By Essie Johnson
You wouldn’t think that being a mere cashier would allow me to talk to a lot of interesting people, but surprisingly, I have a lot of funny, odd, and sometimes even heartbreaking conversations. On a Thursday, when I was working my usual shift, an old man with long, white hair and a wispy beard came in and needed help finding a few products. After I had helped him and was in the process of ringing him up, he mentioned that he was a homeless vet. “What branch did you serve in?” I asked, trying to make conversation.
“Marine Corps,” he grunted out. I then brought up how I had just received a recruitment letter from them and was seriously considering joining the Marines myself. “Don’t,” he said bluntly.
“Oh? May I ask why not?” I asked curiously. He took a minute to reply, as if he was trying to find the right answer to my question.
He looked up at me: “Well, they’ll use and abuse ya just like me.” Once he knew that I was interested in his story, he opened right up: “I was sent out to Vietnam, drafted, I tried to avoid it. I went to college, they didn’t wanna put you on the front lines if they knew you was smart. But even with my schooling, I was still drafted. I could’ve been one of ‘em border jumpers, but I didn’t wanna live like that. Everyone who came back over from Nam had the same cancer, me and all my buddies, we all got Agent Orange. I could’ve taken the chemo that the state wanted me to, but everyone who took that chemo is dead, all the men in my group, dead.”
At this point, he seemed to be tearing up a little, so it was hard to maintain eye contact with him. He continued after clearing his throat: “I shouldn’t even be here right now.” His eyes fell to the ground: “I’m the last one from my platoon that’s alive, ‘cos I’m the only one who didn’t take that chemo. The last one, other than me, actually died on Veterans Day last year. Something told me I needed to go see ‘em, so I hitched a ride up to Salt Lake, and I got to see ‘em before he went.”
After telling me about this particularly hard memory, he looked up at me, suddenly with a smile on his face: “You know, when we was goin’ over to Nam, the third time around, we took a submarine. And we couldn’t make it to the surface, so we got shot up through the torpedo tube. And I oughta tell ya, you haven’t lived until you’ve got that much air blastin’ ya up like that.” While talking about this memory, he had such a look of childlike amusement, almost as if all of the upsetting things hadn’t happened. He then abruptly changed the subject: “You know, I got chased out of a town a lil’ west of here. They don’t like us, the men that were shipped off to Nam. They don’t like us,” he said, looking up at me again.
“Well, it’s not like you or any of the other men had much of a say in going over there if you were drafted, and even then, you tried to avoid it,” I replied with a concerned look on my face.
“Yeah, well, we all knew we weren’t supposed to be over there; we killed a lotta people and blew a lotta cities to bits.” After that, he fell silent, closing himself off again and looking down at the ground. I could feel that he was done sharing his war stories.
“Well, regardless, thank you for your service and everything you’ve done for our country. Happy Veterans Day,” I said, trying to make sure he knew that I appreciated his temporary company.
“Well, thank you, I don’t get that much [time to talk] anymore. I hope I haven’t ruined your day, darling,” he said.
I smiled and said, “No, of course not, thank you.”
Talking to this man felt sour, but it was also warming. I wanted to help him, and in some way, I think I did. These men and women who’ve fought for us, regardless of politics, had put their whole life on pause when they decided that they were willing to fight for us under any circumstance. The least that we can do is to listen to our veterans.