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He sits across from me and there is silence, but it’s the sort of silence that comforts rather than makes you tick off the seconds until you can leave. It’s the same look with him, always the same look—a grizzled face worn by time and living, deep eyes that have seen too much, and a bulge of chewing tobacco in his left cheek.
The tobacco always makes me wonder. Not that he uses it; most every male here chews or dips or smokes, even some of the ladies. What makes me wonder is how it gets from the pouch to his mouth.
I stare down at his hands, now resting on the top of the table. His thumbs are gone. The pinkies and ring fingers of each hand are fused together, forming one large clump of smooth, pink flesh. Both second fingers are wrapped around his forefingers in a mangled cross-my-heart-hope-to-die way. His hands have been that way for thirty years, fused and mangled and scarred.
He’s never told me how they got that way, and I’ve never asked. Didn’t have to. As a child, I was told he’d jumped on a hand grenade to save his friends. He picked it up with both hands to throw it back, and it exploded.
He always kept his hands in his pockets when around me back then. I remember the first time he took them out and patted me on the shoulder. I was a kid, maybe eight, but I understood what that act meant. I honored it. I still do.
“He ain’t goin’ to Arlington this year,” he says to me. “He” being the President. The man sitting across from me won’t say his name. He says it hurts too much.
I say nothing. I’m not supposed to. There are conversations you are a part of and conversations you’re there only as a witness. I am a witness. That’s fine with me.
“It ain’t right, what he’s doin’. I know he don’t like the military none.” He points one mangled hand at me and says, “But you know what? I don’t give a damn. Us vets are used to part of this country hating us, calling us killers and worse. That’s their right.”
I offer a weak nod. It’s true. They have that right.
“But you know why they have that right?” he asks. “Because we gave it to ’em. We did. Not the politicians or the professors. We bled for it. Died for it. And then we come home like this,
(both hands now, in front of me)
and we don’t ask for nothin’. But it sure as hell would be nice if he’d postpone his vacation long enough to thank us for giving him a country to run.”
He spits into his bottle. It’s an angry spit. A sad spit. Then he settles back into his chair and sighs.
“Know what I think?”
I do. I always have. But I don’t say so, because he needs to say it and I need to hear it and a part of me thinks we all do.
“I think this country is the best there is. I think it was built by God himself to keep this world together. To be a place of freedom, of right. People don’t say that much anymore. They’d rather talk about how wrong we’ve been. And they’re right, you know. We’ve been wrong before. Lotsa times. But that don’t make the right less so. It’s us the world looks to when things go to hell. And when it does—and you know it will—who will they call to stand in the breach? Congress? The President? No. They call us.”
He spits once more.
“And you know what, son? It don’t matter if he’s there to lay that wreath and honor the fallen. Not one damn bit. Because whether he’s there or not, whether we’re hated or loved, when they call us, we’ll answer.”
To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at his blog What I Learned Today and follow him on twitter at @BillyCoffey