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The ground rumbled just a little as it always did when the bus’s brakes squeaked it to a halt. I got on, and found a seat next to an older gentleman reading a book.
We nodded, and swayed back and forth with the motion in the traffic, and over time, I saw a pattern. He’d be there when I got on, and would be there about once a month. While everyone else insulated themselves from the rest of the passengers with their headphones and their smart phones, the older gentleman had his in a book that he was perfectly willing to put down. I made it a point to sit next to him, just to chat.
It took awhile, but I got to know him a little better. He always wore a baseball cap with USMC embroidered on the front, was always friendly, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I got the impression he was going for his monthly checkup at the VA hospital.
At one point, he was holding the book in his right hand, and I saw that he was missing most of the index finger there. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, everything else I could see seemed to be in perfect order, and he was clearly used to it. Eventually I got up enough courage to ask how that happened, expecting to hear some story involving power tools or some action that had been preceded by the phrase, “Here, hold my beer.”
“Japanese sniper,” he said, turning his hand and looking at it, as if for the first time noticing that finger was gone.
“A… a what?”
And the older gentleman on the bus faded into the background as the story of a strapping 18 year old in the jungles of the South Pacific came out. He’d been in the Marine Corps, in the Pacific, during WWII, and they’d been dropped off at the south end of an island, and were to take the airfield on the north end. That was the book he’d been reading, a history of his unit. They had to get there at a very specific time, as a great part of the upcoming battle depended on that airfield being usable, and they had to take it. He showed me the map, and the huge swamp they’d had no choice but to go through, not around.
He talked so matter-of-factly about how they had to hike in triple digit temperatures through jungle, especially through that swamp. He held both arms up high as he showed me how he kept his rifle out of the water and mud to keep it dry.
They got to their destination, where he unknowingly had his appointment with the Japanese sniper, who’d been trained to shoot off soldier’s trigger fingers, and that’s precisely what he’d done.
As we were both looking at that stump of a finger, he lost in his memories while I was trying to imagine what those memories were like, the bus stopped, and we both looked up. I realized I was at my own destination. I thanked him for sharing that part of himself with me, and for his time and his service, and got off the bus, reluctantly coming back from that hot, humid airfield I’d been at in my mind to a street full of honking cars and rumbling buses, grateful for the privilege of the history lesson I’d just gotten first hand.
From someone who had been there.
So, on this Sunday morning, Memorial day, I find myself thinking of and remembering those of you who have served your countries, on the front lines or just as importantly, holding down the fort at home, whether that’s my Opa, or my dad, or my mom and Oma during WWII, Grampa, Grandma, or my uncles on both sides, my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew, or Chris, Buck, Jon, Kevin, Brian, Ralph, Beth, Al, Jae, Denny, as well as so many others who never made it home, or brought back reminders of that time they gave more than we could possibly imagine.
At first Heidi didn’t know what she was part of that evening.
She refilled our glasses, she kept the food and drink coming, and then she did what all good waitresses do.
She left us alone.
We were sitting in a nondescript restaurant, the three of us, sharing stories, memories, and laughing ourselves silly.
The last time the three of us had been together was about 32 years earlier, and I got to pondering about the journeys we’d all not only taken, but survived to get to this table in this restaurant. What had brought us together was a funeral, the death of J.C. Masura…
…who’d been our commander many years earlier when we were all in the same Civil Air Patrol Squadron on what was then McChord Air Force Base. J.C. had been a loadmaster on C-130’s and C-141’s, back in the day, and up until recently had run an aviation maintenance facility at an airfield near his home.
Of the three of us there in that restaurant after the funeral and reception, there was Aaron.
He told a story of being up on Mount Rainier during his Civil Air Patrol days, trying to put his tent together and it being a tangle of poles and cloth. He told of J.C. coming over, and being relieved that he’d have help to solve this problem. J.C. did help. He said, “Son, if you don’t get this tent up, you’re gonna die. So you’d better figure it out.”
And Aaron did.
The most vivid memory I have of Aaron was when we were trying to ram him through the bushes (<–story) on one of our searches. This evening, however, he was sitting across the table from me, in a uniform that spoke of honor, valor and courage. A uniform that spoke of someone who no longer needed to be pushed through bushes, but led people through walls.
As we sat there, reminiscing, and as Heidi kept our water glasses and plates full, Aaron told stories that had us laughing, and shaking our heads in amazement.
He told of coming back from one of many missions to a country in the Middle East, ‘the sandbox’, exhausted to the core, and climbing onto a ubiquitous, anonymous Air Force cargo plane that was to take him home, only to find himself being welcomed onto the plane by a loadmaster with the familiar name of Masura stitched to his uniform. It seems J.C’s oldest son (we knew him as Jimmy) had followed in his father’s footsteps, and was now a loadmaster himself, with enough stripes on his arm to put the fear of God into even the highest ranking officer.
Aaron, the highly decorated soldier, slept most of the flight home, watched over not by a stranger, but by a friend.
Heidi came by about then to refill our glasses, and it was obvious to her that she was seeing, and was part of, something very special. It was obvious we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Typical of such reunions, she said, was folks from college getting back together. She was amazed to hear that we hadn’t seen each other since high school, and even more amazed that we’d gotten together at all.
Then there was Bill, who I’d been able to keep in touch with a little more. I have many memories of Bill, some of which have actually been written down. One of those involved our Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a regional Drill competition (<–story) in Oregon, and the memories of the looks on people’s faces when they saw us beating them at their own game.
