My Private Memorial of Two Soldiers
Note: As Memorial Day approaches,
I’d like to change the pace, and offer a story
I’ve shared with friends down the years, this time
trying to capture the scene with a bit more care.
Maybe 1973. Perhaps 1974. Unimportant is the date; significant is the time that captured my memories.
Looking out the shadowy window into the late dusk, I can see the greyhound sign flickering behind me. Traveling home from south Florida, I shivered, the only one clutching a sweater in the many seats surrounding mine. With my arms around me, half-protecting myself from the air-conditioner cold, I felt the deceleration and heard the sound of the tires on gravel pulling into yet another of the countless stops.
A large (exceptionally large) man got on. Like now, when I see someone coming toward the vacant airplane seat connecting mine, I gave an internal sigh. He stopped in the aisle at my row, despite other empty spots around. Of course. Perhaps, even this vast giant found a little white girl coming from the south less intimidating than the other questionable-looking passengers sharing our affordable mode of transportation.
“Evening ma’am,” he said.
Ma’am? Really? He was probably 10 years older than me.
“Mind if I sit here?” Not really a question.
I responded with a faked smile, nodded and mumbled a half-hearted “sure.”
His voice was quieter than I expected for such an immense mountain, and in a few minutes, he introduced himself by way of insignificant, polite conversation. Finally, intrigued enough I guess, I asked him if he was in service. (It was the common olive jacket – not exactly a peacoat, but typical of the time).
“Not anymore” he said turning his head away, demonstrating there was more to say that he wasn’t saying.
I asked if he had been hurt. Then came the self-evaluating look and smirk, “not so you’d notice.” Then he softly added, “but suppose I am.”
Hard to stop a conversation there. Nor did I want to. I wished to let him know I ‘noticed’ even if he thought people wouldn’t.
“Assume you were in ‘Nam,” I supposed; and he just nodded his head.
I mentioned that my brother didn’t end up having to go, spent most of his time on Guam, but that a good friend of his, and a guy I had a crush on as a wee girl, was killed a couple years back. [Later, I was to search his name on the Vietnam War Memorial wall.] This was followed by a few moments of merely road noise.
I asked him about friends he served with, and he said, “don’t usually gab about it.”
Silence. Did I overstep? What should a stranger ask, I wondered? Then he spoke up and said “I don’t mean to be rude ma’am. (Ma’am again.)
“I just don’t normally talk about it, and most folks don’t ask.”
“Guess it was me being rude.”
He assured me that wasn’t the case. Then in spurts of alternating dialog and contemplation, he began recounting memories of his “buddies.” Two of them from his squad dead, a couple pals, whom he hoped to see again, had life-long injuries. All went through “heavy” times. They’d been close, as most of the platoon had come from the same area of northern Florida and he knew a few of the guys before going in. His chronicles (some fun times, most not) poured out for several station stops along our route.
I asked how long he’d been back, and he said actually just 2 months. When I asserted that he must be glad to be home, his reply, perfectly exhibiting the worn phrase of a pregnant pause, was “I’m not really sure.”
And then ……….. “I’m not really sure what home is.”
I raised my eyebrows upon his declaration of not being sure. The worm can was open now.
I may have had a score more questions – and we both realized we were sharing thoughts and concerns that we generally didn’t reveal. My stories of family issues were so different from his, but he could relate to my own seeking. We were touching each other inside, talking about many ‘scars.’
I’d be lying if I told you I remember his name. I remember his worn boots, and his army jacket, how big he was, how black his skin, how gentle his voice and how his eyes glistened after mine teared up listening to his reminiscences and insights. I remember much of our exchange (some pretty much verbatim), but not his home city, or where he’d been station in the US before shipping out, or where he was going that night. Instead, I remember that we touched emotionally.
At one point, he looked up surprised and informed me his stop was coming up shortly. Before that, he wanted to tell me what our time talking together had meant to him. He queried, “ever heard about angels putting you in touch with special friends?”
Truly, I hadn’t. But it sounded like “soul groups” – people that reincarnate together for one reason or another. Indeed, that I had heard of. So, I just nodded ‘yes.’
“Well, miss Barbara” (might he remember my name today) I think this was one of those times.”
