Wednesday, March 22, 2006


I sit across the table and listen to this man. He has the flickering tongue of years of psych meds and the toothless grin of an old crack addict. He talks to me because I listen. He is so easy to dismiss as a crazy old man, a crazy old addict, a crazy old criminal. A couple of years ago, when I first talked to him, he was bursting with the crazy story of getting a medal for saving someone from drowning. He was laughed off and pushed away, crazy old man.

I got on the internet and checked. He had recieved a local life saving medal for exactly what he said. The article identified him as homeless and a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran.

In his mind, it was the Medal of Honor... but other than that his story was accurate.

Today we sat and talked. Not about anything specific, yet it was. It was about living to your fifties through things that had killed many people who you knew and liked. (Luck? A divine plan? Or were you just faster?) About following orders and moving fast. About doing what needed to be done.

And we talked about the shadows- the memories of smells and sounds that you can never share. The failures and addictions. The boredom of the heart (his concept, half words, half gestures as he tapped his chest time and again, saying, "Bored right here, bored and so tired.") When you transition from intensity of that level to... what? A job, family and white picket fence?

Once you've been beyond that veil, it becomes almost impossible to relate to civilized people or have them relate to you. They fantasize about it, write books and film movies about it- but they don't want to see it and if you really share what is in your head they flinch away.

There's a shadow to that too, because though they never want to see beyond the veil, they have no problem judging the people who went there.

Sometimes I think that for my age and era, I have experienced many things, some very dark... then I talk to someone like this man and realize that I've barely scratched the surface of darkness and its echoing shadows.

As I was leaving, the deputy working that dorm called me over to say I had the "patience of a saint" for listening to the crazy old man. I didn't know how to tell her that I was honored and awed. No matter how much or how little time he spent in-country, he is still paying for it. It was an honor to listen and maybe lighten his payments for a few minutes.

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