On A Mission

At a 'meet and greet' in Annapolis, retired Army Co. Orville Hughes Hughes battles to preserve history.

February 12, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS - The clock above the door says it's just after 5 p.m., and the reception, the "meet and greet" as lawmakers know it, has barely begun.

In the center of the room, beneath chandeliers and a vaulted ceiling, stands retired Army Col. Orville Hughes. No one who enters the Calvert Room of the State House can get to the fried shrimp and crab puffs without walking by him.

On his hat is a lifetime's worth of medals. On the lapel of his navy blazer is a name tag identifying him as Americanism officer of the Maryland Department of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. At 80, he will pay tomorrow for spending the next three hours on his feet. Tonight, though, he is on a mission.

On a folded-up piece of paper in his pocket are the names of five delegates who serve on the House Ways and Means Education Subcommittee, five who shot down his resolution last year, five he plans to buttonhole before this night is over.

The resolution they killed would have encouraged public school educators to invite veterans into their classrooms twice a year, before Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to educate young people about the sacrifices made in the name of freedom.

For years, Col. Hughes has heard the stories: a teen-ager who thought the Battle of the Bulge was a weight reduction program, a middle-school pupil who asked, "What's a veteran?"

There are so many things he wants Maryland's youth to know, not for the sake of telling old war stories but for the sake of preserving a past in danger of being forgotten. That's why he's here on this Monday night in February.

Republican Sen. Andrew P. Harris has reintroduced the resolution this session, but Col. Hughes is taking the fight to the front lines. As the room begins to fill, he discreetly hands other veterans folded copies of the list in his pocket. He's not sure he will recognize the five delegates when he sees them, so he reads name tags as people walk past.

The clock says 10 minutes after 6 when the first of them, Democratic Del. Mary A. Conroy, walks through the door.

Col. Hughes makes his way across the red-and-gold rug toward her. He says, "I'll low-key it, but I don't mind if she knows I know."

The theater medals on his hat dangle as he turns his shoulders to move through the crowd. One medal represents his time in Germany, during World War II, when he was wounded in the leg. How it felt to lay in the 3-foot ditch, to see his friend captured, to know he was next: That's what he would like young people to know.

In a classroom, he could share what it was like to shake the sleeve of his field jacket and see the smoldering piece of shrapnel drop with a hiss into a puddle. He could pass around the piece of tile from Hitler's house, the tube of toothpaste issued to him as a prisoner of war, his black-and-white photos. And his medals, of course.

Another symbolizes his time in Korea. He wants the state's teen-agers to know what it was like to be camped on the front lines the night the war ended in 1953. How intense the fighting was, how the night turned deathly still.

He modestly left his bronze and silver stars back home in Jacksonville. He doesn't want to intimidate anyone. He only wants his elected officials to know this resolution is important - and important now. He doesn't have to be in this room with other veterans in their 70s and 80s to know his generation is aging. As he says, "We're all aware of our limited time to get the message across."

He waits with a gaggle of other veterans who surround the delegate, each smiling, nodding, biding his time. His is one of 14 proposed bills and resolutions involving veterans. While he waits his turn, the crowd swells and the noise rises. Col. Hughes leans in to listen.

In the chandelier light, his medals sparkle. There are none on his hat to indicate what happened after he came home from Korea. He stayed in intelligence, learned Russian at a school taught by defectors, served as the assistant Army Attache in Austria, moved to East Germany, "played cat and mouse" with Communists during the Cold War, was held at gunpoint once and detained many times.

The resolution, as he sees it, is a chance to pass on such experiences before the men and women who experienced them are gone.

"We need to get these young people exposed," he says to Conroy, when he finally gets her attention. She understands this as well as anyone. Her late husband lost his right arm and the use of his left leg in Korea, at Heartbreak Ridge. It's her affection for veteran's issues that brings her here, where most of the men know her from her other life, as a veterans group auxiliary member.

She tells Col. Hughes she doesn't remember the subcommittee's recommendation last year, that she can't imagine why she would have voted against his resolution.

"I'll let bygones be bygones if you'll support it," he says. They both smile.

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