The homespun little café offered few seats on a crowded Sunday morning. I slid onto a stool at the breakfast counter, quickly greeted by waitstaff and a glass of water. A bit of chit-chat, my order, and I settled in for a likely wait. Soon, a gentleman guessed to be about my age slid onto the neighboring seat. A baseball style hat allowed sprouts of white-ish grey hair to poke from the rim and an embroidered military patch adorned the front above a long-stained bill. “Remember Me – I’m a Viet Nam Vet”. I shook a boney hand to thank him for his service and asked when he was in country. “’68 to ‘70”. I remarked about that being a tough time, especially with the building chaos and the Tet Offensive. I closed my other hand over his and he graciously noted, “Yea, sure was.” My breakfast interrupted further chat and his soon came as well. As I munched, his glances my way got my attention.
“Where were you over there?”
“Thirty miles from the DMZ – the Demilitarized Zone.”
“Wow. That was rough country. I’m glad you’re home, man.”
“Me, too. Did you serve?”
“No, my lottery number didn’t come up. I am grateful for that, but I am equally grateful to you and the men and women who served. That was a bad place.”
“I thought you had and was curious – you seemed to know about Tet and stuff.”
“No, I just care, especially since so few received the credit you so earnestly earned. I have great respect for your service – none of it ever came close to ‘easy’.”
“Thanks, man. Peace, brother.”
I rose to pay my tab and gave him a nod. Bushy white eyebrows shadowed blue-grey eyes and he touched the brim of that denim hat in farewell. Just a hint of wrinkled smile chased his cheek as if to say, “If you only knew – if you only knew.” And his face returned to non-committal as the door swung shut behind my exit. I could-a-should-a paid his tab, but somehow the energy around him said all was well with the way things went and I felt perhaps I might overstep his boundaries around a time long gone.
On the drive away and again on the freeway as miles slipped under tires, I mused about real hardship, about real fear, about real lonesome and longing. God handles those in so many different ways, teaches so much in times of pain, in the times that bring weakness. That slender, blue-jeaned man now far behind in the rear view likely knew them all quite well, probably saw them all – probably closed himself a little as comrades fell. But that’s my mind playing out scenarios. He came home. God knew and blessed that soldier – and blessed me with the meeting. Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel I came across his path as part of the journey his Lord had in mind for him. Who is to say?
God works in many, many ways. I hope a clasped hand, some smiles, some chat in some way brought more than the chase of a wrinkled smile. War memory most often brings the suffering back to light. I think we chatted just enough – I gave him a little gratuity, he gave me a look into the mystery of God’s grace that can sprout with but the fold of hands.
submitted by Dave Smith 06/05/18