If you’re ever washing your hands in my bathroom sink at home — and let’s denote that with our “editor/reader” relationship has apparently changed — you may notice a small ceramic turtle hanging out.

There’s another one in the guest bathroom at my house as well. Just a toy turtle, barely a knickknack.

It may remind you of childhood or cheap gifts or the time you couldn’t square away if a turtle is amphibian or reptile.

But it reminds me of veterans.

When I was a young journalist in an apartment about the size of my current desk, I didn’t have two bathrooms with sinks or a washing machine or dryer. So every few weeks I lugged my clothes to the laundromat about 11 p.m. There were fewer people and more machines open.

Being laundry night, I wore the dregs. Barely clothing but nothing that was going to get me arrested. And I put on my hat — the one that had a petty officer insignia and USS New Orleans (LPH-11) label on it.

As I awaited the spin cycle, I was flipping through a three-month-old provided edition of Newsweek when the town’s local homeless man walked in. I didn’t know much about him. He’d occasionally get water at the ice cream store where I worked to supplement my reporter paycheck.

But there was a backstory. Supposedly he was a Vietnam vet who was kind but troubled and slept most nights in the park. Didn’t speak much, if at all. Just “Water, please. Thank you” and that was about all you ever heard from him.

We exchanged glances and smiled. I went back to learning months-old political news and he walked away.

And then he walked back and looked at me — and then my cap.

He glanced at it and then looked inquisitively at me.

“My hat? My ship,” I said.

He smirked and walked away.

A few moments later, he returned. Not saying a thing, he took my hand and placed a small toy turtle in it — the type you’d get in a kid’s pack of dinosaurs and beasts. The turtle was brown and yellow with oddly red eyes. He looked at me again, smirked again and walked away.

It’s one of those moments I think back to when it comes to Veterans Day. Certainly, there are other moments as well — watching a ceremony of Marines salute the island of Iwo Jima as the New Orleans transited by it 50 years after the battle; looking at some of the last World War I vets struggle to stand when I was in middle school.

But this moment was just between him and me.

I don’t know what his veteran status was. Maybe he recognized the hat because he once deployed on the ship. Perhaps he knew someone else on it. But there was a moment when he gave me a turtle — which is an amphibious creature.

And New Orleans was, technically, considered an amphibious ship.

He left and I returned home, reached a few feet over and placed the toy on my sink — where it remained until it moved with me, as it has done for decades now.

At some point, it was lost in a move — but it was replaced by another turtle. And with a new sink came another.

We don’t need physical reminders of veterans. We know they and their sacrifices are among us every day.

But there is something to seeing a flag, a ceremony or a ceramic turtle to push it into our reality.


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