July 3rd was a very big day at the store. It was the type of day that is normally reserved for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or the last day before Xmas. Luckily, I had anticipated an increase in customers and had brought in extra stock to not only assist those customers, but also the ones that would come in on Saturday. All in all, a successful venture.
Most of our business on the day before the 4th came during the last 3 hours of the day. It was around the first of those three hours (about 4 PM) when I found myself waiting on a gentleman that I could not recall serving before. He was in his late 50s/early 60s. His hair was trimmed neat and meticulous. We exchanged pleasantries casually as I went about ringing up his purchase. At that particular moment there wasn't a line behind this customer.
I don't recall exactly how it came up, we were discussing the holiday, Independence Day, but the gentleman asked, "Did you serve?"
No, I didn't, I told him. The question confirmed in my mind what I had assumed - that this customer was military or former military. His demeanor, his presentation, his polite and formal language all said "military" to me, but one cannot be certain. Then he asked the question and it's the sort of question that only military people and their family members ask. I was certain my assumptions were true.
The gentleman paused and stared into my eyes. I stared back as I am wont to do. I was wondering what he was thinking. Was he about to say that he thought maybe I had? Was he thinking, "Why not"? Was I supposed to feel ashamed at having not served in the military? Should I mention to him that I'm a raving peace lunatic? (smirk) I decided not to say a word one way or another, but see where it led. Then his facial features changed a little. The corner of his mouth quivered ever so slightly. His eyes grew soft, weary, needy.
"I served" he said. "In the 70s. My daughter served, too. In 2003, she was shipped off to serve in a place we never should have been. It's a place we had no reason to be in and a place where we still have no reason to be."
"I'm thankful and sorry for your daughter, sir. Is she OK?"
"A little PTSD. Physically, she's fine, but stuff is starting to come out. Some of it has burst forth, but more needs to come." As he spoke, the gentleman's voice sounded calm. His face betrayed nothing of the gravity of feelings he was expressing. It was as if he were telling me about his daughter's soccer game. The only hint of how this was weighing on him was the welling up of a little water in the corner of his right eye. It would not be a tear, though. This was a well trained soldier who knew he had to remain calm and strong for himself and his family. He blinked and the water disappated across his eyeball lending a glint to his grey blue iris.
"January 2009" he said. "I cannot wait until January 2009. When we can get this country back and get the hell out of there. No one else should suffer like she has."
I nodded, feeling a bit impotent, not knowing what to say or how to reply. I felt solidarity with this man. "I agree" is all I could come up with.
He nodded back. A not-so-secret handshake of sorts. A signal amongst fellow conspirators. The gentleman forced a weak smile on his face and patted my shoulder. "Well, I better get going before I go off on that subject. Once I start, I'm hard to stop. Good meeting you and 'Happy 4th'!" With that, he backed out the door of the store, turned and walked to his car. By the time I turned around I had another customer and had to get back to working. The gentleman obviously had a lot more to say, to share, to lessen his burdon. I hope he finds someone to do that with. If he walks in my store and the conditions are right, I'll ask him to share a cup of coffee with me down the block.