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A story from my travels

Yet again I feel the need to impart to you, my fair reader, another installment... darn you cursor stop it... have you no shame... don't you think this has gone on long enough... no huh... fine I won't type then... well actually I guess I should type, but I won't let you bother me cursor, no I won't... no amount of blinking is going to bother me... STOP IT.

Darn thing.

Anyhow, as my cursor continues to thwart me, I wish to impart to you the events that transpired on the 17th of July 2001. I was in the process of moving all my worldly possessions, not to mention myself, to Ft. Drum NY. Well, that in-and-of itself is not too interesting. Closed out my apartment, got my orders for duty and such... pumped gas and all other sorts of meaningless dribble that has to be accomplished before you face a domestic upheaval. Well, anyway, I was travelling and knowing full well that there was no real need to hurry since I have 1500 miles to go, so I stopped at regular intervals to stretch my legs and pump gas (again). It is at one of these stops that this story takes place.

Having left Ft. Benning at about 10 o'clock in the morning and spent most of the day running around trying to accomplish what I had procrastinated about accomplishing before, I had not had the chance to eat. So, at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, my stomach tells me I should eat or it will never speak to me again and, of course, I listened, being as I was scared of exactly what a stomach that doesn't talk to you might do to me. Well, in my haste to leave post, I had not changed my uniform, so I was still in my cammies or duty uniform. They were pressed and my boots shined and all, so I looked more like an Army recruitment ad than a soldier trying to get his life from one end of the US to the other. So I am travelling along and I pull over to one of these large truck stop/gas station/commerce centre thingies and get out intent on putting as much food in me as possible.

Well, being in uniform and wandering into a place that doesn't get a regular patronage of military, heads turned. I smile politely and go on about my business. Now this place looks like a diner might from the 1900's... I am talking straight out of the Grapes of Wrath here people... though without the added Okies and lengthy soliloquies on turtles... anyhow, back to the point. I walk up to the counter and observe the menu, not really seeing anything all that appetizing since it is mostly fried stuff, and most of it shouldn't be fried. And then this old-looking ZZ top cook saunters, or rather stumbles, up to the counter and asks to take my order. I look at him, I look at the menu, I look back at him and realize that my stomach had just told me that if I was to eat anything from here it wouldn't talk to me either... so I smile and politely say thanks and turn to walk away. That is when I feel a hand on my arm from behind me.

Now usually a strange hand from nowhere makes me tense but, for some reason, I turned casually to see the owner. It was an elderly gentleman. He was dressed in pastel blue slacks, evening slippers, and a shirt that had been washed too much and through which you could see his pale white stomach. On his head he wore a garrison cap (those sharkfin-looking things that military men and women wear) on which were ten or twelve buttons that I recognized as miniature awards from the service and unit crests. And in his hands he carried a satchel, which he clutched protectively to his chest.

I looked at this gentleman for what seemed to be forever before he spoke. He had this warmth about him, like the warmth a father has for his son, and he looked at me and at my uniform and just stood there. Finally in a frail shaky voice he asked my name and asked me to join him in a cup of coffee or something . Under normal circumstances I would have politely made light of my haste but I couldn't say no to this man. He put his arm through mine and I nodded to the greasy cook to get a cup of coffee for the man, then I helped him to a booth, him shuffling the entire way like only an old man can.

The coffee came and we made polite small talk for a couple of minutes about nothing in particular and covering just about anything. Soon, though, the conversation slowed and he just gazed, not at me though, through me. At this point I was a little worried but I let him go on in this pause for a little while before asking if he was okay. A tear came to his eye and he began to tell me his story as he opened the satchel for me.

This man was a WW II veteran, having fought in the liberation of France. He was a volunteer leaving behind him a young wife and a promising career as an electrician. He was there at the invasion of Normandy. He was at the Bulge. He looked through me as if he could still see those cliffs and those trees... as if he could see the shine of German Mauser and hear the crunch of artillery... he shuddered as if he could feel the sonic shatter of a bullet hitting the trees around him or the water about him. His speech became clearer when he imparted this story to me. He had joined with his brother, a much younger brother. A brother that never made it off those beaches of Normandy... a brother who used to play with this puppy whom he had named Ace because all the brother wanted to do was fly fighters but, rather than becoming a pilot, he ended up a private in the infantry and died trying to get ashore in that deadly fight. A brother who died no more than 200 yards from where this man was, though this man only learned of it once the fighting for the beach was over. He still had the dog tags, and service ribbon of his brother. He had with him the letter announcing the death during childbirth of his wife and unborn son. A letter he received when he was on the Line during the Battle of the Bulge. He had with him the bloodstained hat of his best friend who, in an attack by the Germans one night, was blown apart by a fragmentation grenade. He had his awards, wrapped in a brown paper bag... awards that one only gets for sacrifices and courage. He told me the stories, he told me that he went and fought, and though he came home, he still lost... but he would go again for God and Country. He never became an electrician.

So here I sit with this man, in all his frailty. He comes to this place early in the morning and stays until late at night. Why? Because he has no one to go home to... he has no-one to share things with... and he keeps all he holds dear in this satchel clutched protectively to his chest. He comes because this is the only place where he can feel like a 'man' and not like a lost soul who sacrificed and lost more than anyone ever should. He hung his head, feeling embarrassed at his moment of weakness in front of a soldier who he thought would judge him... I didn't. I, rather, put my hand on his shoulder and got him another cup of coffee. I asked him what he wanted? He said he had just gotten it... someone to listen to him. Someone to not politely say how much in haste they were and take five minutes to hear 'his' story. Why did he pick me? Obviously the uniform and a feeling of kinship to me. And I am all the better for it.

You see, he didn't want to be thanked; he didn't want to revered... he only wanted to be acknowledged. He wanted to give up the pain he had. He only wants that, should someone meet this man in the pastel pants and garrison cap, you nod politely and smile. He only wants to exist. This man who carried with him the horror of war and the pain of loss hopefully could, at least that night, sleep a little sounder and maybe walk a little lighter.

So to all you researchers out there... Godspeed and I look forward to hearing your stories.

Aaron O'Keefe

20.09.01. Front Page

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