It was crowded in Old Town Albuquerque on Balloon Fiesta weekend. Tourists scurried across intersections, jostled gratefully under shaded porticos, bunched in restaurant doorways. A mixture of urgency and festivity filled the air. Tour buses groaned through the narrow streets bordering the central plaza. The church, San Felipe de Neri, surveyed all with serenity and grace.
On a side street, a small crowd gathered in front of a local bookstore. Behind it, the worn golden adobe walls undulated past a tiny window of wavy glass. The ancient wood of the door, once stained, had faded and split from years of sun and dusty heat.
A low bench supported a row of resting ladies, Native Americans, their gaze focused on a folding table set up on the rough brick sidewalk. At the table, I saw eightelderly men, all dressed in gold and red uniforms. As I approached, I could see that each man's open-collared gold shirt had military decorations on the left side. Their red hats and jackets had insignia declaring them to be veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps.
"What's going on?" I asked a bystander as I strolled by.
"They're the Navajo Code Talkers," he replied.
I stopped abruptly. Here, before me, were real military heroes from World War II. I ran inside the store to buy the book they were autographing to raise funds for Navajo scholarships. As I waited in line, leafing through my purchase, I learned that these men had saved the U.S. war effort by sending coded messages that had stumped the Japanese, who had never failed at cracking U.S. military codes before.
The code of the Navajos worked because it was based on their ancient language, unknown to the Japanese or the Germans, who had previously learned other Native American languages. The code talkers were further endangered because they were among the first waves of assault landings, by necessity, to establish vital communication centers at the onset of each military operation.
Coming back to the present, I waited in awe for the rare opportunity to speak with these men. I wanted to take their pictures but, ignorant of their customs, refrained. Suddenly it was my turn.
Tears heated my eyes as I shook hands with the first man, W.V. Oliver, his dry, gnarled hand touching me with history. He made sure that I noticed he'd written his birth date, 5-2-21, rather than his military unit. "Good thing I didn't write my age!" he joked, his brown eyes twinkling at me.
"Thirty-nine?" someone called, and we all laughed. Down the line I went, following my book, which each writer handed carefully to the next man. I admired their jewelry, bolo ties, rings and bracelets set with stones of turquoise and coral wrapped in silver. They were quiet as they wrote.
I wondered how tired they were, how long they had been sitting in the sun, patiently moving arthritic fingers to form slow letters over and over again. I wanted to buy them water, sandwiches. What could I do for these heroes who had done so much for us?
"Thank you! Thank you for your service!" I kept repeating. Overwhelmed with the moment, it was all I could think of. I meant so much more. In response to my stammered thanks, seamed brown faces relaxed into gentle smiles. Walking away, I dashed a last tear from my eye, feeling as if I'd been to church, thoughtful and reverent. My world had genuflected at the feet of these simple men, as history became personal on a sunny day in Old Town Albuquerque.