I was in the check out line at the grocery store. The man in front of me was attractive. Yes, I am very happily married, but my options were to look at the ridiculous headlines, check out the ingredients list on the candy or look around, and he was just the more interesting option. Anyway, he was empirically attractive, anyone would think so. Well, okay, I could only see him in quarter profile but I was pretty sure he was attractive. Probably in his late 30’s. He had on a t-shirt, shorts and cap. Good build, not lots of muscle, but fit, very fit.
As the grocery clerk handed him his change, she said “Thank you for your service.”
I took a closer look, his cap was brown camo and had Iraqi Freedom stitched on it. I continued to place items on the conveyor belt while images of flags, eagles, and soldiers at attention flitted through my head.
I looked back as he walked off with his groceries. I wondered if when people thanked him for his service, did he feel humble and maybe a little embarrassed to be called out for something that he clearly had been moved to do at a very personal level?
Then it occurred to me that my ideas of what patriotism is may not mesh with what his service was. When people thanked him did it bring up something horrible? Would it be something that Hollywood could hijack; directed by Mel Gibson with buckets of blood, honor, and raw pain that would leave us, the moviegoers, aghast yet proud to be American but left him a shivering puddle on the floor?
Both of my grandfather’s served in WWII; both were seriously injured. They told us stories about their service.
My dad’s father told us stories about meeting my grandmother, a nurse, at a USO dance. He told us about a gigantic python when he was stationed in Burma. My grandmother is the one who told us about how he got burned; pulling the pilot from the plane he was on and then there was an explosion. The pilot died but because of him, my grandfather only had burns on his upper chest and face and he lived. I’m not sure how long he was in the hospital for but I remember overhearing one of my uncles talking about how Eddie quit smoking because his lungs were burned too.
My mom’s dad lost his eye. He had a fake eyeball he would set on the counter as he left the room and would warn us, “I’m watching you!” with a gleeful chuckle. I don’t know how he lost his eye. For years, my mother would use tweezers to remove tiny shards of shrapnel from his neck as the pieces found their way to the surface while my grandfather rested his head in his hands. We would sneak and watch with morbid fascination.
They both told us stories, and made us laugh, but they never talked about their service, not really.
I don’t know what war does to a person. I don’t know how you go far away from home, with all the shooting at and being shot at, and greeting the Reaper regularly without it impacting you in some elemental way. I don’t know how you come home and buy groceries just like the lady next to you as though everything is normal after all you have been through. But I am grateful. I am grateful and somewhat apologetic that it takes a parade or a Mel Gibson movie for us to remember that service is not about just flags or eagles. Those clips on the news are real people, and we are so privileged to be able to turn the channel.
I didn’t know that man and I will never see him again, but he was something more than attractive. He was brave; standing in the grocery line after holding the line. For me.