Webster (Noah, not I) defines, in part, the word “awe” as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence or admiration.”
I will (I hope) shortly celebrate my 49th birthday. When considering the many places I have visited in my four dozen years to date, when I think of the untold number of people I have met, when I contemplate any number of amazing scenes I have seen unfold, have listened to or been informed of “awe” is a definition I would have to reserve for very few instances.
I remember being in awe when I first saw the refurbished interior of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. I was riveted into silence and contemplation comparable to awe when seeing metropolitan New York stretched out as far as my eyes could see on a sunny Friday morning from 5,000 feet in the air and realized that, in a glance, I was looking, as it were, at several million people.
Over the years I have met numerous sports stars of the highest magnitude. While impressed, awe would not be the appropriate definition.
In short, I had not yet — so far as I can recall — ever met a another person for whom I would reserve the definition of “awe.” Until Saturday.
On Saturday I had the great good fortune to speak for several minutes with retired Navy Lieutenant Mike Thornton, recipient of the Medal of Honor, thus fulfilling a lifelong wish to meet someone who had been accorded our nation’s highest honor.
For the first time that I am aware of, I had goosebumps as a person approached me. Around his neck, resplendent on its blue ribbon, was the Navy version of the Medal of Honor. I was nearly speechless and was delighted when Thornton broke the ice, his booming voice declaring “Hi! Pleased to meet you. I am Mike.”
“Mudd” was the name I wanted to reply with, but I managed to get my own name out and to return his firm, manly handshake, whereupon I immediately blew the whole moment by telling him how honored I was to meet a Medal of Honor winner — which I knew was not the way to address someone awarded the distinction.
“Recipient,” he corrected me, a gleam in his eye. “It belongs to the people; but by God’s grace I have been chosen to wear it.”
I had seen heroism before. In its purest form, I witnessed heroism in the faces and voices of the two young girls and one toddler boy I went decades ago on a tour of St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital in Memphis. I remember praying that night as devoutly as I knew how that God would visit His Mercy on the innocent sick and that I might, when most needed, be able to show half the courage that permeated off those three children.
Now I was face-to-face with a courage I could not even begin to comprehend: capital ‘C’ Courage in the face of the enemy, and I said as much to Mike, as he insisted I call him.
“I know it sounds like it is off a cheap card, but really, you never know until that moment arrives,” he said. “All I did was what anyone would have done for me.”
The following words, from his Medal of Honor citation, prove otherwise.
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while participating in a daring operation against enemy forces. PO Thornton, as Assistant U.S. Navy Advisor, along with a U.S. Navy lieutenant serving as Senior Advisor, accompanied a 3-man Vietnamese Navy SEAL patrol on an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation against an enemy-occupied naval river base. Launched from a Vietnamese Navy junk in a rubber boat, the patrol reached land and was continuing on foot toward its objective when it suddenly came under heavy fire from a numerically superior force. The patrol called in naval gunfire support and then engaged the enemy in a fierce firefight, accounting for many enemy casualties before moving back to the waterline to prevent encirclement. Upon learning that the Senior Advisor had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, PO Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant’s last position; quickly disposed of 2 enemy soldiers about to overrun the position, and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious Senior Naval Advisor to the water’s edge. He then inflated the lieutenant’s lifejacket and towed him seaward for approximately 2 hours until picked up by support craft. By his extraordinary courage and perseverance, PO Thornton was directly responsible for saving the life of his superior officer and enabling the safe extraction of all patrol members, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.“
Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon in a White House ceremony on October 15, 1973.
Since then he was probably heard all the words I said to him, in some form or the other, several thousand times. To be gushed over and feted is, I am sure, gratifying but also old hat. I am sure it comes with territory.
All I can say is that I was in awe.