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WWI

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.

Originally posted to The Fat Lady Sings on Mon May 25, 2009 at 11:20 AM PDT.

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