It was a very bright hat. It was mostly black, but it was a very bright black. Same for the gold that spelled out the words RETIRED ARMY. You probably had to pay extra for such bright colors, even though it was only a baseball cap. It was the first thing he’d noticed after he pulled in next to this car in the bank parking lot, the bright hat sitting on the dashboard. That and, on the passenger seat, letters from the VA. Then, as he began to walk toward the bank, the vanity license plate identifying the driver as an ARMY VETERAN and the bumper sticker of a US flag in the shape of the US, with the words Land of the Brave. Inside, the lobby copy of the newspaper said the famous Silverdome was slated to be torn down. After a moment he set the paper down and moved to the counter to cash his Social Security check, noticing the old veteran from the patriot car at a desk off to the left trying to get a loan.
The food pantry was crowded when we arrived. You were allowed to visit the place once a month. This was the first day in August that they were open, one of the few days they would be open this month because they’d be shutting down in the second half of the month to give their volunteers a late summer break, so the people who used the place — the “clients” — had jammed the waiting room and all the chairs were taken. I leaned against a wall and Mike went outside for a cigarette. Eventually, though, as some of the people ahead of me were processed and left, I was able to sit down…just in time to hear a guy in a Vietnam Veteran hat explain about the war. His stories — the usual sort of old codger Vietnam vet bullshit — met with a receptive audience. It seemed he’d gotten back about six months before I did and I was tempted to ask him where he’d been — maybe like me he’d been in the Americal Division — but decided not to interject myself in the conversation when he started to explain history. As many people were killed in the Korean War as in the Vietnam War he told his fellow clients, even though the Korean War lasted for two years and the Vietnam War lasted for seven. Wrong, of course, on all counts. Of course the audience didn’t know any better, but I didn’t expect them to. But if you’re going to wear your little hat and hold forth on war, and wars, you should at least get some of your facts straight. At that moment the history lesson ended when they called his name. He rose to claim his box of free food and take it out to his car. As he did someone called out “Thank you for your service.”
It was so unfair, the old veteran explained to his daughter — We were paying their soldiers and they were using our rifles and then… and then he seemed to switch to a different war. “They bombed the marine barracks and killed 221 marines. So we bombed them and killed some of their civilians and oh, they were so mad we had to promise to be more careful in our bombing.” And then it was time to go. He rose carefully to his feet and, with his daughter leading the way, slowly pushed his walker towards the door.
Greg has been a soldier, student, soil tester, factory worker, pizza deliveryman, journalist, author of The Pizza Diaries, Helping Hands of the Locust People, and other books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.