We owe our troops so very much. Sometimes I wonder if it can ever be enough.
When I was a little girl (in the early 1960's) there was a man from our neighborhood who spent all his time sitting on benches - usually waiting for busses he never seemed to get on. He wore shabby clothes and blinked quite a lot. Most of the children were afraid of him. We were told he was suffering from something called 'shell shock' - though no one bothered to explain exactly what that was. I knew it had to do with loud noises, however - because the crueler kids would sneak up behind him and set off firecrackers or shoot cap pistols just to see the poor sod jump and scream.
I thought it was a terrible thing to do. Most of these kids were the local bullies. I’d often been on the receiving end of their nastiness – so I sympathized with the man. I was maybe 6 or 7 at the time (1st and 2nd grade) – so the thought of his being at all dangerous never even crossed my mind. He just looked sad. My child’s mind reasoned that all he needed was a friend to make him feel better (‘cause god knows that’s what I needed). Well - one Saturday afternoon I screwed my courage to the sticking plate and sat down beside him on that bench. He never moved, just stared out into space. I had no idea what to say – so I told him all about the Mighty Mouse cartoon I’d seen on TV earlier that morning (I thought Mighty Mouse was so cool!). He never spoke – never even acknowledged I was there – but I could tell he was listening. Not many grown-ups ever listened to what I had to say. It felt good – like I had a real friend. After a while, I said my goodbyes, promising to visit him the very next Saturday.
And so began one of the oddest relationships of my life. Nine am on a Saturday, rain or shine, he’d be there. Waiting. We never really spoke (to each other) – though there were times when he’d talk to himself – disjointed stuff about war and bombs and mud. Things I wasn’t equipped to understand or deal with. I only have snatches of those memories – but I remember telling him about the shell shock. I thought it was some disease, you see – like mumps or the measles - that one day he could get better. At least I think that’s what I told him – that one day he’d get better. He got very quiet; kinda nodded his head. Then he began to cry. I didn’t know what to do – so I went over to the Jack-in-the-Box and bought him some French fries (they cost a quarter in those days – my week’s allowance). I patted his hand.
I wasn’t always able to make it – though I tried. Saturdays were big chore days around my house – I had lots to do before I could go out and play. I tried to get everything done early – but sometimes I had to wait quite a while to get started. My father drank heavily, you see - spending most Saturday mornings in the bathroom (or the hallway) getting sick. I’d try and sneak out if I could – but that wasn’t always possible. Also - my mother liked to go out on weekends. Sunday was usually her big meet-n-greet day – but that depended on my father’s drinking. The drunker he was Friday night – the earlier she wanted to get out Saturday morning. It was her way of sticking it to him. I remember one particular Saturday - driving by in my parent’s car (we were going to visit my aunt or some such). The mans bench was on a busy corner, near a traffic light. When we stopped for the light – I looked out the window right at him. I was afraid to wave, afraid if my parents noticed they’d refuse to let me see him any more; which was what happened, in the end. He looked right at me – right into my eyes. As the car pulled away, I saw him get up and stumble away. He’d been waiting, you see – for me.
I saw him there on and off for the next several years. I’d finally been forbidden to talk to him, being found out whilst kipping 50 cents for a couple of Cokes. I was afraid of what my parents would do to me if I got caught disobeying (retribution in my house was swift and devastating) – so I’d ride my bike on the other side of the street, hurrying by very fast, unable to look him in the eye - all the while feeing guilty as hell for abandoning him. He never knew why I stopped coming by. I’ve always regretted lacking the courage to defy my parents and just say something – but I was so afraid (I had good reason to be – alcoholics and drug addicts aren’t known for making sound parenting decisions). It was terrible. He’d just look at me with those big sad eyes, watching me ride by. I felt like a criminal. Then, one summer, he was just gone. I’d gotten so used to seeing him there. I learnt about his death from a local shopkeeper. He’d died sitting on that bench, all alone. I was told he was indeed a veteran – of WWI. And it wasn’t just shell shock – he’d been gassed. And now he was dead – he was dead, and I never even knew his name.
And that’s all he earned after serving his country – a worn out bench with a six year-old child to keep company. Well I say he deserved better. They all do. You know - every time I hear Paul McCartney’s The Fool on the Hill I think of that poor man sitting alone on his bench - waiting. Here it is almost 50 years later – and nothing has changed. Veterans still wait for someone to care – and they often do it alone.