The day was glorious, sunny and warm, perfect for my morning walk. I’d lathered up in sunscreen, daubed my lips with SPF 15 Chapstick, and donned Lululemon shorts, a camisole, sneakers, and sunglasses. I grabbed a camera, just in case, my phone, just in case, and a beach button, just in case. Ready to march.
Stride, stride, stride. I passed through a shady stretch bordered by thickets draped in garlands of aromatic honeysuckle and multi-flora rose. Wreathed in their scent and kissed by soft sea breezes, I broke into the sunshine by the tennis courts and saw an old man standing at the intersection.
With his hands on his hips, he watched the white-clad kids at their lessons as they darted about swinging rackets and chasing balls. He was tiny, wiry, and tan, clothed in a weathered blue tee-shirt and well-worn khakis. I thought, do I take the left at the stop sign, miss him and march on, or continue straight and cross his path? If I slowed to meet him, I knew we would walk together, a meander or shuffle, not the march I’d planned. And I decided, without deciding - for my feet seemed to chart their own course - to continue straight.
“World War II Veteran – Navy” was embossed on his faded green cap. His smile embraced me, so cheerful and pleased to meet a beautiful woman (so he said) along his way. His eyes reminded me of my Uncle Ding’s, pale blue, clear, and forthright. As we fell into step, I thanked him for his service and told him that my husband’s father and uncles had served in Italy and North Africa. He nodded and said, “I was in the Navy. Didn’t want the Army. Figured, you go down on a ship, you go down. Wasn’t as sure of what might happen if the Germans got you.”
I said, “So, what was the deal then, with all you young men rushing to sign up? Didn’t know better? Bravado? Wanted to fight for the country?”
“Oh, you wanted to fight for the country, no matter your age. There was this guy I knew. Big guy. Only fifteen years old. Guadalcanal. Saw all kinds of action before they found out his age and shipped him home.” He shook his head with a thoughtful smile tinged with amusement, and perhaps pride at the guts and gall of that boy. “Myself, I was on a destroyer. Sunk a German sub in the Azores.”
He waved away my admiration and I tried to picture the young sailor he had been on the deck of that ship.
He stopped to face me. “But we don’t learn,” he said sadly. “Korea. Viet Nam. Iraq. Afghanistan. We had no business entering those fights. That killing’s been going on for hundreds of years. The French got involved. The Russians. Got their frickin’ butts handed to ‘em. Sorry…” he said, apologizing for his language. We were quiet for a while, and then walked on, both of us watching our feet cross the asphalt, one slow step at a time.
“D’you think it’s like the gun thing?” I asked. “More about money than principle? Manufacturers of tanks, planes, and weapons keen to keep us in?”
Again he stopped, and I mused that such pauses served as a little break as well as a point of emphasis. “Big business runs everything,” he said. “Runs Congress. They shouldn’t be allowed more than three terms. Who’s that guy? Maybe from Michigan? Just elected again. Been in office for forty years or something.”
I snorted. “Lots of people favor term limits, but no one in Congress is in a big hurry to vote himself out of a job.”
Our stroll had taken us to the water. Feathered stalks of elephant grass swayed along the channel to the sea. Red winged blackbirds sang and swooped low; gulls glided against the blue sky. A burly unshaven man in mud-splattered workboots and a camo baseball cap was climbing into a truck parked by the side of the road. He spotted my companion’s WW II insignia and descended to cross the street to us, his smile broad and hand out-stretched. “Marine Corps. 1970’s. Thank you for your service.”
“And you for yours. Viet Nam?” asked my vet.
“Nope. Came in at the tail end.” He touched the brim of his cap, said, “ Have a good day” and left us.
“Every day is a good day,” replied the old man.
Certainly, this was a good day, with its scent of honeysuckle, roses, and the sea. I could hear the whoops and shrieks of children playing at the nearby beach over the rush of surf. The halo of white sunshine was bright on the sandy road and danced on the water in the channel. Eras seemed to layer and unfold even as we stood there: the past seen by the clear blue eyes that met mine, my own childhood, and that of my kids in this place, blurring with this moment of sand crunching beneath my sneakers and the sun’s warmth on my skin.
We stood at a crossroad; his path lay over the bridge, mine, straight along the shore. I hesitated, willing, ready, wishing, to walk further with him. A car had stopped and the driver graciously waved us on. Suddenly, after all that meandering, there was no time to pause. We had to move.
“You go,” said the old man. “I take my time.” Of course I knew this. We’d been taking our time together, stopping and talking and stopping and talking. But I sensed he was ready to part; maybe I’d rushed him even though, to my sense, I had slowed down.
So I waved at him and the waiting driver, and, inexplicably teary, marched away.