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Robert VanDerslice

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November 10, 2009

Waited So Long

As you all know, it seems to be a habit of mine anymore, to look for rainbows after the storm...to find a flower in a dry and dreary cactus patch...to see a candles ficker of promise in a consuming darkness...to...well...you get the point. But sometimes these things happen when I'm not looking...sometimes I find myself swimming in waters of blessing that I didn't know were there...soaring On wings that I had believed to be unable to fly...dreaming...when only nightmares seemed to be my companion...smiling when...oh.. never mind. You get the picture right?

It happened again, and of all places, one of the truck stops I frequently stop at in Missouri on my escapades...Nelles Restaurant in Cameron...and it seems to be a place of blessing and wonder for me.

I was sitting in my usual spot, tired from another long night, working on a pancake and eggs, when I noticed what looked like the paws of a tiger sticking out from under a table to my left...huge paws...dirty and worn looking...but huge. I looked at the fella sitting at that table and I was disappointed that I had not noticed him or this thing with monster paws come in...and sit so close to me at the next table. They had come...noiseless...into the bustle of the morning crowd...slipping seamlessly into the orchestra of tired chatter from the many truckers sitting there with their burps and coffee slurping and ‘my truck smokes more than yours' kind of bragging. It was impossible to tell if anyone had seen this stranger come in...and if so...how they had turned away to their own rituals of shaking the miles out of tired eyes.

But this stranger...he WAS there...and I looked at him briefly...noting his green canvas looking jacket...his unshaved beard...sweat band across the deep furrows in his forehead.

He sat there, head down slightly, waiting for his waitress who never came. I could see his eyes...darting nervously in all directions...never pausing long enough to absorb what he saw...but darting just the same...looking for only God knows what.

Finally he jerked his head up and looked solidly and piercingly at me... "Got a problem?" he asked.

"Nope," I told him, "just noticing your dog," which was a lie. I hadn't taken the time to look at the dog with tiger paws, but made it obvious now to lean over and look at the monster attached to these incredibly huge feet. This dog, even laying there, was perhaps the biggest dog I had ever seen...with the markings of a collie in its wavy hair...but a size far exceeding anything I had seen before. What was even more noticeable though, was the leather placard strapped around his back and tied underneath his belly. It was an old brown placard, very simple looking in fact, with bold red letters on a fading yellow diamond background and it read simply...Medical Assist Animal...U.S. Veteran.

"Quite a dog," I said finally, keenly aware of this stranger staring straight through me with lasers that doubled as dark brown eyes, camouflaged beneath his bushy black eyebrows. "Pet?" I asked stupidly.

"Friend," he said matter of factly. "Him and me"...and his answer seemed cold and caustic...as if there was nothing more to be said. He motioned to the waitress again for coffee, but it seemed she was deliberately ignoring him...no doubt because of his dog laying there, its eyes following every movement...its ears analyzing every sound...but otherwise motionless with its head resting on the pillows that were his paws.

"I see the placard on his back...vet huh?" I asked him.

His answer again was direct...lifeless almost...and by now typically flavored with a hint of annoyance. "Nam" he responded...66 to 68"...and he looked down at his dog...reaching with hands that wore the scars of to many meals missed...dark...suntanned hands with long fingers and barely enough skin to cover them. "He goes where I go...keeps folks away from me."

"Everyone?" I asked, my questions deliberately short now.

"Yeh," he said. "Everyone we don't like. He don't like ‘em...I don't like ‘em"

"What kind," I persisted. There was something in him that kept me asking...kept me responding ...and I didn't know what it was. I had seen his old clothes...a little ragged but clean. I had noticed how his neck twitched, drawing his right cheek down a bit each time it did. I had heard the irritation in his voice...but something was there...and even I could not have guessed the depth of the explosion that was brewing under his battered and faded green fatigue cover.

And so I went on..."Family?"

He looked at me with a hatred and focus I have seldom seen...for it seemed like 3 or 4 minutes. "State took ‘em," he said finally, "in 70. Said I wasn't good enough to be their dad. Come in and took ‘em...little boy 5 and baby daughter 1. Started drinkin' when I got back from Nam...couldn't handle what everone said I was." He looked at me with an unwavering ‘won't back down' kind of look. "I ain't no baby killer. I gave everything I was to this country to fight in Nam...doin' my job. I did what I was told. I gave it all everytime I took a step in that G—D--- place. Come home and got spit on, got rocks n' bottles throwed at me...got told I was nuthin'...got nuthin' for givin' it." Couldn't live with it...started drinkin'...California told me I wasn't good enough to be a Dad...then took my family too...so I got family?...Yeh...me an' my dog. Don't want nuthin' else."

