Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Throwing a Nickel on the Grass

Michael Salsbury
My friend Bob died last year. Bob flew jets with the 456th Fighter Intercept Squadron in the Vietnam war, and talked about having to eject from his plane and survive alone in the jungle for days.  That story stuck with me because it was the only time I'd ever seen him so somber and serious.  (He was normally very friendly and happy.)  After he passed away, I received an email sent to many of his friends.  One of his friends told his widow that in an old fighter pilot tradition, he would toss a nickel on the grass for Bob.

Having never been a pilot, or even in the military, I had not heard of this tradition.  I did a bit of research and found that it refers a song that contains the line "throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot's a__".  It's an expression of respect and a wish of good luck for a fellow pilot.

Bob had always been great to me, and I honestly don't think I appreciated him as much as I should have when he was alive.  He was an excellent storyteller.  He took a genuine interest in others, even those he barely knew.  He smiled often, and it was a smile that simultaneously looked mischievous and sweet.  His death hit me a lot harder than I expected it would, and I regretted not having spent more time with him.

I told myself that, at his grave site, I'd toss a nickel on the grass to honor him.  On the morning of the funeral, I forgot to put one in my pocket.  That's probably just as well, as I think I'd have felt funny doing it in front of all those who attended the funeral.

About a month later, I took a large jar of coins to one of those Coinstar machines to exchange for a gift certificate.  I fed coin after coin into the machine.  Every so often, it spit one back out in a rejection tray that was just out of sight.  When I'd fed all the coins I had in the jar to the machine, I reached down into the "reject bin" and pulled out the ones the machine hadn't taken.  I re-fed these into the machine.  It accepted some and rejected others.  When I'd gotten it to accept as many as it would, I put the rest in the jar and picked out a gift certificate.  On the way out of the store, I looked down in the jar and realized that all the coins the machine had rejected were nickels!  I took this as a sign.

Remembering the promise I'd made to myself but never kept, I took one of those nickels and drove immediately to the cemetery where Bob was buried.  His grave was alone in a new section of the cemetery.  For a man who always took such a genuine interest in others, seeing him alone like that was painful.  His headstone hadn't even been delivered yet, so all that marked the site was a rectangular patch of dirt.  Had I not been there for the funeral, I would not have known where to find it.  I hadn't felt that kind of sadness in years.  Fighting the tears in my eyes, and the lump in my throat, I tossed the nickel into the air above the grass next to his grave and said goodbye. 

Wherever you are, Bob, I hope that nickel provided the salvation the song promised.  You deserve it.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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