Tag Archives: veteran

Jack, the Triple War Veteran, a nonfiction

illustration triple war veteran

Jack, the Triple War Veteran, a nonfiction

I met Jack, the 91-year-old, 52-years-of-service-including-3-wars, Army veteran on May 31st, 2013, approximately two months after I “woke up” from what was [then] my life, when I went to go fill my mom-mobile (white minivan) with mid-grade gasoline products (it may be only a mom-mobile, but i have a NEED FOR SPEED) at the Gate convenience store/gas station two blocks or so from my house.  I saw him sitting over by the vacuum/air/water station, on the round, concrete base of a streetlamp, his sleek, black, wheeled walker/chair thingie so piled up with odds and ends of clothes, shoes, and bags of snacks that it looked more like a shopping cart from across the parking lot.  His hair and beard were striking:  long, silvery white, shiny and silky and clean.  He looked like a very trim, fit Santa Claus, and when I first saw him, I would never have guessed he was 91 years old.  I approached him because I am what some people call a “bleeding heart liberal,” that is, my heart sort of sags and melts when I am confronted with people having needs that, to them, loom insolvable, and in actuality can be solved with a couple of $5 or $10 bills.

“Sir,” I said, “I don’t want to offend you in any way, but do you need anything?  Can I do anything for you?  Anything at all?  Do you need a few bucks, maybe?”

“Honey,” he said.  “I’ve been saving my money all my life!”  He took his wallet out, showed me a bunch of folded bills, and pulled a big stack of quarters out of his shorts’ pocket.  Jack was born in West Virgina, called himself a good, old hillbilly.

“Jack’s a great name,” I said.  “One of my grandpas was named Jack.”

“They named me after the dog!” he said.

“Well, they must have loved that dog,” I said.  “It must have been a terrific dog!”

“They still named me after the dog,” he said.  I have named pets after people, and wanted to do the reverse, just never had the actual opportunity.  (Wait for it!)

“I went to West Virginia once,” I said.  “I was in Morgantown.”

“The University of West Virginia!” he said.

“I know, it’s a beautiful town,” I said.  “And the state is beautiful, all those green hills.”

Turns out, he’s hanging out at the convenience store to get away from his daughter.  “She wants me to be the child, and her to be the parent, now,” he said.  “I’m too old for that!”

“I hear you,” I said.  “Does she know where you are?”

“I don’t really want her to,” he said.  “She lives right down the street, in a house I bought her back in 1972.”

He named his first rifle Miss Betty….

He was with Patton in N. Africa, at just 18 yrs. old, he was for a brief time Patton’s assistant?  Patton’s army was chasing Rommel, he and Jack started arguing over which way Rommel should to go; they disagreed (he & Patton) but Jack turned out to be right.  In a rage, Patton grabbed his (Jack’s) rifle once & shot into the air with it.  Yes, I could see General Patton doing such a thing.  Hahaha.

His daughter, whom he is on the lam from, is nicknamed BooBoo:  she got that nickname because as a baby she’d hide behind cabinets, furniture, poke her head out & say Boo, Daddy, Boo!

He is not married now, he likes it that way, nobody telling him what to do.

When I told him how nice he looked, how he didn’t look 91 at all:  “I take care of myself!  I’ve got to!  People say I’m a loner, but it’s three of us:  me, myself and I.”

God’s on his right shoulder, sometimes God tells him things, what to do or not to do:  sometimes he doesn’t listen, does what he wants, not what God says.  Later, he hears God saying, I told you so.  God has blessed him.  Every time we shook hands, me trying to exit stage right because my own 15 year old BooBoo was at home waiting for me to get back, he said, “God bless you,” and I said, thank you so much.  His eyes, the pale clear blue of a child’s, the twinkle of a child’s, the mischievous, rascally soul shining out of them.  But a good, good man.  Stationed all over the world and the United States of America.  The state of Florida was the site of his last posting.  He got misty-eyed thinking about one of his predeceased children, another daughter, however, he did not mention her name, and because of aforementioned misty-eyed-ness, I did not ask.

They once had a terrible episode of anthrax on the farm, when he was a child?  The cow had to get shots from the vet, they couldn’t use the cow’s milk for 6 weeks, then it was OK.  That cow gave so much milk, she had to be milked three times a day, not just two.

He wore dog tags, wouldn’t let me look at them:  “the last person that sees these is the one who’s supposed to bury me.”

“Well, I certainly don’t want to be the last to see them, then,” I said.

A student buying beer stopped & handed him a tall cold water bottle.  Jack thanked the boy warmly, saying “God bless you,” then after the boy walked off, he handed me the bottle.

