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Sunday, August 3

Terms of Service

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 him 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 dangerous never even crossed my mind. He just looked sad. I thought all he needed was a friend to make him feel better (god knows I needed one). 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 he listened. Not many grown-ups ever listened to what I had to say. I said my goodbyes, and promised to visit him at his bench 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 spoke – though there were times when he’d talk – disjointed stuff about war – about 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, like the measles – that one day he could get better. I think I told him that – that he could get better. He got very quiet, then 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). 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. Sometimes I had to wait to get started. My father drank heavily, spending most Saturday mornings in the bathroom getting sick. I’d try and sneak out if I could – but that wasn’t always possible. My mother liked to go out on weekends. Sunday was 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 Saturday driving by in my parent’s car (we were going to visit my aunt). The 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 saw 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’d ride my bike on the other side of the street, hurrying by very fast, unable to look him in the eye, 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 tell him – but I was afraid (I had good reason to be). He’d just look at me with those big sad eyes, watching me ride by. Then, one summer, he was just gone. I learned about his death from a local shopkeeper. He’d died 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.

Every time I hear this song: The Fool On The Hill - I think of that man sitting alone on his bench - waiting.

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