He was already quite sick when we formally met and had the first chance to actually talk. His wife and mine had been friends and traded emails for years, usually regarding club business in the community in which we own a vacation home. Since I've been out of work we've been here frequently, and so have been involved with more than our usual share of events and preparations.
I'd only ever seen Joe in the past at a few meetings and group dinners, where he spoke very little, but with authority and a wisdom obviously gained from years of experience and considered thought. From his occasional critiques, I sensed he possessed a very sensitive bullshit meter.
One afternoon, some months ago, we visited with Joe and his wife for a few hours, and I came away feeling very fortunate to have had the opportunity. His health is failing now, and I assume that it won't be long before he passes.
Joe struck me as extremely frail when we exchanged a few pleasantries on his deck during that warm day, occasionally commenting on world affairs and the condition of the country. It didn't take long to see that we agreed on several "progressive" issues.
He had retired from the IRS and, as he put it, thankfully had the same insurance as the Senate and Obama, to help him fight the various debilitating conditions that were sapping him of his life.
And what a life.
As a kid in Oklahoma, he and his brother bought a surplus Stearman from the military and taught themselves to fly. For take off, they'd sputter along the raised roads bordering the surrounding fields until they came upon one that was cleared, correctly oriented into the wind, and owned by a friendly farmer. The plane would plop onto the dirt, and soon be aloft.
The brothers flew all around the state, navigating only with a compass - determining their current location by circling water towers and gleaning the name of the town below them.
In the Air Force, he flew in the earliest jet fighters during some of the first and most uncertain years of the cold war, this time arcing across the northern hemisphere approaching the USSR and pulling away when the "proceed" orders were, thank goodness, not received, each day.
He met his wife while in the military and raised three sons, who went into various social and government services, and whose families are currently spread across the US and the world. He left the military and worked for the IRS until he and his wife retired to a lake community in Northern California.
And now, at what were the last years of his life, he was upset. His concerns? Fox. Beck. Palin. Limbaugh. McCain. Republican leadership. What they were doing to divide the country, while advancing their own agendas. How they disgraced the military and veterans by attempting to define the aggressive role that the US should adopt in "defending" the country while forcing its will onto the world stage. The lies they spew when attacking intelligent debate and intellectual pursuits. Their pitching of hatred to stir up the worst fears in people during desperate times, prompting their followers to fight other American citizens, instead of struggling against injustice and for a better country and world.
We talked about other topics, too, but I know we both felt a little better for having found a fellow kindred spirit.
The word "patriot" has been abused so often, it's almost become a joke - and it shouldn't be. I haven't met many people that I'd call patriots. Ones that really loved, cared for and feared for the safety and well-being of their country and its citizens, after giving it and them a lifetime of service. I'm just pleased I recently had the chance to get to know one - even briefly.
Now, when I get distracted and overwhelmed by unemployment, the seemingly unending barrage of ignorance blaring from so much of the media, the uphill climb toward equality.. tolerance.. understanding.. I think of Joe, the troubles that he senses, and how it's always a little later than you think.
Then I try to find a way to get busy.