"That's the most beautiful thing — that flag," Helen Harris whispered to me in her thick, Greek accent, as the Boy Scouts hoisted Old Glory last week, on a warm, blustery Veterans Day.
During World War II, Harris had been the official translator for the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Greece.
She smiled into the sun, as the wind caught the flag.
Nearby, a woman in a wheelchair spontaneously started singing "You're a Grand Old Flag," bringing cheers and smiles from the assembled veterans and onlookers at Sunrise Senior Living in Huntington Beach, an assisted-living and memory care community on Yorktown Avenue near City Hall.
Jennifer Tremble, who is in charge of planning events for the facility, had invited me over, and I'm glad she did. I had not driven up to this property for more than 10 years, not since researching the remains of the old Northam Ranch House for a book I was working on (more on that in an upcoming column).
A warm, inviting place, Sunrise of Huntington Beach also happens to be home to many veterans.
There's former World War II Navy man Joe Goss, who enlisted when he was 17. Glen Church enlisted at 14, but when the Navy found out about his age, they gave him the boot and told him to come back after school. So he did.
There's Watson Groce, another Navy vet. He served in two wars and also enlisted at 17 years of age. Jack Hardacre served in the Air Force and was stationed in Alaska for four years.
And the list goes on.
George Karabedian served in the Navy, along with Edward Bryen, Donald "Whitie" Stanforth, Helen Johnson and Donald Braid.
Thomas Blake was in the Air Force for 20 years. Hy Tekler joined the Army at 19, and Paul Taylor joined the Marines at 17.
Looking at all of them today, identified with red, white and blue ribbon pins, it's interesting to imagine them as teenage soldiers — the same age as the kids across the street at Huntington Beach High School. But that's what they were: gutsy, brave, patriotic teenagers.
And they all live at Sunrise, quiet heroes one and all.
After the ceremony, Harris sat with me for a while to talk about her life. Clutching a small, worn photo album stuffed with pictures, notes and other shreds from a full, passionate life, she discussed her childhood in Constantinople and her husband, who passed away recently. She spoke of her two sons and her grandchildren.
And her life before the Communists took everything.
"Not so bad, though," she said. "Because it was after that we came to America. The most incredible place. The place that saved our lives after the war."
Harris was a gifted athlete, winning medals for Greece in several track events — she showed me the pictures. The striking, raven-haired young woman in the black-and-white images was gifted in another area, too: language. She became fluent in Greek, Polish, German, English and French, which made her invaluable as a translator.
"I was in Germany," she leaned over and whispered, "and I was introduced to Adolf Hitler. Very strange moment. He told me I spoke perfect German and he asked me how this was so, given that I was from Greece. I explained to him that I had a German nanny when I was young, and that I picked it up from her."
With her eyes open wide and she shrugged as if to say, "What was I to do?"
"He saw me in Poland once as well," she continued. "And remembered me. Came right over to say, hello."
She is also an expert in accounting; for 27 years Harris worked at Bank of America
Harris' old world demeanor and experiences seem exotic today because they are. But she is tied together with many other seniors at Sunrise for making a difference during wartime.
George Washington said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."
For all of the veterans at Sunrise, and throughout Huntington Beach, we appreciate you and salute all that you have done for us and for this country. May every day be Veterans Day in the sense that the appreciation and gratitude we in the community feel never wanes or wanders.
On a related note, many of you may be familiar with a column favorite here: Huntington Beach's own Avenged Sevenfold, currently in the midst of a world tour in support of their No. 1 album, "Nightmare." On Thanksgiving, the band will not be home with their families. Rather, they will be in Iraq playing for the troops. Bravo, Avenged Sevenfold. Way to make this city proud, and we wish you a great show in front of the soldiers.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.