Waited So Long
May 23, 2012
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
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
“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
“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 ...
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 everyone
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 ...
‘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 Spirit. 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.
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 caf� 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
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 listened 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, against America ... and how he wished he could have passed
on his memories and ‘learnings' 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
And finally, I heard him paint the depth of his
anguish ... his loneliness ... and his emptiness when he said to me
“ I been waitin' to die for 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 so long ago in his soul. 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 ,” he told me in broken voice, " forty years", he
repeated, bowing his head to hide his tears. Then he looked solidly
into my eyes, not piercing as lasers, but softened and wanting and
grateful ... and he gripped my hand in friendship ... strong and
proud and alive once more. I walked away, trying to clear the ache
in my throat, struggling not to cry for him, and surprised by the
spontaneity of my gesture ... As I paid my bill, I heard from
somewhere behind me ... ” Waitress ... bring that soldier anything
he wants ... it's on me”.
Today for me, was a day worth
living...and I pray this broken soldier found new strength. That he
too, felt it 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
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