As I recount this to y’all in 2022, it’s obvious it was important to me too. We shook hands in that gentle hanging-on way when he left, knowing that we were ending this friendship that moment. He said thank you and I did the same. We meant more. When he got off the bus, I strained my neck to see him in the ghostly glow of the station lights, but never saw him again. The shivers returned.
A few stops later on that trip, someone exited the front seat and I rushed up to grab it, having been eyeing it since the doors opened to let me on. I had wanted that particular seat, the one right behind the driver where I get the least motion sick. Thinking back, I’m glad I didn’t get it then.
I took a peek around. A few rows back Jennifer sat using the aisle armrest, her head bent almost to her shoulder, her mouth just slightly opened. She snoozed in the night as did her seat partner, like almost all the other passengers.
My dear friend Jen had handed me “No-doz” instead of the cold medication she thought she was sharing. Consequently, I had been staring out through the murky, midnight-black window seeing myself reflected back, and unseeing. Mentally, I was replaying my recent encounter. I knew the tablet-switch was a mistake, but envied her snooze, despite her uncomfortable stance.
Jennifer, now dead, was a close friend and classmate. A talented musician, she didn’t have the most luxurious up-bringing. Shy as she was, she demonstrated a warm and humorous countenance, with a bit of an adventurous spirit to boot. Once in Ireland, we stood together over a country-side stone bridge (perhaps near Galway) with a rushing stream below, and seriously contemplated dumping our passports. We thought the action might keep us there. I chickened out. I often wondered if she would have gone through with it. Guess I doubt it.
Jennifer was a wonderful clarinetist, an outstanding student in the tri-cities of New York. Later, she went on to become a notable music teacher in Pennsylvania, a happy wife and mother of two.
I cared deeply about Jen at that time of our youth. As I looked back on the sleeping figure, exhausted from our week-long, fun-packed, trip in Florida, I didn’t realize how few moments in life I had left with her as varying careers, marriages, distance, and ultimately death stepped in.
But this memorial is not about Jennifer.
I was still wide awake on Jen’s No-doz, and keeping the bus driver company (and alert) with rather-incessant chitchat about my trip. We were quiet probably only 5 minutes when suddenly, the bus lurched as he pulled the wheel frantically with a jerk, braking at the same time, and quickly struggling to straighten us out into the other lane.
He was trembling and said, “Holy shit, did you see that?”
“No, I mean, really, did ya see that,” he questioned.
“Yeah, ’course, but I couldn’t believe it.”
“What the hell was it?” He added another “holy shit.”
I softly said, “I guess we know what it was, I just can’t believe it.”
“Mm-my heart is beating out of my F’n chest,” he exclaimed through long exhales. Then after a pause or two he added, “I’m gonna have to report this.”
I could see he was shaking. Me too. Both of us being young, I lamely attempted to reassure him, “we were really lucky you acted so fast, this could have been terrible, a disaster.”
“Yeah, I’m really going to have to report this…”
I asked “what are you gonna say?” Quickly adding, “are you gonna say it was a soldier?”
He paused, thinking, and then said “dunno….. he had camouflage pants.” (That’s all the guy had, no shirt or shoes, but did sport a crewcut.) I added that “I’m pretty sure those were dog tags too.” (The metal reflected off high beams on the late-night freeway.)
What we didn’t say out loud was that the ‘solider’ was sitting cross legged in the middle of the highway, what was probably interstate 95, although could have been I-75. Either way, on our way out of Florida on a major thoroughfare, and not expecting to see possible human road-kill.
A few minutes later, the driver wondered out loud (feasibly to me) “was it a stunt?” “Was he stoned?”
“Suicide attempt?” I feared, also out loud.
“Maybe he thought he couldn’t die. … Or, … yeah, …. maybe he wanted to.”
Throughout the rest of our travel until the next stop, neither of us spoke. I could see beads of sweat still coming up on his forehead when he turned his head to look in the side mirrors, him brushing them away periodically. I noticed his lower arms trembling above where his hands, still white, were relentlessly gripping the wheel. Probably, he was mentally constructing his report.
When he got off at the next stop, he didn’t say anything. The stop was delayed, despite it being the middle of the night. When we pulled out again, we had a new driver.
Sometimes now when I see a person in uniform, I ponder “which kind, which fate?”
Picture credit: Soldiers by red__koral__ph | Pixabay