Bill was dressed in a suit jacket and tie for the funeral, had become a world traveler, working as a biologist and traveling to every continent on the planet, and some places that don’t come remotely close to being continents. Bill told a story about going back to Antarctica, where before they could study the penguins, and the wildlife, one of the first orders of business was getting things habitable, and during that time it was discovered that the ‘facilities’ had been buried in 7 feet of snow since they were last there. By the time they got everything dug out and opened up for use, they discovered several inches of frost on the toilet seat.
We laughed about the “when I was your age” stories that would grow into: “When I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy things called toilets, we had to dig through 7 feet of snow just to get to a seat with a hole in it. And it had FROST on it. And we had to melt that off ourselves…”
“With our Butts.”
Yeah, I can see that…
We’d get post cards from Bill every now and then, telling of his adventures in warmer climates, too. He told one story – and it wasn’t even a story, but just a vignette, of writing one of his post cards, in this case to his sister, sitting under a tree somewhere in Africa, and writing it by candle light, because it was all he had. When a scorpion crawled across the postcard as he was writing it, looking for bugs that might have been attracted by the candle, he decided it was time to call it a night.
Heidi came back and checked on us, and the stories continued.
I’d had some of my own adventures – some of which I’ve written about, some not, and we marveled, literally, not just about the various journeys we’d gone on to get to this table, in this restaurant, but the fact that we’d survived them all. Even though we were there for hours, each one of us had stories that there wasn’t time to share that evening, and each one of us had stories of adventure and danger, as well as growth and promise that we realized would have to wait for another day.
We pondered that, and found ourselves all taking a collective breath. As we did, we realized the restaurant had grown quiet. There was no conversation, no bustling of waiters. In fact, the only sounds we heard were those of clinking dishes as the staff cleaned up the restaurant, which had closed around us.
We were the last customers in the place, and the doors were locked.
Heidi, bless her, came by one last time, and let us out…
…and stood in the parking lot for another half hour, talking and shivering in the dark, but vowing that we would get together again without someone having to die in order for it to happen.
There were friends who were not able to make it this time, and friends who would not make it, ever.
And it got me thinking…
Why do we wait so long?
One person asked me, “Why is it we wait till we have nothing but weddings and funerals to get together?”
Why do we often just get stuck in our little ruts and miss out on some of the cool stuff of life, like sharing stories and laughing, and – why does it take something *more* special than just getting together to get us to get together? (yeah, I read that a couple of times myself too before I let it go, but it works…)
I mean – the three of us hadn’t been together in over 3 decades.
Not a week later I had occasion to go to a friend’s birthday party. I was fighting off a bug and wasn’t feeling too well yet, but for heaven’s sake, it had been years since I’d seen him, so I went. He’d hit the big 5 decade mark, and wondered the same thing… why do we get stuck in our little ruts?
I know the answer to this – and there’s a story in it, which I’ll tell later, but in a nutshell, it’s because it takes more energy to get out of a rut than it does to fall into one.
Sometimes that energy comes because you see patterns and realize if you don’t change something, the pattern is pretty predictable. Sometimes the energy comes in the adrenaline fueled by the sudden, tragic realization that nothing lasts forever, and everything, everything comes to an end, whether we want to believe it or not.
So – and I’m realizing I’ve been ending a lot of stories with this theme: Make sure you let the ones you love know that while you can.
Hug your husband/wife.
Hug your kids.
Hug your parents. Even if it’s a verbal hug, with a phone call, card, or email.
Just do it.
A friend wrote recently that he’d found out another friend had passed away, and somehow 10 years had slipped by since they’d talked. You never know when your last words with someone will indeed be your last words with someone.
Sometimes a telephone call will reopen doors to old friendships. Sometimes you’ll find those doors have closed and it’s time to move on. That might hurt, but regardless the door’s position, at least you’ll know, and you’ll be able to open or close it yourself. And you’ll actually have a chance to know what those last words with someone will be. Make sure they’re good ones.
In the end, what changed is that I did just that.
I picked up the phone and checked up on some old friends and kept in touch with them more. I found some doors opened wide again, and found some doors closed – I write all this from experience, both joyful and painful.
And I tried, as best I could, when I saw that one of those doors had closed, to make my last words good ones.
So take care of yourselves. This is the one time we have through this life.
Take care of each other, too. You never know when you’ll need each other.
Oh, and if you happen to meet a waitress named Heidi, working at the Outback Steakhouse in Puyallup, Washington, who keeps your glasses full and allows you to enjoy your reunion time with your friends, give her a good tip.
She deserves it.
It’s been a year since the events in this story unfolded, and it took this long to think them through, get some perspective, apply some of the lessons I learned, and be ready to share them with you. That might make a little more sense now that you’ve read it.
Aaron is still in the Army – he invited us to help celebrate his promotion recently, and we shared more stories, more laughs. We kept the promise to get together more often, and made more promises to do it again.
Bill and I got together the day after my birthday last year along with another friend, Mark, and have kept in touch more. He’s doing a little less exploring, but still doesn’t have a “desk” job. He couldn’t make it to the promotion party because he was strapped into a small airplane, flying around the hinterlands of the country in an airplane, counting Elk.
Jimmy’s still in the Air Force, I saw him at Aaron’s celebration, and they got along like the old friends they are, not with the stuffy formality you might expect of an officer and an enlisted man. It was fun to see that.
J.C.’s wife – well – widow – hard to write that, but it’s true – is doing all the things you do when you’ve lost a loved one. That first year, I can tell you from experience, is a hard one. I’ve kept in touch with them as I could over the last 12 months, not as much as I’d like, but far more than the previous 30 years or so.
And as time, and the years, go on, I’m realizing more and more that the things that are valuable to me are less and less the things that gather dust, or rust, or whatever. They’re the relationships I treasure with friends old and new.
Now go out there, and find some treasure. (and then come back and share what you found, you might help other people get out of their ruts with your stories.)