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Thanks from the heart

While two Navy veterans in a party of eight share their experiences in and after World War II, an anonymous couple pick up the four couples' $170 dinner tab to show their appreciation for the sacrifices made by the war's heroes.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000

NORTH REDINGTON BEACH -- It had been a while since the food and cocktails had settled.

Yet this party of eight, who had come to the Wine Cellar in North Redington Beach to celebrate a 54th and a 46th wedding anniversary, still didn't have a bill.

Coffee and cheesecake had already been served, and the glow from the candle had dimmed by the time the conversation and laughter subsided. The four couples, who all live at Town Shores condominiums in Gulfport, shared stories that night -- about their grandchildren, their marriages, their experiences in World War II.

Now, everyone at the table-for-eight knew Bruce MacMurray, 74, served on the battleship Arkansas at Normandy and that Jack Cummings, 72, served on the destroyer Ellison shortly after the war was over.

What they didn't know was that someone else was listening.

At the next table, a young, seemingly uninterested couple waited with their heads turned down as the table asked the waitress for their checks. The couple were eavesdropping again when she bent down on one knee.

"I don't have your check, but I do have a message from a little angel," waitress Lauran Pickard said in a soft voice.

She then read from a small sheet of white paper: "Please accept this small token of gratitude; for those with attitude; I'm afraid there will never be another generation, like our heroes from World War II. Thank you for serving your country and ensuring that we all are free!!!"

The bill, more than $170, had been paid by the anonymous author of the note.

Taken aback, every person in the group scanned each other's faces, then the room, looking for signs about who might be responsible. Their eyes stopped for a moment, then passed right over the quiet table-for-two sitting no more than two feet away from them.

"I wish I had a picture of all of our faces at that moment," said Betty Cummings, 71. "We were all sitting there with our mouths open."

Three days later, the group of eight friends gathered around a coffee table in the Cummings' Gulfport condo. A copy of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, which chronicles stories from people who lived through World War II, sat on the table. Bruce MacMurray wore a navy polo shirt with USS Arkansas sewn on the front.

And everyone was still trying to figure out who wrote those words.

The group wasn't talking that loudly, said Mrs. Cummings. But their voices might have been carrying more than they realized because some in the group are hard of hearing. Also, because her husband's larynx was removed, Jack Cummings speaks in a low monotone that carries farther than most.

"I wonder how long they stayed," she said. "There was this couple in the corner, see. I think it might have been them, but I don't know. It could have been anyone."

"You would think they'd want to stay around," said Doris MacMurray, 73. "It could be anyone of those people. We can only guess."

The hand gestures probably attracted attention, Bruce MacMurray said. Shortly after ordering a loin of pork for himself and his wife, he was pointing to the ceiling at either side of the room to describe his crew's sleeping arrangements.

"On the boat we used to have to sleep in a row of hammocks, and I was telling everyone how if one guy hooked his hammock up the wrong way, that meant another guy couldn't sleep. And if that happened, well, then all hell would break loose."

Jack Cummings then followed up MacMurray's story with another example of what happens when hundreds of men live together on one ship.

"I was telling them how, on the destroyer, our lockers were on the floor underneath bunks that slept three people high," he said. "And how if we needed something, the guy on the bottom bunk would be yelling and screaming and cussing if we tried to get it out."

All four couples have gotten to know each other over the past five years. Last Saturday, Jack and Betty Cummings along with Paul and Marcia Hanrahan were celebrating both Mary Ann and Jim Istler's 46th and Bruce and Doris MacMurray's 54th wedding anniversaries. They arrived a little before 6 p.m., just in time to order the Early Bird Special.

The couple sitting next to them were in their mid- to early-30s, Pickard said. They both wore glasses. The woman had blond hair tied in a small ponytail. The man was wearing dress pants and had brownish hair. They both ordered beef Wellington.

"The man walked up to me and asked me if I would give him the check for the eight top," Pickard said. "He paid with his credit card and then gave me the note to read to them. They didn't want me to tell them who they were."

Pickard got a $25 tip.

"We would like to thank them for more than just the bill -- that's just monetary," said Jim Istler, 66, who was present at the table that night, but not in the war 50 years ago. "We want to thank them for the attitude and respect they showed for those who served in World War II."

Both Bruce MacMurray and Jack Cummings said they don't tell their Navy stories often. When they got back from the war, they bought houses with white picket fences, they started families -- they didn't talk about war, MacMurray said.

Today, however, the younger generations are asking questions. They are reading Brokaw's book and traveling to Europe to visiting the beaches of Normandy or the cemeteries in Italy. They are picturing their fathers or grandfathers as young men fighting for their country.

"There was a time when the general population didn't think what these guys did was important," Jim Istler said. "But now that time has passed, it seems like young people are having more respect."

Bruce MacMurray, sitting next to a window overlooking Boca Ciega Bay, his hands and eyes moving along the uneven horizon, told the story of what the scene at Normandy looked like from behind the barrel of a gun. He spent 13 days behind that gun, a duty that he doesn't consider heroic, just a part of what he had to do to get back home.

"I never saw anybody I killed," he said. "I was at Normandy for 13 straight days but luckily I never had to see it up close. It was as far away from me now as the Don CeSar."

At that moment, everybody in the condo was on the boat with him.

The words printed on the small piece of paper last Saturday night suggest the mystery couple felt the same way.

"I still get goose pimples whenever I read what they wrote," Betty Cummings said. "I'd like to find them, but I don't think they did it for the glory. They probably don't want to be found."

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