For a long time, I carried Gary Beikirch’s challenge coin. To the White House, to my children’s weddings, across the Grand Canyon. If I thought about it, I’d pull it out and take a picture and send it to him, to tell him that his example and his inspiration were with me.
But he passed away last year, and I took his coin out of my pocket and placed it on the display rack my wife got me one Christmas. I’m not sure why. I just didn’t feel to carry it any more. Maybe it made me sad.
It used to be that challenge coins were earned. Military units would have them made, little medallions with the unit crest or motto or something, or the insignia of rank of the commanding officer passing them out, and they would be awarded as attaboys. I got mine for being soldier of the month. You were expected to carry your coin, and another coin holder could “challenge” you to produce it at any time. If you didn’t, you had to buy a round of drinks or something.
I’m not sure where mine is. I never carried it. I thought it was a goofy ring-knocker tradition, like the grog at a dining-in. It struck me as an officer thing, not an enlisted-man thing.
But about 20 years ago or so they took off. The quality improved, fire and police departments got into them, and they became a collectable. Half the police chiefs you see interviewed in their offices on TV have a rack of coins behind them. They stopped being earned and they started being presented and I got a pretty good collection of them myself. If you MC a police banquet, you get a coin. If you have the Army recruiter on your radio show, you get a coin.
And if enough years pass, you have quite a few to put in a rack and forget about.
But not one to carry. Not like I carried Mr. Beikirch’s.
And that had been on my mind last week when I walked into the Cracker Barrel and saw Kim Smith. I met her at calling hours back in 2010. There had been a long line out the door and around the corner at the funeral home in Hornell. Zach was in his dress blues, killed in Afghanistan at 19, the same age my Uncle Clyde lay in his box in his dress blues the next town over a generation before. It was Zach, dead in our country’s service, and his wife and his mom and his dad and some other relatives, all in a line, shaking hands. Zach’s grandfather had helped my Uncle Al get into the troopers, but beyond that our families hadn’t had much contact.
Zach was the all-American kid. Big smile, bigger heart, high-school sweetheart, football star. And his adult life of service began with an oath and a flag and a raised right hand. And I met his mom at his calling hours.
And there she was at the Cracker Barrel, wearing a t-shirt with his name on it.
We visited for a few minutes, off to the side, exchanging pleasantries, and then she said her good byes and left, but came back a couple of minutes later, from the car in the parking lot, with a coin in her hand.
A challenge coin.
The Eagle, Globe and Anchor on one side, encircled by the words IN MEMORY OF ZACHARY D. SMITH APRIL 2, 1990 – JANUARY 24, 2010. The reverse side was divided into quarters, with the insignia of a lance corporal on the top, and the emblem of the First Battalion, Sixth Marines on the bottom. On the left the number “56” and on the right two pound signs – “##.”
She pressed it into my hand and I mumbled that I was honored and she left.
Standing there, looking down into my palm, I recognized the military insignia, and I presumed that the 56 was the number on his high school football jersey. But the two pound signs were mysteries. Later, I wrote her and asked what they meant.
Their roots go back to when the Smiths’ oldest son, Nate, was in the fifth-grade and playing basketball and things were going poorly and during a timeout the coach was letting the boys know it. Nate, shaken by the chewing out, looked across the gym to his mother who, seeing the upset in the boy’s face, instinctively raised her fist to her chest and pounded it twice over her heart. It was a silent signal of love and support, and it quickly became a mother’s salute to her children, a reminder and promise of her love. Seen by a cheerleading daughter during competitions, and translated into two pound signs written in a mother’s hand at the end of letters sent to a young Marine at Parris Island.
And now cast as a timeless reminder on the back of a young hero’s challenge coin.
Which I will carry with me as a reminder of the best among us, the love they share, and the price they pay.
It’s Zach Smith’s coin, and it’s our challenge to live up to it.