During my undergrad days I often tortured myself with early morning Saturday classes. I would prepare for the day with a morning coffee constitutional at the local coffee shop. On one of these Saturdays two men walked in; one was a young man in his mid-twenties to early thirties, the other was very frail and considerably older. They had come to meet with a couple of other people but the older gentleman soon broke away, moving to sit by himself. He wore a plaid shirt and tan slacks which fit loosely and accentuated his thinness, wisps of dark hair done in a comb-over on his shiny bald pate, his heavily lined face hinting at the type of life he must have lived. He seemed uncomfortably lonely despite his companion and the hustle and bustle of the shop; oddly disconnected from the reality he inhabited.
He moved to stand and dropped the coffee that his companion had purchased for him earlier, the contents splattering all over the floor. His embarrassment was palpable in his posture. His companion called to ask if he was all right, and the man said he was. Satisfied, the younger man returned to his conversation. From the nature of their talk and respective body postures I surmised that it was some sort of business meeting.
It seemed to me that the older man was not "all right." He stood there with a befuddled, forlorn expression as the shop's employees cleaned up the mess. I offered to buy him another beverage. He politely declined at first but then ultimately accepted my gesture. I was also moved to ask that he sit at my table. He introduced himself as "John" as he sat down. He had been a veteran of the Second World War. He began to tell me all sorts of stories. How he fought overseas, had seen combat. He told me about the sacrifices he made in service to his country, the friends that he saw killed. When he realized that I was actually listening to him, he became very animated in his verbosity as if my gesture had been a small crack in a dam and my attention had caused that crack to grow until the dam burst, the waters of his past being allowed to freely flow.
I missed a good part of my class that morning, something that was usually anathema to me. I felt compelled to stay and hear him out. This gentleman needed to release all these stories truncated though they were. He spoke as though this were his last opportunity to relate these experiences to anyone ever again. He recounted in stream of consciousness fashion stories of the friends he has outlived during and since the war, spoke of his family (his grandson was his companion), and how he keeps busy with ballroom dancing and even produced a free lesson card from the dance studio which was incidentally a block away from where I lived.
His grandson called out soon after, telling him it was time to go. John's face changed for a moment, betraying disappointment that this impromptu interview was coming to a close. With some reluctance, he got up and thanked me for my generosity with the coffee.
"John?" I said as he began to turn away. When he turned back around I took his hand in a firm handshake.
"Thank you" was all I said.
His eyes watered. He understood that I wasn't just thanking him for his company and the conversation. He was too choked up to respond but nodded his head in acknowledgement and smiled before he walked away. His grandson gave me a curious look as they both exited the shop.
To this day, I have not seen him again but that meeting left a great impression on me. Wars are fought and their merits are debated until the proverbial cows come home. However, our soldiers aren't faceless cogs in a machine but real people who make the ultimate sacrifices; many of whom never receiving the credit that they are due. To some, like John, two simple words may seem sufficient; to me, it's a humble but woefully inadequate gesture in the face of all that our veterans give in their service.
Today, whatever your thoughts on the current political climate, please be sure to remember our veterans, both living and dead, and say "thank you". Those two simple words speak volumes.