History Archive

Reunion With a Hero

Posted August 24, 2015 By Reba J. Hoffman, Ph.D.

I wound through the hills and narrow curves until the familiar blue farm house came into view. Though it had been two years since I’d been here, it was almost as though I’d never left. Within moments, Willie Shelton opened the door with his distinctive smile welcoming me inside.

Well into his nineties, Mr. Shelton is a decorated World War II veteran. He was wounded in battle three times. Yet, today he is a mild mannered man who just farms his land and refuses to wear his medals of a distant war on his chest as he just goes on living life.

I met Willie while on the Road to Freedom Bicycle Tour 2013. He’d opened his home to me—a total stranger—and fed me with vegetables right out of his garden. He is humble but there is an unmistakable inner strength that guided him through Europe as an Army infantryman during the height of the big war.

I sat glued to Mr. Shelton on Saturday as he told how he and one other soldier captured fifteen German soldiers and while escorting them to a prison camp, they captured more and more soldiers. By the time the two soldiers reached the prison camp, they had compelled over seventy Germans to lay down their guns and march to the American POW camp.

When he was shot, Mr. Shelton survived by playing dead when the Germans came through, even when they poked him with bayonets to make sure he was lifeless. Once he survived attack by diving into a pile of manure.

As with most World War II veterans I’ve met, Mr. Shelton was not boastful about his experience. He just went. And he fought. Then he came home and lived his life to his fullest in the hills of Tennessee. He received a purple heart and two clusters for his wounds. Though he never ascended above the rank of Private First Class, he did the work of many while on the battlefield in France, Germany, Africa, Italy and Austria.

As I tried desperately to understand what it was like for him to be on another continent fighting for freedom, I also wondered what type of country I’d live in today if it hadn’t been for Willie Shelton. He willingly fought for my freedom over a decade before I was born. I don’t live in tyranny. I am not abused or mistreated, all because a quiet man from Tennessee and thousands just like him went across the ocean, took up arms and defended the most precious gift America as given me—freedom!

It’s not free. Mr. Shelton paid a handsome wage to secure my freedom. He has the scars to prove it. I am honored to know such a man. Today he lives his life in peace in the gentle rolling hills of Tennessee. I know there is nothing I can do to repay him for what he’s done for me. Even if I could, he would never allow it. That’s who he is. He is a patriot. A soldier. A hero.

Thank you Willie Shelton for allowing me to spend time with you once again. Thank you for your sacrifice so I can live in the greatest nation on earth. Because of you, the Heartbeat of America remains alive and well! 

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Days Gone By

Posted October 24, 2014 By Reba J. Hoffman, Ph.D.

Hidden 1TrainAt the back of an inconspicuous building in industrial Greenville, SC, history sits silent, slowly rusting in the elements. Deep within the corridors of the once vibrant passenger train cars, the voices of the past call out, longing for days gone by. Train cars of yesteryear transported countless people and their dreams to cities all over America. Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and points west.

Mothers held tight to their children who had no idea the trip back home to grandmas marked the day their family was torn apart. A young woman spread her wings for the first time and left the security of home in search of her identity and her own way to live life. A doctor answered the call, closed up his practice back east and headed west to provide medical aid on the Navajo Nation.IMG_2303

Each hallway echos with the sound of hope and promise. Each seat holds secrets revealed to a total stranger sitting next to them as tiny towns clicked by out the window. Bellman, porters and conductors mindlessly spouted rote commands to cars of passengers who’s ears were deafened by consuming thoughts of their destination.

Hundreds of miles away to the north, ancient buildings sat abandoned and silent, worn by the fierce winds of Lake Ontario. Railway cars that once carried necessities now rusted on abandoned rails. Just on the other side of the tracks, a graveyard provided the resting place for cars that had seen better days.

Everywhere I looked as I drove through rural upstate New York, I saw remnants of days that had long since retreated into the innermost hiding places of history. Life built up around the history and continued on. Locals don’t even notice the old buildings and other pieces of their past, but I did.

IMG_2306Our history forges our future. Perhaps a young man road that train to Greenville and grew up to become governor and changed the world. Or maybe the old buildings on Lake Ontario housed furs trapped by the Native Americans and grizzly trappers who braved the cold to help America stay warm.

Time does wait for no man. It marches forward with a determination to continue ticking out the hours and days until they become a part of the past, then releases it as if it never were connected. History, on the other hand, is the bedrock of today upon which we build our tomorrows. It is undeniable. Unshakable. Unmistakable. The days gone by point the way. It shows us where we missed and weaves a fabric of hope and future.

I love to reminisce about my days gone by. Yes, even the worst of them are part of who I am and I gain so much wisdom from them. I’m grateful for each one. Many I would not wish to return to but I treasure them all. They whisper to me on a cold dark night. They compel me down the roads of our great nation in search of the heartbeat of America.

Days gone by…


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