“Hello there young man,” an elderly black man stepped in front of me, encompassing his shadow in front of the book I was reading. I looked up and stuck my hand out to block the Georgia sun and lowered it again.
“I see you’re in the service,” He said pointing to my close cropped haircut, the same cut adorned by the packs of young men roaming the town. “Thank you for your service young man,” He took out his hand and without hesitation I shook it.
“Are you prior service?” I asked.
“Das right. 8 years in the United States Army. 13 foxtrot.”
“Das right,” he smiled. “Vietnam war veteran.”
“Vietnam War huh? Well thank you, sir. Rough time in America.”
“Rough. Real rough. Not like now. No, sir. Black man in the White House, that’s a real rough time in America. Now young man are you enlisted or an officer?”
I placed the I ❤ NYC post card that Erica gave me on the page I was currently reading and closed the book.
“Officer. 2nd lieutenant,” I said. The old man stood up straight from his hunched stance and stuck his hand out in an irregular salute. I flagged him down.
“Oh well, sir!” He said in a full salute.
“You good man. Relax.”
“I know, I’m just kidding young man,” He went back to his slightly hunched stance and started laughing. “Hey, how old are you?”
“21, my god. I’m getting old. You know the day I turned 21 I was loading shells all day and night. I think the only thing I got that day was a cold beer when the fighting stopped and they called us back in. Makes a hell of a fine present I tell ya. Better than any birthday cake. Say now that I think of it,” he stopped in the middle and started to squint his face, deep in thought. “Yeah right. Now that I think of it, the day after I turned 21 I got a letter from my momma. The first woman I ever loved died,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“The first woman I ever loved died sometime around my birthday. She was the only woman I really ever loved, maybe because I never married her. Hah! She and I dated when I was 16. She was beautiful. Every guy wanted to date her, take her out to the movies, to the ball game, to the dance. But she turned them all away. Except me. I don’t know why she said yes to me, and I never asked her about it. I took her out to the movies on our first night and we dated for two years after that. The look of all the other boys, whoo! When I turned 19 they drafted me and I went off to Vietnam. I mean I coulda enlisted first so I coulda picked what I wanted. I was gonna join the Air Force. But nah, they stuck me to shooting cannons. We broke it off of course. She was so scared I was going to die, you know how women be, am I right?” He said nudging my arm with his elbow.
“Sure. You’re right,” I said.
“Well now, the day before I left she cried all night for me. And I ain’t never seen her cry. She was a tough gal. Beautiful, but so much strength about her. This girl ain’t ever need to take shit from no body and there she was before me: breaking up with me and crying. I left and I didn’t speak to her again. Two years later my momma sends me one of her daily letters since I got deployed and the one on my 21st said that my ex-girlfriend died. She got shot during a grocery store robbery. So my momma said,” he paused for a while to look at the slow passing traffic. I broke the silence by telling him that I was sorry but I didn’t know her so I said nothing else.
He straightened back up and smiled “Well now that’s neither here nor there. Past is the past. Das right. Hey now young man you take care now. God bless you. Happy veterans day.”
I stood up and shook his hand. “Happy veterans day sir. Thank you for your service.”
He walked away with his shoulders slumped down the sidewalk. He walked up to a table of high school girls and asked for change on the bus, but they told him they had nothing. I watched the old man walk away and disappear as he turned the corner. I couldn’t read the rest of the book so I walked around town and ordered a slice of pizza.