“Aren’t you going to need this?” I asked him, concerned.

“I’ve got everything I need right here,” he said, pointing to his loaded “sulky,” a plastic grocery bag hanging:  was that the water?  “Besides,” he said, “that’s too cold.  And besides, I really like beer.”

“But you might need this water later,” I protested.

“Look,” said Jack, “he gave it to me, I’m giving it to you.  I’m just in the middle.”  I had to accept, gracefully, so I did, but I still felt a bit guilty.  The gift was Jack’s, but he wouldn’t keep it, he had to pass it along to me.

The store clerk, a young African American lad, came out to check on us; I think he wanted to make sure I wasn’t endangering Jack.  Jack handed him a huge pile of quarters, asked if he’d bring him out some beer.

“What kind?” the young man asked.

“O.P.,” Jack answered.

The clerk was confused.  “What’s that?” he said?

“Other people’s,” laughed Jack.

“I think he means it really doesn’t matter what kind of beer you bring him,” I said to the young man.  So he went inside with the money, came back out with a boxed six-pack & Jack’s excess change.

A woman, with a hard-lived look, came over to talk to us.  She knew Jack already, addressed him by name.  She was also a veteran, Operation Desert Storm.  She asked me if I could spare some gas money.  “It’s the end of the month,” she explained, “and I’m coming up short.  I just have to make it a few more days.”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that I could at least give her something, fulfill the impulse that had brought me over to Jack.  I went to my purse, grabbed a ten dollar bill.  While I was doing that, I saw Jack getting his money out to give her some, too.  He brought out a fiver.  Jack and I handed her the money, she shook my hand & thanked us both, and went to pump her gas.

Jack was dressed like a cool surfer guy; shorts with a nice braided belt, no shirt, his dog tag necklace, a pinky ring carved out of some sort of jade on his right hand, a couple of funky/hipster/hippy bracelets on his left wrist.  Quite fashionable looking, and I couldn’t get over the condition of his hair; silky & clean & shiny & sparkling silver, and the same with the beard, it grew to a natural point just below his breastbone.  The only long beard I’ve ever seen that looked beautiful!  His skin was amazingly smooth & healthy looking, considering the amount of sun exposure he must’ve seen!  I mean, he was 91 and he had very little sun damage, not many wrinkles, though of course a bit of sagging around the jowls.  No frown lines!  His only physical flaw was some missing teeth; it was apparent he could have had dentures or a bridge if he’d wanted them, but I think he was more comfortable without.

When I was leaving, I blew him a kiss.

“I’d rather have the real thing,” he chuckled.

“I can’t,” I said, “I’m married.”  We both laughed then.  If I had known that day, May 31st, that my husband was going to dump me, unceremoniously, in front of the yard man, in the side driveway, I certainly would have kissed him (Jack!), full on the lips!  Like, a billion times!

[If he’d had all his own teeth, not only might I have given him a closed-mouth smooch, but I probably would have tried somehow to fix him up with my former mother-in-law who live[d] in my attached guest house (that I built for her & her husband, who died 3 years ago, but who would be 91 now) (who was the only decent person in THAT entire FUCKING FAMILY).  Said former “mother in law”
was, and is still, an ignorant idiot and would have been put off by Jack’s missing teeth.  Plus, she is, as we used to say in middle school, “mental.”]  *ahem*  NO FURTHER COMMENT PERMITTED, BY LAW.  Did you know, that for IRS purposes, you can NEVER GET RID OF AN IN-LAW?  Once an “in law” for tax purposes, always an “in law.”  The law presupposes that divorced persons might still have attachments to one another’s family members.  Hahahahaha.  Isn’t that FUNNY?????

Oh, P.S.  I, myself, now have a dog named… wait for it… JACK, a rescue from the Dixie County, Florida animal rescue organization, a sweet one-year-old weimaraner/yellow lab mix!  Jack the dog’s eyes are yellow/green & deep….

Oh, and P.P.S.  And you’re not going to believe this!  On the way to present this piece at an “open mic” at Coffee Culture on 13th Street in Gainesville, Florida, the fabulous Tristan Harvey, emcee & manager of the joint, in any case, ON THE WAY TO THE FUCKING OPEN MIC, i ran in to jack, on the way!  it was raining, i pulled over & asked him if he needed a ride.  he said no, i said, isn’t your name jack, and HE LIED BECAUSE HE THOUGHT I WAS THERE CAPTURING HIM to take him back to his daughter!!!!!!

GODDAMNED TRUE STORY.  BELIEVE IT, OR NOT.

um, but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take my written words as GOSPEL TRUTH.

