I wrote a little while back about learning to listen better. At the time, I was primarily concerned with improving my relationships with my family, friends, students, and colleagues. What I didn’t expect was that actively practicing my listening skills might lock me into an hour-and-a-half long conversation at CVS. Yes, that’s where I spent last Wednesday night, talking with a Vietnam vet named Ronnie. Here’s a brief retelling.
I went out to CVS to pick up some antacid that night. I recently did a little self-diagnosing, and I think I have LPR, or “silent reflux”, but that’s a story for another day. I stood around trying to decide which medicine to purchase, when suddenly I heard a gravelly voice behind me.
“Get the Zantac,” the old man said. He was dressed in gray sweats. A feeding tube poked out from the tattered neckline, also revealing surgical scars crossing his collapsed throat. A Wounded Veteran cap sat on his head, and while his eyes lacked sparkle the 30 pins adorning the cap did not.
“It’s what you recommend?” I asked, distractedly, ready to get home.
“Yeah,” he replied, “since my cancer surgery, it feels like there’s battery acid in my gut all the time. I just threw some up in the parking lot.” He and I both winced at the thought. “It’s the only thing that works!”
Our conversation became pretty one-sided after our initial exchange. Ronnie told me all about how he had surgery on his esophagus and larynx, that his blood pressure became dangerously low afterward and during chemotherapy, how he was confined to a wheelchair in the VA hospital, and that he taught himself to walk again so “those bastards” couldn’t tell him what to do. After he was discharged, he finalized his divorce and lived in a hotel for a while before finding an apartment. An old friend from his many years at the steel mill looked after him while he convalesced, though no one was willing to take him in. That hurt him a lot–especially since he says he would have done it for them.
He then skipped back to the past to tell me about the two times he was shot (once in the leg and once in the back), and that the latter wound was more of a knockout blow that didn’t make it through his bulletproof vest. The impact injury kept him out of the fighting for four days, and his platoon made fun of him because he got a purple heart without shedding any blood. (“Would you believe the next week this other son-of-a-bitch got shot in the ass and died? He must have been six-four, two forty. It’s amazing what the power behind a bullet can do!”) He then told me about two of his eleven confirmed kills (“I was glad to rid the world of a few Communist shits!”) before I got him to change the subject.
I might add that Ronnie peppered his speech with expletives, and I noticed a few mothers shielding their children and pulling them into the relative safety of other isles.
Ronnie continued, explaining that he wanted nothing more than to see the country when he returned home. He even got his Army buddies to promise to shoot him if he was blinded in the war. When he came back, he got a job and dedicated all his free time to hunting, fishing, and riding motorcycles from Connecticut all the way up to Alaska. He married late and never had children. His elderly mother is still alive, but he wishes his brother “was hit by a bus and then backed over in reverse” because of his lying, manipulative ways.
I couldn’t help thinking that it would take a collaboration between David Allen Coe and Bruce Springsteen to write a song good enough to do any justice to Ronnie’s life. But the story gets better.
After receiving two Purple Hearts, working 30 years in a steel mill, receiving counseling for PTSD, seeing the country, divorcing his wife who “never worked a day in her life”, and recovering from cancer, Ronnie said he wants nothing more than to be remembered. He told me a few tales of his recent acts of generosity, giving cash to a down-on-his luck construction worker and paying for a single mother’s car repair. He said he makes $7000 a month in pensions and has nothing to spend it on. He reached into his sweats and produced a fat wad of Benjamins to illustrate the point. I teach self-defense, and Ronnie was violating just about every principle on the matter that I hold dear.
Shaking my head, I told him that I’m a writer and a teacher and that I would definitely share his story. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were teary or rheumy, but he said he was touched and that kids these days are assholes.
He said he was so lonely and was sorry to take up so much of my time. I told him no apology was necessary, as this was the best conversation I’ve had in years. Then I laughed as he insisted on buying my Zantac. I knew if I refused I’d be there for another hour or two. I told him I’d put the fifteen bucks in my son’s college fund, and he gave us his blessing–and God’s. When I finally drove home, I had a smile on my face. My anxious wife even enjoyed the story and encouraged me to share it with you.
This is my humble attempt at remembering Ronnie. Despite the intense monologue he shared with me, I don’t really know him–just his self portrait. Is he a good man? I can’t be sure. I can vouchsafe his force of will and spirit, however, and that he has lived a rich 67 years. I love literature and I love people and I can think of no better character study, whether real or imaginary. I would be doing us both a disservice if I ignored his story.
I’m not a great writer, and I’m not a psychologist, but I can now speak even more to the power of listening when it’s needed most. I hope to be brave and patient enough if I get another opportunity like the one Ronnie presented me, and I hope you are, too.
There are few better ways to affirm our humanity.