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The cordial bustle that perpetually flowed through the diner no longer flowed. Conversations stopped. Waitresses stood still, and the clinks and clanks of silverware could no longer be heard. All that I could hear were the dismal tones of “Taps,” coming from the grieving television.
To make the summer following my junior year “memorable,” my family thought spending three weeks in Boca Raton with my Uncle Bob would be in my best interest. I wanted to spend that July with my friends in Dallas. To Dallas, however, I went.
The first thing I learned about my uncle is that he is a “breakfast man.” He was devastated when I told him I don’t eat breakfast, but he got over it in about a week. The Saturday of my departure, however, my uncle insisted that we go to his favorite “breakfast joint” one last time before I left. His favorite “joint” was The Green Owl, a pleasantly quaint breakfast diner, seated amongst a handful of gaudy establishments emblematic of Boca Raton. “The Owl,” my uncle called it, attracted wholesome people. Some patrons were single, some married, and some had families, but all of them contributed to The Owl’s cozy, familial setting.
That Saturday, The Green Owl was immensely crowded. There were no tables available. Bob got the attention of one of the Green Owl’s waitresses. She was a petite thirty-something with modestly styled blonde hair who darted throughout the diner, taking orders and refilling coffee mugs. When she saw my uncle, she rushed our way. As she approached, my uncle said, “Hey, Cleveland.” The waitress grinned and suggested we sit. Without taking his eyes off the periodical he was reading, Bob said, “Thanks again, Cleveland.”
Minutes later, Cleveland headed our way, ready to take our orders. As she marched toward the counter, weaving through tables and chairs, I heard a voice coming from the television at the end of the counter. The barely audible voice belonged to a newscaster wearing a seemingly grave countenance. As the screen faded to black and the newscaster disappeared, I didn’t realize what he was talking about until the once pleasant chatter that resonated in the Green Owl was abruptly muted by television’s somber cry of “Taps,” which coursed solemnly through the room. Everyone stopped, including Cleveland, who stood motionless at the end of the counter. Captivated by the television, she watched the names and ages of the soldiers who were killed that week in Iraq scroll across the screen. Until then, I had never seen Cleveland stop moving. Now, she was a statue.
His eyes briefly distracted from the New York Post, Bob muttered “Jesus,” just under his breath. “Taps” still playing and everyone still focused on the television, Cleveland shrieked, “Who wants to sing!” Puzzled, I watched as she walked nervously toward the end of the counter, and tuned a radio to the Boca Raton’s Oldies station, which happened to be commercial break at the time. Cleveland searched desperately for the television’s remote as “Taps” continued to play over the radio advertisements. Once she found it, she turned the television off immediately as an older man, sitting on the other side of the counter, lamented, “How could you sing to a song like that?” Cleveland turned off radio, and the room was silent.
Whether it was patriotism, sadness, or mere confusion, The Green Owl was genuinely moved by the tribute to the soldiers. I was moved as well. The diner’s response to this tribute, if nothing else, proved that America does still care. Despite the controversy and bitter sentiment surrounding the war, Americans still care about the men and women, a world away, fighting for our country.
Tributes such as this are often overlooked. They confront us monthly if not weekly, and we invariably run from them. Like Cleveland, we desperately struggle to maintain normalcy, avoid a potentially painful moment, and continue with our lives. The Saturday morning I spent at the Green Owl taught me that we cannot. We cannot disregard the names and ages scrolling across the screen. We cannot look past the men, women and children they leave behind. We cannot avoid these tragic misfortunes to spare ourselves the potentially painful moments. Instead, we must face them, embrace them, and honor them, as a country.
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