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Who I Met at the Tea Party: A Veterans Day Tribute

2:55 PM, Nov 11, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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When I attended Michele Bachmann's impromptu rally against Pelosi's health-care bill last week, I met a lot of just-plain-good folks. Media accounts ignored them in favor of a sprinkling of offensive signs, although the Huffington Post wasn't able to muster even 12 offensive signs from the rally of more than 10K. At times, coverage suggested the animating emotion of every attendee was "hatred." Irresponsible commentators multiplied offensive signs to fit their narrative-in Paul Krugman's hands, one documented Holocaust sign at the rally became "large signs showing piles of bodies."

If one cared to be fair to the attendees, however, it was easy to find a stream of kind, determined, involved, ordinary Americans. And, occasionally, a truly extraordinary one.

Gruss.jpg
Fremont Gruss, left, of Minn. talks with Sue Lovell, right, of Maryland after a protest of Pelosi's health-care bill last Thursday. Behind him flies the flag of his regiment, brought back from occupied Japan and preserved by a long line of veterans before him.

Fremont Gruss is one of the extraordinary ones, and today is a good day to honor him. An exceedingly spry 85-year-old Minnesotan, he had traveled from parts north for more than 24 hours on a bus to attend the health-care rally. When I first spotted him (or heard him, I should say), he was seated on a bench on the Capitol lawn after the rally wound down, performing duck calls for Sue Lovell of Maryland, who was delighted by his quacking skills.

He stopped quacking and started laughing when I approached, explaining when I introduced myself, that he and Lovell had just met at the rally. Lovell, whose father was disabled in World War II, had been attracted, not by the duck calls, but by Gruss' hat, which proclaimed his service in the 97th Infantry Division during WWII.

(I later found out that Gruss' duck calls were a left-over skill from the Depression when, as a young man, he hunted duck and pheasant for his family's food. He owned a precious, $3.50 duck-caller, but when he lost it, and couldn't afford a new one, he learned to do them on his own.)

Gruss served from 1943 until after the end of the war, in both the European and Pacific Theaters. His division is credited with firing the last shots of the European Theater in Czechoslovakia, said Gruss, who's also the historian of his local American Legion Post. Shortly after, he and his fellow soldiers were shipped to the Pacific, and would have been among the men sent to invade Japan had the U.S. not ended the war by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"I wouldn't be alive right now if we hadn't dropped the bomb," he said.

Behind the bench, flapping in the late-afternoon wind, was the guidon of Gruss' 303rd regiment, worn almost to translucence in spots, but entirely intact. It had been brought back from Japan after the war by a comrade, carefully guarded through the years, and passed from veteran to veteran as time took its toll on the regiment's numbers.

Gruss is not a conspiracy theorist or an extremist. He did not carry a rude sign or mention with malice the president of the United States. He wore a "Tea Party Patriot" t-shirt and a hat heavy with ribbons, which spoke more clearly about his claim to the title of "patriot" than any shirt could. Why did he come?

"Our freedoms are being taken away," Gruss said, getting specific about his children's and grandchildren's ability to choose their doctors, care, and insurance companies. "I wanted to come here and do my part. If Obamacare comes to be...we'll lose all that."

Lovell chimed in: "I'm here for my children and grandchildren. I just want them to live in the same land of freedom that we were privileged to live in."

Even when they sound mundane-when they're dismissed blithely with legislative promises about "choice" and "competition"-those freedoms are important to Gruss. He considers all of them bought at a very high price.

"The buddies I trained with in 1943," he said, pausing. "Probably about half gave their lives for the freedoms we have today."

Gruss speaks about the war and his lost friends freely, perhaps because he enjoys paying tribute to them, and probably partly because of the distance of time. While I listened to him, he was approached by a woman from a nearby crowd of protesters-a tanned, middle-aged woman in striking green and purple, with long, brown hair.

"You were with the 303rd? I saw the flag from over there and I had to come check," she said, as he nodded, smiling. "I was in Iraq, and the first person we lost was with the 303rd," she said, choking up.

She shook his hand, thanked him for his service, and they shared a short, sad silence for American heroes, lost two generations apart. She hurried away, and I didn't want to spoil their conversation by asking for her information, so I regret I don't know what her name was.

While I sat with Mr. Gruss, a stream of Tea Party protesters-couples, young families, grandparents, teachers-walked by Gruss' bench as they left the Capitol complex. Most of them stopped to shake his hand, thank him for his service, or take pictures with a duck-calling American hero and the tattered flag of the 303rd.

We were all lucky to meet him.