We served over a hundred and fifty souls, the homeless and poor along with the people who ran the soup kitchen every week and their families. There were smiles, laughs, and expressions of true thankfulness. I believe the smiles made it all worthwhile. As the line trickled to a stop we joined the diners, “breaking bread” and sharing their stories and their experiences.
Aja was unusually quiet. We sat across the table from a thin black man named Nate. A Vietnam War veteran, Nate never got his life together despite the war being over for nearly forty-five years. He had been an eighteen-year-old tunnel rat and by his own admission, “hadn’t amounted to much.” After returning home, Nate had worked at low paying jobs to support his alcoholism until he “had just worn out.” Despite being surrounded by friends this Thanksgiving morning, his glances were furtive, as if someone or life might be sneaking up on him.
“Holy John,” the Methodist minister, disclosed to me Nate lived on family land in a fifty-year-old Airstream resting on flat tires and cement blocks. A cast iron stove “liberated” from someone’s trash heap and vented through a window, both warmed the old travel trailer and provided enough heat to prepare whatever food Nate had available. Like many troubled vets, he sometimes forgot to eat or chose instead to drink his way through the day.
Nate augmented his monthly social security checks with odd jobs done for understanding church members or by selling, for scrap, the aluminum cans he collected walking the country roads around the Airstream. Local folks dropped off bags of aluminum cans under a hand-painted sign whose down-pointing arrow instructed them to “drop cans here.” With no running water or indoor plumbing, he filled recycled milk jugs from a neighbor’s outdoor spigot and took his weekly shower and washed his clothes in the facilities provided in the church’s fellowship hall. Despite his plight, he seemed almost happy with his existence and was more open than many Vietnam veterans I had met.
A gaunt, mahogany face peered out from under an old Detroit Tigers’ baseball cap. Wisps of wiry, gray hair peeked out from under it. He had an ancient face, made older by his predicament. It was cut by deep crevasses that became deeper when he smiled. Nate seemed anything but sad with his self-imposed hardships. In a soft voice, he said, “I do okay. I don’t need much and since I’m drawin’ my social I live like a king.” Pausing to look back somewhere in the past he quoted, “I try to keep my heart open to dreams. As long as there’s a dream I have a life.” With our present military involvements, I wondered how many more of these damaged souls we would produce.
Nate paused, his rheumy eyes gazing intently at Aja before asking, “Little girl…somethin’ is troublin’ you?” Before she could answer he went on, “You young and beautiful. Out here on a Thanksgiving mornin’, you got to have a good heart. People gonna tell you this is the best time of your life. It ain’t. Wonder mo young folk don’t commit suicide hearing that shit. Life always gonna be hard but gets better if you let it. I didn’t and now my time be growin’ short. Nothin’ I can do about it, but you can if you wants to. ‘scuse my language but you need to take life by the balls and twist ‘em if you need to.”
Aja smiled her heart melting smile and said, “Thank you, Nate. I’ll try to remember to twist them just for you.”
This is a fictional composite of many former Vietnam Vets I have known…too many that I have known. It is also written for Steve, my brother, and Hawk, my friend, who saw a need and acted on it.
Don Miller is a multi-genre writer who, in addition to maintaining a blog, has self-published six books. His most recent release is the romantic adventure OLIVIA. Don’s author’s page may be accessed at http://amazon.com/author/cigarman501.
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