Lucas. In 1945, right before getting his Medal of Honor, Lucas told the AP: 'I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades. I wasn't a Superman after I got hit."
I beg to differ, Mr. Lucas. I beg to differ.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
E-mail Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays.