Thursday, March 28, 2013
March 28, 2013
I was the smallest kid in my class in grade school. I was so small that I was given the nickname of pixie. But, there was also a young man who was not much bigger than me. We went through school together and even though he actually graduated in Bend, he is and always was considered a classmate by the others in my graduating class.
My memories of him go to things such as the sit up competition in the 4th grade or so that he beat me in. I think we had an advantage over others in our smaller size but Paul was stronger and beat me by a few reps. Why do I remember that? Who knows. Maybe because I came so close to winning something that was based on strength since I was so small.
Paul was never outspoken. I don't recall him ever standing out, for that matter. But, he was always around and everyone liked him. He was one of the more 'popular' guys in the class.
As was with all school classes, we all went our way after graduation. Paul joined the military along with his friend, Bill. And went off...to Vietnam. And this changed his life forever. Like so many others, war had changed my old friend and classmate.
I saw him sometime in the 80's and thought he was leaving the area. But, sometime in the 90's as I was stopped at a light on Division street, a knock came on my window and there was Paul. We greeted each other as long as one can while waiting for a stoplight and it was so good to see the new Paul. But, he did not look anything like the short stocky guy that I had recalled from school. He now was much slimmer with long hair.
It was years later that I bumped into Paul yet again. This time, he was painting part of the factory outlet mall on Bend's southside. And again shortly afterward, I ran into him painting yet another building close to the old truck stop.
Paul had become just a quiet guy who did his job and...got by. Another classmate, Randy, actually lived across from him for a while and did not realize that he was there.
The last time that I saw Paul was in 2005, shortly after we reopened in our new building. Paul came in for breakfast one morning and I was able to talk with him at the counter. He said that he had a condo on the west side and he pretty much stayed to himself. He said that was just the way he liked it.
With the advent of Facebook, I have been able to reconnect with many of these old schoolmates. I have been asked more about Paul than any other classmate. He was the one who they all knew and liked and who had just disappeared. It had been so long since I saw him, I figured that he must have just left the area.
Yesterday, as I pulled out of my son, Casey's, house and looked to merge into traffic on Galveston, a man on his bike came around the corner. I waited as he drove in front of my bumper, looked my way, smiled briefly, and nodded his head. At first, I wondered if I knew the man.....and then the memories flooded in. It was Paul! I turned his direction, drove alongside, and rolled down my window. "Paul?", I asked? He smiled and nodded his head. "Pull over", I yelled out and drove up to the next place that could park.
I watched as he rode my way. While his eyes still spoke his name, he was now much older with his skin much leathery. His smile showed me my old friend who had now been beaten up a little with life. I told him that more people had asked about him that any other classmate that I had known. That knowledge did seem to brighten his smile but he remained that same quiet guy.
He told me that he had followed me on the news and thanked me for my support of vets. There is a bond that people have after sharing an experience. Paul and I had shared two......school and Vietnam. I felt that bond as we talked. I also felt something else....his PTSD. We talked about life and what he was doing. "How are you, Paul?", I asked. He shared how he no longer was in the condo and now lived in a small apartment. "I get by", Paul said, "I have been able to pick up another job that has helped me get through the winter and I have a landlord who trusts me and that helps".
I asked him if had ever heard of the Band of Brothers and he said he had. I invited him over and he said that he probably would not make it as his bike was now his transportation. We talked for a while about old friends and I told him that it was so good to see him again and that I hoped that our paths would cross again soon. I stuck out my hand to shake his.
Then...he pushed my hand to the side and gave me a bear hug. This came from the quiet guy who did not show emotion. I hugged him back, said my goodbyes, and drove down the street back to the diner.
Almost immediately, I kicked myself. There were so many things I should have said. Like get his number, find out where he now lives, or invite him to the Vet Center. Forty years ago, the war changed his life and in a way....he still lives it.
I made two phone calls. One to another old classmate Larry and the other to my Vietnam brother, Zin. I left a message with Larry and ended up waking up Zin. I apologized for waking him from his nap and we discussed Paul and his needs for a bit. I thanked Zin for helping me get it off my chest.
After leaving the diner, I drove home and took a nap of my own. I put my phone on vibrate and awoke to a call from Larry. I smiled at the irony of it all as I saw his name on my phone. After all, I had waken Zin and now I was getting woke for the same thing.
Larry told me that he would be in town on Wednesday and would join me for lunch. We talked of Paul and he informed me that he wanted to try and find him. That actually would be a good thing if we can find him.
If only I had gotten his number.....or his address....
Friday, March 22, 2013
March 22, 2013
I slept little during the night before. A mix of two things kept me awake. While a head cold did annoy, the largest thing that distracted me was my thoughts. In the morning, I had been asked to present a Red Cross Hero award to a friend in honor of his son who died last year while serving his country.
My mind and heart kept going to this friend. I could only imagine how he was feeling and wondering if he too was laying there awake thinking of the day to come. Having three children of my own, I know that I would be devastated if I lost one and to relive that loss a year later could not be much easier.
I recall how I felt when my son left for the Navy a few years back. I even wrote of how hard it was. But to lose him for the rest of my life on earth? I know there is the comfort that you will see him again one day in Heaven but.....we live in the here and now.
I saw every hour and by 5AM, I gave up and just got up. I read a bit and prayed a bit. I worried about what I was going to say. There was a standard canned offer but....this was special. The young man who had given his life for his country was special. His family was special. And I wanted to honor that.
Words began to form in my mind. I practiced them over and over in my brain and began to take them apart and inspect them piece by piece. I wanted more than anything for the words to reflect not just my feelings but the ones of my veteran brothers that I was presenting for. And I wanted them to have full meaning for my friend and for his son.
I showered and headed out, picking up Trinity along the way. I arrived at the event and walked in with Trin and some of my brothers from my table. We all got in line to get some food. As I scooped up my breakfast from the chafing dishes many of my veteran brothers who were there along with other 'Jake's' customers quipped on how much better Jimmy's weekly buffet at the meetings was which did fill me with a bit of pride.
I sat at the table and tried to eat but nothing tasted good. The food was good....the problem was me. Nerves and the desire to do my best gave me no appetite. I nibbled at my food and did my best to get the nutrition that I needed. Not to help matters, I felt my blood sugar drop and knew that I needed to get that in check. I walked back over and got a glass of orange juice.
On the program, we were last so I watched and listened. Every presentation was the same. Mine would either be taken for what I hoped for.....an honor to a special man or....as grandstanding. I decided that it did not matter what anyone thought, it needed to be said.
Before I knew it, we were next. The adrenaline kicked in overriding the sugar and lack of food. I sat and watched the video of Justin's mother speaking of him. When he was announced, the room sprang to their feet in a standing ovation. With my Marine brother, Zin, by my side, I walked to the side of the stage. Zin took the award and flowers. I took the microphone. The words flowed just as they did in my mind minutes before. I looked at Jim and my heart went out to him. I spoke of how our friend, Bob Maxwell when talked to about his Medal of Honor is always quick to tell you who the real heroes were....the ones who could not come home. Then we presented the award, shook Jim's hand, stepped back a step and saluted. Zin and I left the stage and watched as Jim tried to talk but could not.
As I watched another thought came to my mind. Jim was the hero here. He was the biggest hero in the room in my mind. He was here, up on stage, reliving his grief.....not for himself but for his son's honor. I wondered if I could have that much strength. I know he would probably give anything just for a few more minutes with his boy.
I was there for the heroes award breakfast. But the most heroic man there did not receive an award....at least not for himself.