Our memorial day parade is still on my mind. As I replay our small town parade, the image of those veterans still haunts me.
There was one brave little soldier who was missing this year. Her name was Rita King, and she was a teacher at my high school for many years. By trying very hard, I managed to avoid any classes she taught. She was a brilliant mathematician, and I was—well—prone to doing multiplication tables on my fingers. The word “Physics” was, in my home, merely another word for laxative. “Chemistry” was what happened when a boy and girl fell in love. Mrs. King taught both classes. She was a no-nonsense teacher who pushed hard and expected results. She was, on a good day, maybe all of five feet tall, but I watched big, strong boys stagger, wild-eyed, out of her classes, mumbling, “I gotta STUDY tonight!” Mrs. King retired from teaching–with vigor. She became an EMT and worked with our local ambulance team. She volunteered as a CPR instructor, and inspired fear in the hearts of those of us who took her CPR class. It was very important to pay strict attention in that class. She didn’t allow horsing around. And woe to anyone who tried to crack a joke to break the tension. (Okay. I admit it–that was me. Mrs. King was not amused. CPR was not funny.)She was active in the local veteran’s group, and once a year she’d stand all day, uniformed and ramrod straight, in front of the only bank in town, selling poppies on poppies day. She used the money to purchase needed items for our own county’s disabled veterans. Her integrity was such that everyone knew with Rita King involved, every last penny was absolutely going to disabled veterans.
I came out of the bank a couple years ago on poppies day, to find an flashy, arrogant young woman berating Mrs. King for selling those little flowers. I heard the young woman finish her diatribe by announcing, “I’m not giving YOU any money, I don’t BELIEVE in war!” Mrs. King flinched only briefly before replying, “The veterans who fought for you didn’t believe in war, either, but they did believe in you.” The young woman flounced off to her car in a huff.
I, who had spent the best part of my teenage years trying to avoid Mrs. King, found myself wanting to run after that pompous young woman, drag her out of her car by her pert, blonde ponytail, and make her apologize to this valiant older woman. Instead, I pulled a much larger bill than I’d intended out of my purse, stuffed it in Mrs. King’s hand, and said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
Her eyes still registered bewilderment and hurt from the young woman’s anger, but only for a moment. She shook it off, handed me a poppy, and said, “She doesn’t understand. So many people don’t understand.”
Mrs. Rita King died last month, after a long, courageous battle against cancer. She will be sorely missed.