The white van showed up with a black driver. He was an older guy with close-cropped gray hair. He was friendly, got my bags into the back and hurried to the side door of the 16-passenger van to let me in. Just him and me. I wasn’t late. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the Denver airport. I fiddled with my phone.
We stopped at a red light. It was a one-way street in front of us going to the left. There was no crossing traffic from the right. He could’ve taken that left. Instead, he leaned out the window and talked to somebody in a wheelchair on the sidewalk.
He was an old man with the brown face of someone who lives outside. Not the tan of a guy who golfs a lot or spends time in his fishing boat. The mahogany leather face of someone who is always outdoors. Always. With the compulsory gray-yellow hair. I couldn’t quite hear what the driver was saying to him.
When the man answered back, you could see his jaw moving with the inward-turned lips of a man who is missing most, or all, of his teeth. He had a black baseball cap with the words “Vietnam Veteran” on the front. White letters soiled to gray.
“Hey, here’s a little something for you.” The driver unbuckled, got his wallet out of his back pocket and reached out to hand the man a bill. I don’t know how much he gave him.
The Vet struggled to stand, hunched across and reached for the money. His cardboard sign (ANYTHING WILL HELP) almost fell to the ground. He almost fell, too. He sat back down and his mouth squished around as he said a few more words. The driver buckled up and we pressed on.
“That was nice of you,” I said.
“I was in Vietnam,” he said.
I said, “Huh,” and nodded my head. I avoided blurting out a kneejerk, Thank You For Your Service.
“When were you there?”
“67 and 68. I was there when they started the Tet Offensive.”
He said, “A lot of Vietnam guys got pretty messed up. It didn’t affect me at all. I was too busy chasing girls.”
“I was born in 67. How does that make you feel?”
“Oh, man, you’re just a kid.”
We drove on the side streets, jostling around through the potholes, avoiding the traffic on the gridlocked main highway to the airport.
I couldn’t stop myself. “I deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once. But I was a flyboy, so I had it easy.”
“When I went out to a firebase, and somebody saw an enemy platoon coming toward us, they called in air support from the Navy Phantoms. They blew up the whole hillside. They flew off—zoom—and did a barrel roll as they left.” He shot his right hand out and swirled it to add emphasis to the departure of the fighters.
“That was helpful, I bet.”
“All of my missions were Close Air Support. I always tried to help the guys on the ground. It was good to be helpful.”
I tried to picture the green of Vietnam with the orange and black explosions blossoming on the hillside. All I ever saw downrange was brown, brown, shit all around, like the old fighter pilot song says. About that time, we passed a sign that said Metro Cannabis adopted that stretch of Colorado highway. There was enough garbage to qualify as a road in Baghdad. Great job, stoners.
We were silent the rest of the way to the airport. I wanted to ask him if he remembered Vietnam clearly. Did he remember how it felt when the shock wave from the bombs rolled through the firebase? I wanted to tell him I think about my wars every day. That I was writing things down so I could remember them. That I already felt them slipping away. Memories. Time. Life.
We pulled up to the outermost island. He jumped out and grabbed my bags out of the back. I decided to give him a tip that was ten times bigger than I normally did. Probably crass of me, but I wanted to put something real behind my words. I wanted to thank him for complicating my simple, yet mean-spirited, view of my fellow man. He was already a good man. A few bucks wouldn’t reinforce that. But, maybe he’d forward my money to another guy who needed it. Maybe I could be a good man by extension.
“Thanks for helping that dude.” I gave him a twenty and shook his hand.
“Oh, thank you,” he said, surprised. His nametag said “Cecil.”
We looked each other right in the eye.
“I felt like it was my duty,” he said.
We both nodded. I turned and left.
I couldn’t breathe. One island. Crosswalk. Another island. Crosswalk.
Finally the automatic door slid open and fed me some conditioned air.