Saturday, October 01, 2011

“Breakfast Blessing”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is paraphrased a bit, from memory. But otherwise this is a tale based on real events.

I’ve said it frequently in this newspaper – sometimes the best columns seem to write themselves.

Recently, I needed to get work done on my pickup truck. This meant a visit to Chardon, and my favorite repair garage. The owner was a regular customer when I helped manage the city’s most successful grocery store. So I trusted him with my vehicles just as he depended on me to provide meal choices, snacks, and beverages.

The habit stuck even when I moved on to a different location.

After dropping off my truck, I walked around the corner to McDonald’s. The breakfast rush was in full swing, and I took the opportunity to share coffee and conversation.

My brother-in-law arrived after about half an hour. He cheerfully recounted family events of the week, while I finished a polystyrene plate of tasty pancakes and sausage.

While listening, I noticed a tall figure across the room. He was quietly reading a morning paper by the faux-stone fireplace. In between pages, I saw his face.

“Soldier Joe?” I asked myself, silently.

Breakfast disappeared too quickly. Then, my brother-in-law gestured with his coffee. “Were you ready to go?”

I nodded, taking a gulp of the Colombian brew. “Yes. Thanks for coming here… not sure when the truck will be finished.”

We both got up to leave. He was several steps ahead of me, when the tall fellow by the fireplace put down his newspaper.

“Rod?” this lone figure exclaimed. “The Grocery Guy?”

I shook his hand. “Hey! How are you?”

Soldier Joe looked a bit older than I remembered. Thatches of gray filled his hair and moustache. But there was strength in his voice and eyes.

“Haven’t seen you at work in a long time,” he reflected.

“No,” I explained. “Still doing the retail-manager thing, but at a different store. And still writing for the Maple Leaf.”

Joe smiled. But before he could reply, news bellowed from a flat-screen TV above the fireplace. In serious tones, a CNN reporter described the bleak local scene in Afghanistan. Plus, the political implications here at home.

“I remember being alone, in the middle of war,” my friend reflected with a somber expression.

“Vietnam, right?” I asked.

He nodded. “When I came home, there were no parades. My buddies and I felt shunned – by everyday people, and the government. It’s like they wanted to forget.”

I took a deep breath. “You know, I was just talking about the Vietnam Era with one of the college students at work. To them, the war is ancient history. But I described how that conflict shaped my generation…”

Soldier Joe grew curious. “What do you mean?”

My mood quieted. “I was a young kid in those days. Our family was Christian and very middle-of-the-road. We were taught to respect the government and its decisions. I would never have imagined anything else. But every night on the evening news, there were reports from the battlefield. And from our nation’s capitol…”

Joe bowed his head. “You saw it on TV, or read about it in Life Magazine. I lived it, in Vietnam, and back here in Ohio.”

“That’s right,” I agreed. “While soldiers struggled and the government careened toward finding a successful resolution of the conflict, young kids like myself watched from the sidelines. People like you were our heroes.”

My friend brightened. “Really?”

“The aftermath of Vietnam,” I said dramatically. “How we dealt with the soldiers coming home. How our politicians wrestled for partisan advantage while you were abandoned and ignored. That was a defining event for my generation. We saw what happened to you and vowed that it would never be allowed to happen again.”

Joe’s eyes grew wet. “I’m still fighting for medical benefits. For people like me, the war never ended.”

I sighed loudly. “Growing up in that moment made me a Libertarian of sorts. Indeed, I think that whole experience helped revive the old-style Jeffersonian resistance to government, in America.”

A wordless pause filled the air, as both of us reflected.

He shifted gears, suddenly. “So, you’re still managing a grocery store?”

I was caught off guard. “Yes, that’s right. It pays the bills. I actually wrote, edited and published three books over the past few years. But it’s hard to sell printed work in this economy. And I’m not much of a salesman.”

Soldier Joe laughed out loud. “Well then, I’ll come visit your new place, sometime. Good to see you, Rod!”

I shook his hand, again. My coffee had gone cold while we conversed. But now, my spirits were warm.

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