Altitude did not a challenge him. Girth and attitude were another matter.
He wore a soiled grey hooded sweatshirt, typical campground outerwear for a misty cool spring evening. Untypically, it had a number of patches sewed to it, the one which covered the better portion of the back was the Seal of the the U.S. Navy. The others were of various organizations that former service members might join with a numerical bias toward the American Legion. Curiously, he wore a row of four military medals on the left breast of this grubby garment where they would be on a uniform. He appeared an odd fellow before he opened his mouth and when he did he became one.
He was, he said, from Port Angeles Washington at the top of the Olympia Peninsula now, but originally a Minnesotan. He and “the wife”—visible at the campsite near the fire, her ample anatomy pressing down on the fibers of her canvas camp chair like humidity on a southern mid-summer day—were headed there, Duluth to be specific, the next morning. The smell of Minnesotan brandy had preceded him as he moved slowly in my direction. My initial impression was of a man who had enjoyed a “beer and a bop,” in the argot of his home place before, and perhaps during and then again after dinner.
His wife’s voice preceded him. Her sonorous high-pitched whine assured me that the cute scruffy little dog with the squeaky bark now approaching at a leisurely pace was “very friendly.” Her words cut through this otherwise quiet evening like a foghorn. He presented himself in my campsite to fetch “McGee.”
The man bent laboriously when he reached the animal, scooped him up, and stated without fear of successful contradiction that the dog was afraid of me. It was possible. However, it seemed more likely just another curious dog that approach from time to time in campgrounds everywhere.
My new best friend settled on the bench of my picnic table, as “McGee” shook with cold or fright, his plight no longer a concern apparently now that his master had found something to do. The man asked a few cursory questions about where I came from and where I was going. In a summary sort of way he dismissed that as information he had either suspected or found of no interest and in an officious manner began to tell me of him. Much of his life was spent, as one would have suspected from his attire, in the Navy. He was retired. He had been since the 1990’s. The narrative was short on many other details, including his name, but included all the ships he had served in, all the places he had been in the world, and all the time he was the Commander of the Port Angeles, Washington American Legion Post. This presumably explained the patches and the medals.
As he held forth about the ships and the time he had been at war, it seemed not just something he needed to do. There was urgency about it. It was as if I needed to know it. It was without prompting or encouragement. Interspersed with this commentary of this life was his view of various past and present current events and public servants. John Kerry, a fellow Navy veteran, was a man he had “lost all respect for,” (presumably in the 1960’s), when he threw someone else’s medals instead of his own over the fence at the White House. Whether he knew who Senator Kerry was then, or the Senator ever had his respect seemed, from his tone, unlikely. The incident, as he described it, I knew had never happened. When asked how he knew Senator Kerry did that, he dismissively stated that everyone knew it because it was on the radio. They–the radio voices--told him too, that Bill Clinton was a draft dodger and Barack Obama was a Muslim.
Clearly this was a man with strong if tenuously grounded convictions.
Some of the patches were unfamiliar so it seemed a prudent to send the conversation in their direction since it was clear he was content to settle here awhile and my interest in his life and times was quickly waning. Some were interesting if only because I had never heard of them before. A five-minute explanation of each was the minimum. When he reached the medals he explained that they were not all he was awarded, but not why he wore them. He had the “right” to wear twelve, he said. One could only assume that these were the ones assigned, at least for this evening around the fire, to this particular sweatshirt.
At some point during his narrative, Mrs. Whomever had pried herself from her camp chair, lumbered over to retrieve the shaking “McGee,” and repaired to the trailer. The man then continued to explain his life and times without regard to the glazed eyes that met every new subject. The stories of what he did and where he went became repetitive and the temptation was to dismiss him as a buffoon. He touched on many subjects, all related to his service and his veteran status. One such was that if one holds a 30 percent military disability in Washington State one can camp free. This “benefit” has apparently been passed by the Washington and Oregon Legislatures for the benefit of troops now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, because of the vagueness of the statutory language, it has been ruled to apply to all veterans, something never contemplated or intended, and the loss of fees is hemorrhaging the DNR budgets in both states as the men of previous wars take advantage of this newly provided free lunch. He was delighted with the unintended benefit. He viewed it as an entitlement long overdue. He complained about the amount of paperwork he had to file and the time it took to get the pass. When I asked what made it so onerous, he admitted that a “Disability Award” letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs and an application was what was required and the “pass” was issued in four weeks.
He seemed a melancholy man. If he had a real life now beyond remembering his memorable moments of the past, he never mentioned it. He complained of the time it took to carry out his responsibilities and that he would have to return from Minnesota early to participate in some ceremony or other in Canada. He made it clear that he was the official American Legion Representative to these friendship ceremonies—as opposed to someone who just went out of curiosity. He seemed to enjoy the distinction yet it made him seem even less joyful. He occasionally felt compelled to ask a question about one subject or another, yet he let them pass without comment whatever the answer, simply nodding to suggest that either he had no interest or he already had enough knowledge of it. The word condescending came to mind more than once. His retirement life seemed to have been about ship decommissioning ceremonies, honor guards, remembrances of his time in service, and days spent at the Legion Hall. It seemed to me there should be more to life than that.
In the end, I decided his life was what it was. It may have been only his memories of his service. That was his problem or his joy, not mine. I now knew more than I wanted about it and if I chose to judge him a buffoon because of it or his worldview that was up to me. He seemed a good example why it is sometimes good to just listen and leave it there. When you travel in a van alone, sometimes this is what you get.
As he rose to leave in the gloaming of the cool damp night in response to the screech that boomed from his camper, he said that he had given his wife the camper for her birthday, and she had given him the dog for his. They were going to travel now, and, so long as his back didn’t get any worse, they planned to have a good time.
He turned and walked slowly back to his camper. As he did, it occurred to me that a good time sounded like something he needed.
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