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Filed under health, humor, legal writing, mysterious, notes, poetry, prose poetry, science, short stories

notes from september 18, 2001: richard

illustration rastafarian man

Notes from September 18, 2001: Richard

That morning, I heard my three-year-old daughter wake up and say with delight, “It’s not dark out anymore.” I went in and saw her already sitting up in bed — the brilliant sunlight streaming in through the pink, translucent curtain of her bedroom — and saw how her head was haloed, as usual, by what resembled the pale, disorderly golden floss some people put on their Christmas trees. Angel hair — she was a tousled, blinking pink-and-gold person, recently emerged from babyhood.

“That’s right,” I said. “It’s not dark out anymore. Good morning.” She flopped back down and remained lying in her bed, even after I folded her white net safety-rail down. “What a beautiful girl,” I said, smiling down at her.

“I can’t get up,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I can’t get up because I’m dead.”

My heart darted out of my chest, chirping and flapping and shedding feathers like a startled wren but somehow I managed to feign businesslike nonchalance and smile reassuringly. “You’re not dead.” The effects of the terrorist attacks one week ago had filtered all the way down to toddlers far away in Florida.

Well, later that morning, after dropping her at her baby-sitter’s, I stopped at a mini-market at S.E. 9th Street and University Avenue to get a bottle of water. As I pulled up, there was a guy tottering oddly across the sidewalk in front of the market, very tall and skinny, and his long, skinny pink tongue hung out like a dog’s, quivering with each stride. I hoped — no, prayed — that he would not speak to me. He stood in front of me at the counter to purchase a bottle of cheap wine with some very tattered, dirty money. His coins were coated with sand and dirt, and the clerk swept them into a pile then covered them with a napkin as he left the store. I paid for my water. Several middle-aged men stood talking energetically while their lottery tickets printed out.

After paying for the water, I walked to my car and there stood a tall, picturesque man, vibrant and attractive even though missing most of his teeth. He wore a black cap with stars embroidered along the front: three black stars, on a vivid yellow ribbon band. A paler yellow jumpsuit, a long beaded necklace — and long, luxuriant dreadlocks. He wore a couple of rings on his hands, a small silver nose-ring, and a gold earring in his left ear. He was quite handsome, though at the same time I could tell he’d recently been through some very hard times, and probably had been in those bad times for a quite a while.

For a second, I worried, because of the other man, and that man’s obvious level of dissociation with the world (I really had prayed to avoid him), but in a second of observing this man, I knew I was on much more solid ground. I wouldn’t be talking to a total lunatic. He held out to me a book — a Bible — and said he had just seen someone throw it in the trash, and God had told him to get it out and now pass it on to me. I took the book from him, bedraggled and slightly crusted on the cover with God-knows-what. I felt instantly ashamed for worrying what germs might be on the cover of the old, battered Bible, but I forced myself to disregard that, and act untroubled.

During our brief chat, he told me he was a Vietnam veteran. He pulled out a battered leather wallet and showed me his VA Hospital ID, which I knew to be genuine, as I have seen others: his picture was on it, and his name and date of birth. He was born Christmas Day, 1947.  I cannot remember his last name, only his first name, Richard, the same as my father’s.  I looked at the ID and then back at his face, and what I saw was an honorable man, intelligence shining out through his eyes, but also in his eyes a sadness that probably ran deeper than I could ever imagine. His radiance and his sorrow ran through me like a knife, because of my very-realistic fear we’ll now be in another war – one which will kill many young men and destroy the spirits of many more. I was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed by grief for him, as a veteran, as a street person, as someone now obviously fairly troubled in life. I saw him as he must have been, all those years ago, young and strong and relatively unscarred, and the breath caught in my chest, seeing him both then and now in the very same instant.

After a few moments, he asked very gently and politely if I had any money I could give him to buy some coffee. I was so happy he asked for something, so I could give him something. Ordinarily, I would give someone in this situation a few dollars, but I gave him $20 — I just wanted to give him something. Nobody can give him back what he lost, and money is a poor substitute for what he lost, but it’s a substitute nonetheless. Money and kindness are all we can really give. He went inside, and I buckled my seatbelt, turned on the car, grabbed the steering wheel, but then sank down over it, clutching it, sobbing for the first time in a long time, not caring in the slightest who saw me or heard me. It felt like a release; I only wish it had gone on longer. He came out with his coffee, saw me hunched over sobbing, and got alarmed — he knocked on my window.

“Are you okay?” he asked. Genuine concern; sincere compassion. I can detect those things in other people from the slightest of nonverbal cues, unguarded genuineness and sincerity are so rare in this world. His sincerity made it better, but also worse at the same time.

