I was finishing up a hot, salted pretzel with melted cheese at Subway recently. My wife was doing some shopping at Walmart, and I was along for the ride. But the salted, baked dough drew me away from the sock isle, so God bless the little things in life. That is when he came in. And that is when I learned a little about prejudging people without knowing anything about them except how they look.
As I dipped my last piece of pretzel in the cheese, a man came into the Subway space. His hair was not so long as it was frazzled…windblown in a not so attractive way. His beard appeared to be a blotchy three day growth and his mustache was long and drooping over his mouth. He had on a camouflage shirt and sweat pants with no-name gym shoes on. If I had to guess his age, he might have been anywhere between 60 to 70 years old.
In an instant, he pulled a chair right up to the counter and sat down right in front of the register. He stared at the teenage girl working the counter that evening for what was to me an uncomfortable amount of time. The first thing that came to my mind was “What the….?” As in many trips to Walmart, I felt I was going to see something that I never saw before so I cupped my ear to better hear where this was going, if and when he should speak. I was seated about 10 feet from the action and was ready to rescue the girl if things went bad.
Of course, with my own aged knees, it would have taken me some time to leap into action, but that is another story. Sixty-eight year old legs do not respond quickly to messages from the brain. It was then that he bent down, pulled up his left pant leg, and removed his artificial limb. He rubbed the stump for a minute or two, then put the leg (from the knee down) back on, returned his pant leg back into place, stood up, and pulled a note from his pocket.
I was embarrassed by my quick reaction that trouble just sat down. He spoke softly, slowly, and almost bashfully as he placed his order for four foot-longs. Reading from the note, he completed his order. I was into the moment by this time, and I approached him. Politely I told him I saw that he lost a limb, and asked if he would mind sharing what happened to him. Keep in mind that I have never gone up to a stranger and asked such personal questions before, but I was drawn to this man.
His answer hit me in the gut. I am sure that my face got red as my own emotions regarding his answer brought up some long suppressed memories of my own. “Lost it in Viet Nam,” he answered simply. Just then the teen rang up his order and asked how he wanted to pay for it. I told her that I would get it which opened up a small debate between myself and the stranger. I said it was the least I could do as he paid so much on the battlefield. I won the argument as I told him that I spent a couple of tours in Nam myself. He was a marine and we joked about who needed who the most…the marines needing the Special Forces or vice versa.
After we talked about when, and where and the why’s of how we spent our time so many years ago in a jungle on the other side of the world, I found out that he was my age, was a “region rat”, now lived in Vegas and liked to come back to NW Indiana once a year to go fishing and visit with old friends. I thanked him for his service and he turned and started to walk away. I sat back down and finished my cold drink, lost in thought.
It was shortly after that I felt someone standing beside me on my blind side. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see this walking-wounded veteran looking down at me. I no longer saw the mismatched clothes, or the straggly hair or the answer to my “what the?” from minutes before. I saw clarity in his eyes and a smile. His hand was outstretched waiting for a traditional handshake. I extended my hand and he spoke softly, slowly and clearly.
“Thanks for the sandwiches. It has been 45 years since I got home and you are the first person who has ever done anything like this for me. Just wanted you to know that meeting you was special.” I could barely hold back my own tears and mumbled “no problem, sir” as we both felt a little weird, but in a good way. He turned and walked away, and I spotted my wife at the checkout counter. She asked who was the guy I was talking with since she knows I am not a talk-to-strangers kind of person.
So, what is the point, Dan? The point is that Memorial Weekend will soon be upon us. The point is not a stranger buying a stranger a sandwich. The point is that there are so many walking wounded men and women that cross all of our paths every day who wore the uniform of the U.S. armed forces. Much of their pain and injuries are mental. It is easy to see a man’s artificial limb in one hand while massaging a stump of a leg with the other and think, “Oh, let me buy him a sandwich”. What about all the survivors who have been in all the wars we have been involved in that walk around each day struggling to just maintain. There are ghosts that fill the dreams of so many, ghosts of horrors that few can ever comprehend unless you too walked in their shoes.
Memorial Weekend is a time to honor these people. To realize and appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families made to keep us safe and free. Whether one’s leg is torn away in a firefight in the jungles of Vietnam, or a soul is twisted and crushed from man’s inhumanity to man during times of combat in the Mideast, men and women come home from war changed. They need love and patience and understanding and space. They need to be acknowledged, even if only on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Weekend. It is in the power of every person that reads this story to buy a sandwich for a vet, or cut the grass for an old timer who helped to secure your rights as a U.S. citizen…and say thanks.
Nobody who has seen the things our military has seen, or been called upon to do the things that they are called upon to do should ever sit alone and wonder what it was all for. Oh, we will be embarrassed when you say thanks for your service…we will not want you to buy us lunch…we will try to refuse your help even though it may truly be needed. Extend yourself, and appreciate those brave men and women who have given so much. A good place to start is visiting Calumet Park cemetery over Memorial Weekend. Find time to share an hour of your life in showing you care. The official Memorial Day Service at Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville will be May 28 at 1:00 p.m. Invite your friends and take the opportunity to show you care.
Call 219-769-8803 for information on prearranging for your cemetery and funeral needs