"You guys were treated like scum," I told him, and there is no healing from that...there's no excuse for it...and this country owes you an apology," I told him...knowing now the ‘something' that was there. It had a name...several in fact... lonely -- grief -- alone -- forgotten -- abandoned -- forsaken -- broken ... and I found myself looking at a soldier...not a vagabond. I saw an American Vet...disowned by a country he had given his spirit to...then spat upon as unworthy and unfit to be what he so obviously and desperately wanted to be...a Dad. I saw a wounded soldier...searching for a medic that wasn't there...longing for the salve of understanding that wasn't going to come ... reaching for a healing balm that wasn't going to be given to heal a broken heart. I saw in him, countless days and weeks and years of emptiness...lost in a journey that was endless...searching in the darkness of apathy and loathing for a light to guide him...but finding none.

"I need a pot of coffee...and another cup," I told the waitress as she walked by, gonna be sittin' here a bit."

I had not been aware of the awkward silence that filled the small café until now. No one was talking. Truckers , some now in their chairs turned slightly to listen to our conversation, were silent. Some sipped their coffee slowly...quietly without the burping and slurping...and waited. A soldier lay wounded and dying...and hearts had noticed.

The waitress brought the pot and extra cup, and I turned and set them gently in front of the soldier, adding to it my bowl of creamers. I never expected a thank you, and didn't get one...only the watching wary gaze of his monster met my movement.

I sat there I guess for 45 minutes or so, listening as this vet relived his emptiness, some of his stories tainted with fantasy I'm sure...but most a real and graphic picture of his journey through the valleys of his private despair and unworthiness. I listen to him tell of his struggle to get disability for the shrapnel in his back that left him unable to stand on his own. I listened to his pride and his devotion to the monster at his feet, for being the rock he could lean on to stand...for being his protector...his eyes in a darkness that defied description. I listened to the heartache as he told of his son, raised by his ex wife who had turned his kids against him...how his only boy grew up to be an activist against the war...against sanity and rightness and morality...and how he wished he could have passed on his memories and ‘learnins' to his son...but was told he was not worthy of that blessing.

I listened to the story of him finally giving up on life...on people...on Hope in the mid eighties and moving to a quiet town in Missouri where people knew him only as the ‘crazy guy at the end of Westchester street with the huge dog'.

And finally, I heard him paint the depth of his anguish...his lonliness...and his emptiness when he said to me, "I been waitin' to die for nearly forty years, but got cheated on that too. I got nothin' else to give...an' nothin' left to lose"....and he grew silent again.

I'm sure very unaware that he had opened his heart and his memories to 20 some odd truckers and me...but it probably wouldn't have mattered. I had somehow...for some reason...in some fashion...released a valve that held back his hurt...and it flowed from him like stagnant waters of a forgotten river buried long ago in the sands of time. That was the something...and I knew I was supposed to be there...I knew I was supposed to annoy him...to listen...to be the dartboard for his grief...and it was needed.

He was done talking...and I watched as his monster ...still laying flat on the floor...put his head on the lap of his broken soldier sitting quietly in the chair at his side.
I listened to the eerie silence of anguish unleashed, and drifting now like a cloud of misted yesteryear, in and out of the hearts of all those truckers...and myself...mixing together in shame and embarrassment and conviction that a comrade had suffered so long.

I stood up to leave...and without thinking...walked around his table to stand in front of him...and the guardian at his feet. "It was a pleasure meeting you sir...and I would like to shake your hand," I told him, extending mine. The soldier slowly reached for my hand, unsure of what I was doing...and he took it...wary and poised to withdraw. "I want to tell you sir...American soldier...welcome home...it is an honor to be now, a friend you can call on," and I gave him my phone number.

I was not prepared for the reaction I got. Without hesitation, his brokenness was released in a flood of quiet tears...and he struggled with the simplest and most wrenching words I've heard in many years..."I've wanted to hear that for nearly forty years."...and he gripped my hand in friendship...strong and proud and wanting.

I walked away, surprised by the spontaneity of my gesture...and as I paid my bill, I heard from somewhere behind me..."Waitress...bring that soldier anything he wants...it's on me."

Today was a day worth living.

Today, perhaps a heart was reborn to once again taste the nectar of Hope...in a soldier who was so deserving of such an elusive luxury.

By Robert VanDerslice
Copyright 2009

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