Sometimes I get tired, frustrated and homesick during my seemingly long stints away from my family, while traveling for work. May has been one of those months with a lot of travel and an equal amount of homesickness. Fortunately, the majority of my time working this month was spent in the Missouri Veterans Commission in their homes for veterans and it was here I met an old soldier. It was he who reminded me that I have no actual concept of what being tired, frustrated or homesick really is.
He sat close to the nurses’ station, where we were training the staff on how to use the electronic medication administration software. He was sitting in a wheelchair. He asked for a warm blanket, which a staff member tucked around his stooped shoulders. He thanked the young lady with sincere gratitude and then I overheard him reciting lines from the poem, The Golden Years: “I cannot see, I cannot pee, I cannot chew, I cannot screw, the golden years are here at last and the golden years can kiss my ass.” His laugh was infectious.
Later that day, I had returned to the nurses’ station to check on the progress with the electronic medication pass. He was sitting in his wheelchair. His US Navy cap had fallen to the floor and I watched as he strained in vain to reach it. I excused myself from my trainees and retrieved it for him and returned it to its rightful place. He thanked me with the same gratitude he had expressed over the warm blanket. I said, “I believe it is you who deserves the thanks. Thank you for your service, Sir.” His skin was thin and nearly transparent beneath the bill of his cap, but his eyes were shining.
He told me he served in the US Navy during World War II. I shared with him that my grandpa had also fought in WWII, but that he had served in the Army. He smiled and said he wouldn’t hold that against him and once again—that laugh. He shared with me that he loved the men he served with, but many of the names he has forgotten; the faces he never will. He grew quiet and
I thought maybe he had fallen asleep, but when he looked up, his shining eyes were filled with tears, and he continued, “There are some things I wish I could forget. Our ship was hit in April, 1945, and there was so much water and so much blood. It seemed like more blood than water, if you can believe that. We were in the middle of the ocean with a hole blown in the side of our ship. You would think there would have been more water, but it sure didn’t seem like it. I still see all that blood and all those faces of men who were my brothers.”
The tears had made their way down his cheeks and the lump in my throat occluded me from speaking, which was a blessing, because I couldn’t find words to fill the space between us. I tentatively reached out and covered his vein-streaked pale hand with mine. After a few moments, he looked up and said, “I am sorry, young lady. I didn’t mean to start crying.” I told him I didn’t mean to make him so sad. He smiled and said, “Some things are just sad. I think what would be even sadder is that if nobody remembered.”
Today I followed two 30-something men out of Wal-Mart and they were chatting and talking and a veteran with the Buddy Poppies was standing at the exit. He politely asked if they would like to make a donation. These men didn’t even acknowledge the veteran or his request. One gave him a sideways glance and then turned his head and they both kept talking and walking. I stuffed a few dollars into the donation can and accepted my Poppy, trying to reflect as much gratitude as I had seen in the eyes of an old soldier when he was given a warm blanket. I thanked him for his service and I headed to my car. Once in my car I placed the poppy on the seat beside me, along with the several others that have accumulated over the last several days. I tried to stamp down the anger I was feeling for the two men who had nothing to offer, even in the way of a thank you and I wondered how many times I had failed to recognize the sacrifices made on behalf of my freedom and my anger dissolved into shame. Because there are things that are just sad, but what would be even sadder is that if nobody remembered…
In the spirit of the Golden Years Poem, I wrote a few lines for the guys that blew off the veteran at the store today:
He cannot see, he cannot pee, he cannot chew and he cannot screw,
But he is more of a man than either of you.
The golden years don’t discriminate, and you can bet your ass
They show up without warning and they come on fast.
To you he may be an old man with poppy on a stem
But even for jerks like you, he would do it all again.
So enjoy your long weekend, your beer, and big toys
He knows what it takes to separate the men from the boys.