Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 19th, 2009 Boulder, Colorado

The sign flashed 5:22, and just below it on an old wooden bench a man grizzled and weather worn stared up at me behind thick prescription lenses.
“You know you’re lucky you get to wear your uniform in public. When I was in if we wore our fatigues, which is what they used to call ‘em, I’d get shit thrown at me, spat on, and screamed at.”
It wasn’t difficult to figure out.
“You were in Vietnam?”
‘Yes sir I was.”
I walked over to him and offered my hand.
“Thank you for what you did. It means a lot to me when I hear about how it was to serve when you were hated for it. I can’t imagine the hell you went through coming home to that, but let me tell you that my generation knows the real story behind it and we’re all thankful.”

His hand shook independent of his controlled movement with a slight hint of tremors, and his voice reflected the same term.
“You’re welcome. We did what we had to do, it wasn’t pretty but we knew it was important. Have you  been to Iraq and are coming home?”
I knelt down to have the conversation with him at his level.
“You know sir, I haven’t gone yet, but I wouldn’t hesitate to go if the opportunity arose.”
“Well son, that kind of attitude is important. It means you’re exactly where you need to be. Here, I want you to have this.”
His hand shook as he pulled out his wallet.
“Now I know what you’re going to say, they all say it. They tell me ‘You don’t need to do that’ when as a matter of fact I do. I need to do this because I want to thank you in advance for your career in the US military son.”

I swallowed and my mind sped at a million miles an hour, all kinds of emotion welling up. I didn’t deserve this, he couldn’t afford this, how do I say no, what should I do? But no answers.
He pulled out a hundred dollar bill.
“No sir, I can’t take that. I’m only doing my job, its what I want to do.”
“Now you listen here. You are serving, and at some point you’ll need to accept others saying thank you. I do my part in supporting you boys out there, I send you all care packages out in the field and put in a word to the good Lord on your behalf. I want you to take this and take that lovely girl out to dinner. Somewhere real nice. That’s what I want you to do. Now take it.”
His voice was thick and raspy and his hand shook a little, then he spoke the words that made me turn cold.
"It would give me real joy if you'd take this from me son. My hand's getting tired."

Numbly I reached out and grabbed the largest sum of money a stranger has ever given me.
“Now go’on. Isn’t that your bus? Don’t miss it, she’ll kill you ya know. Don’t keep those women waiting.”
I grasped his hand with both my own and was surprised how much my own voice shook. I thanked him again for setting the standard in serving that I get to follow, and ran to catch my bus as it was pulling away from the curb.
All the most beautiful, right words fled me when I needed them the most. 
I was left without them when I could have used them to build into an old man’s life, but instead he used them to build into me. I sat on the bus silent. Staring out the window and going over and over in my head through every range of human emotion known to man.
There was a million things I could have said or done differently to show him how much I appreciated him, I could have missed my bus and taken the next one as we sat and talked about life, how I wasn’t able to be deployed for at least another year -- I could have asked him about his life and his children, grandchildren, and perspectives on faith...
But I didn’t.
I got on the bus incredibly blessed by someone I spent six minutes of my life with, and wasn’t able to properly thank. 

I’ll never understand why it works that way.

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