“I’m okay,” I choked out between sobs. “It’s just this whole thing.” He didn’t have to ask what I meant, because of course he already knew. The power of these events to affect us has crossed every kind of barrier — sex, race, socioeconomic status, education level, sanity level — we’re all family right now. I rolled down the window and he embraced me. I was grateful for the human compassion, pure and simple. His smell was strong and complicated, some of the notes pleasant, some sour, but oh, so real and human and I drank it in, all of it, the bitter and the sweet, a primal metaphor for this crazy life itself. He asked, tentatively and graciously, could he sit with me a while.
“Yes,” I answered. “Please.”

He started to talk, and I listened, giving him my fullest attention. I bonded with him in a way I’ve never bonded with any stranger in such a short time. I guess we spent about an hour together. Richard, from West Virginia. He is a Vietnam veteran, former Marine, former POW. He talked generally about what he was trained to do in the Marines, but said he didn’t want to tell me anything too specific about his experiences during the war — he said women shouldn’t ever hear such things. We talked about everything there is for human beings to talk about and he read to me from the Psalms and Matthew. So devout, so earnest, he held my hand in his while he read Scripture, ministering to me like a Sister.

In fact, he had been in the past a minister, he said, and from his familiarity with the chapters of the Bible I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. He has two living daughters, now grown, and another daughter who died at age two, just two years ago, from a heart ailment. He has his deceased baby’s name tattooed on his shoulder, plus three scars from cigarette burns — two for each of her birthdays, and a third for the day she died. He cried twice with me, once while talking about her — Zaidyn — and a second time while talking about how his stepfather used to beat his mother, years ago. He told me he still calls his mother “Mommy” when he calls her on the phone.

“Do you think that’s stupid?” he asked. “For a grown man to say, Mommy?”

“Absolutely not,” I answered. “I think it’s wonderful. I think more grown men should.”

He has been barred from our local homeless shelter, St. Francis house, for two years for giving food he obtained there to someone else. It’s a rule there, you’re not supposed to do that, share your rations. What a dehumanizing policy. It’s our basic need, to share. Damn them for that. He lived in Jamaica at some point for five years, his grandfather was born there. One of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee. He had played conga drums with Bob Marley.

I felt, I think, something like the presence of what human beings call the Divine. Divine love. I comforted him, he comforted me. I gave him another $20, all I had left in my wallet. He blessed me, I blessed him back with all my heart.

He still played conga drums around town. He knew of Ajamu Mutima, another drummer. “Another tall, skinny dude with dreads,” he said, laughing. As Richard and I spoke, I thought often of my father, and my stepmother Dorothy (his African-American wife), and of the rich heritage from Africa we all need to embrace.

He spoke of his lost two-year-old saying to him “I love you, Dada.” As a fellow parent, I knew how precious those words were. His pain at her loss, I felt it palpably, physically.

He knew when to end the interaction, and for that too, I was grateful, as I was overwhelmed and needed to go off and write it all down so I would never forget. Though I didn’t want to break our contact, I somehow understood it had to be broken, because it had been so miraculous, we had gotten so much from each other, we didn’t want anything to detract from the miracle. We didn’t want to descend into ordinariness with each other. He didn’t want it to end, either, but he was gracious enough to know to end it. Restraint can be admirable; sometimes, less is indeed more. But we were both reluctant to leave each other, and when I started the car and put it in reverse, he approached the window one more time. And that, too, was perfect.

Because he asked me, at the end, the question that made it all even more clear, more passionate and more profound. The question that made it, well, I don’t use this word much, but there is no other word to use in English — perfect.

“Did you feel it, too?” he asked me. He looked at me, searching my face with his deep brown eyes, eyes that held the world in that moment. Eyes I wanted to fall into.

I knew precisely what he meant, and I had indeed felt it. He had asked a question I couldn’t even have begun to formulate, so overcome was I with my feelings. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes,” I repeated, nodding to him with absolute recognition, and with that he leaned in and embraced me with joyous intensity for one final moment. I returned his affection as I would return my own child’s, or my mother’s. I am profoundly grateful, and I will never forget him. It’s true, Mystery can manifest in the most unlikely ways. We fell together like long-lost twins, then slowly let each other go.  Without saying much of anything but “Did you feel it, too,” and “yes,” we both knew without doubt that he was a noble person with an eternal soul, and so was I, and we had finally found each other for all eternity in a single hour. The force resonating through our bodies was Divine.

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Filed under 9/11, bible, daughters, fatherhood, memoir, notes, peace, rastafarian, veterans, war