Let’s start thinking ahead about post-war reconstruction. What will we do with our returning vets? My first answer is that, in America, we don’t “do” returning vets. But even if we did, we wouldn’t know what to do.
I say, let’s build a society that Americans can live in. Donate your old Winnebago to a homeless person and skip the European vacation this year. Stop being so selfish, all you yuppies, and take a break from counting your money for a change.
Here is a wandering account of a vet who almost waited too long to open his heart to the people who finally heard him.
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I was with my old friend John on a vacation to the Pacific Northwest. John was here for the Columbia Gorge scenery; I had come to look up old friends who stayed in Seattle after college. We had been downtown and were now returning via the bus system to our hotel in a waterfront district replete with artists, old buildings and steep walkways. Rush hour hadn’t begun. The cracked, grimy sidewalks were still owned by the tourists. The afternoon sun slanted through perfect clouds and played off our faces with an incarnate orange glow. As we headed down a long set of stairs toward the waterfront level, a wheelchair inserted itself between us.
The wheelchair occupant was slumped into a ball. His face was invisible and his clothes were wrinkled and old. He had no legs below the knees. His appearance was in total contrast to his attendant, who was young and insinuating, with black frizzy hair, and a long, thin face. The wheelchair had no business being on the stairway, and the operator seemed bent on our mutual destruction. Grabbing the shiny green rail with one hand, he tilted the wheelchair back and set one wheel cockeyed at the edge of the top step. Looking back in horror, I was relieved to see John grab the other corner of the chair just as it committed to the downward plunge. Realizing his mistake too late, the operator was looking desperately at me, sizing up the lawsuit. Briefly, I thought I could let them all fly past me to their destruction below. But on a second careless thought I turned and grabbed one of the wheelchair arms with one hand, and the rail with the other, and helped it clear the first step. It sort of bounced and then reached the second step, which also bounced toward the third step. Suddenly we were a circus team, guiding our wheelchair cargo down the steps in a hurdy-gurdy rhythm. The occupant was sitting up and taking an interest in the world.
“Thanks,” he managed to emit from shaking jaws. Still bouncing along, “We need to to get to the pier before they take down grandma’s home. I’m afraid it may get torn down before we get there.” He pointed to an area behind my back and below me. We hit a platform midway on the stairs and didn’t stop, but kept right on, passing a couple who were headed up cringed against the side of the stairway.
Forgetting his immediate plight, the old guy managed to stutter out, “Can you see if the building is still standing? We may be too late.” We had just reached a second platform and there were only about 30 steps to go. As we jounced off onto the last tier of steps, I glanced across my side and got a brief image of a construction project a block away, and barely caught my balance as I resumed backing downward.
We reached the bottom, but the wheelchair duo didn’t stop or thank us. They accelerated. They zoomed off through a small crowd that had been betting money on our odds, toward an old wooden building that was in the process of being torn down. It was an abandoned barn that may have once been a boat factory or maybe a cannery. The roof and sides were painted in white peeling paint, but the bay door had been removed to reveal a stripped interior. The walls had been ripped down and piled beside a large dumpster, and a guy was hustling an old filing cabinet in that direction. There was a crew of about four workmen hammering and whacking away. The wheelchair pulled up dead center and stopped in full view of the project. We strolled along at a safe distance. The old guy let out a scream. A workman above the bay door dropped his hammer.
“C’mon,” I tell John, “this ought to be good.”
The commotion ended up stalling the demolition project for the rest of the day. We later learned more about this old man from his young attendant, and from following newspaper accounts as the story unfolded. The fellow was an 89-year-old veteran who spent the last 50 years in hopeless retreat from the rest of the world. A week before this story, he got a letter from his sister, informing him that their former family business and buildings were going to be sold. That letter awoke the old man from his retreat into oblivion. He remembered a promise made long ago to his mother, that he would come back to Seattle and resume the family business after the war. But bitterness and remorse kept him silent until the day the letter arrived.
There are two endings to this story. You choose: (1) After the shock and pity, everyone goes home, the workers come back, and the building is torn down as the old guy cries and curses the world to hell. Or (2) Happy Ending! The builders don’t return, the planning department issues a stop-work order, the old building is left intact and eventually the site is rebuilt and made into a refuge for homeless veterans.
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