Something about the way he walked made me stop thinking about myself for a moment. I couldn’t see his eyes, or register an idea about his attitude or what he might be thinking. The four legged cane tipped me off to him though. In bold black letters, a phrase you could only see if you were looking at the cane at all, said simply WWII Vet.
About 90 something that would make him.
I was off to the side so I quietly walked behind him and gave him my spot in line. The teller called him by name. I couldn’t see it, but she made him smile. He took his time, and spoke softly with her about her day, and she winked at me, because I too was smiling. He moved slowly, steadily, surely. At the end of the transaction he asked for another, did she have any two dollar bills. Her reply was practiced. A numismatist I thought. Still my eyes kept falling on that simply typed affidavit. I was present in his world now. No rush, no time frame at all to make important, just a moment to savor, a conversation with a familiar face.
Cutler Bay is not the small town it once was, Perrine is the still the name used to describe the location I was at. I imagine this fella has outlived people half his age, and maybe even a child. Certainly a wife. Or two. He was the age my dad would be today if he were still alive. He drove there, under his own steam.
I couldn’t cash that check. I am old enough that a bank policy like cashing checks that say cash on them is no longer allowed. Life is changing around me some days like a tornado. I wish I could package it into a bottle like tinker bell in her bed. So much living goes on in a life. Frustration passed like a gray cloud in June and I just turned and began to leave. My cane fella was there at the coffee station for a free cup of coffee. Just as I thought his face was leathered and kind, full of gorgeous liver spots and a few band aids to boot.
“Thank you” I said, “for serving in that war and for fighting for the future I have now.”
His eyes so kind began to cloud, not with anger but with a heavy burden of memory. “My God I hope no one ever has to do anything like that again.”
“My father was in that war.”
“Really, where was he? Europe?”
“Yes I think he wandered all over Europe. He really liked German beer!”
Still with his own teeth, he smiled at me,” Me too!”
Then he asked me how old I thought he was. I was trying to do the math, knowing my dad died about 13 years ago at 78 and he was just 18 when he went in,” and this fella was still here.
I remembered my father, “My dad was a peaceful man, the most peace wanting man I have ever known. The war made him that way.”
“I was the first platoon on the ground after the bomb.” His face held all the intensity he could pry from his small aged orbs. I could not imagine. “You could not imagine,” he said.
“When I was a young girl my dad and I discussed the bomb and I was a headstrong 13 year old saying how could anyone do that, we are awful! Etc…and he shook his head in agreement, saying it was. And yet he would have been on the next infantry ships to fight if it hadn’t been dropped. And he wouldn’t be here. “
It had been the first time in my life that experience had afforded me a much needed opinion stopper in my too often over opinionated mouth.
There was even more for me in this man. His eyes never left mine, except to gaze down for a moment, only to rise once again with that intensity before he spoke.
“See this scar here on my leg?” I did, it ran the length of his right shin just under his knee. “See this foot? I don’t have a heel anymore.” The shoe was misshapen; almost an oval to keep what was left of his foot inside. Again he began “I was in the first infantry division to land after the bombs were dropped. It was awful. It was so awful. “He had me for the rest of the day if he needed.
A young man of about 30 interrupted about that time. He asked us to step aside so he could get a cup of coffee. He was being patient, for Miami. My friend had a hard time standing on those melted feet, I could tell. I was mesmerized in my mind just hoping this guy would look at his feet, his cane, at the cup in his hand and the left buttock so precariously holding onto the coffee station so he could speak to me.
“Excuse me, can I get some coffee? Could you move please so I can get in to get a cup of coffee-“
“Come over here” my hand guided my friend, my dad friend, my hero from another day over just a step so this man could push his way to the coffee. In Miami sometimes coffee means more than dignity. But that’s another story.
“We walked down these roads, everything was dead and like jelly and stinking. There were some people left, they were raiding other villages for their children and eating them, they had posted skulls on sticks, like they were saying stay out! Or else!” His eyes were melting now. I was in his memory too. I was marching. My stomach was in the same 18 year old body of the boys who marched off the boat onto degraded soil. My heart was in my father, no longer here, but definitely there, while he looked at me and spoke the horror that had not left his memory for all these years.
For one more day he could sigh some relief, in the telling of it, laid the burden to be shared, as these burdens are supposed to be shared by countrymen. In the telling of it he also laid the responsibility again where it should land, on a voter, a citizen, that I may never forget his horror.
Jimmy Carter was getting some press this week. Funny how as he has gotten older, people just can’t get enough of him. So a reporter posed a question to him. “Mr. Carter, what would you say you are the most proud of about your presidency?”
Jimmy Carter spoke without hesitation. “I did not lead my country into war, not one time during my presidency.” In the historical retrospective we can weigh things with; I believe my dad and my new friend would be proud of anyone in office who could make that claim. There is good reason to fight war. Just ask a veteran.