Veterans Day

 

Many years ago– it was 1987 to be exact–I drove a blue ‘78 Toyota Corolla 1,328 miles from Binghamton N.Y to South Florida to take a newspaper job in Boca Raton.

I worked for the Monday-Thursday papers which were pretty famous in those days in a warehouse type office on East Rogers Circle.

The newsroom was populated with amazing characters. Talented writers, editors and photographers.

The managing editor’s name was Tom Sawyer. He took me to lunch on my first day at work at the restaurant also named Tom Sawyer.

He looked me in the eye and told me the place was named after him. I think I believed him. I was young and naïve. He was grizzled and experienced. He was also tough and gruff and would help me grow up fast in the business.

In the newsroom they sat me next to a sportswriter named Jim Baker.
He was a good writer, about 20 years my senior.  Jim was experienced and wore sweaters every day even in summer.
We quickly became friends and he sort of served as a mentor for me even though I was writing news  and he was covering locals sports. I shared a lot of what I was covering in a rip roaring 1980s era Delray Beach and we talked about sports, music and politics.

Jim was a Vietnam Veteran. And I’m thinking about him today which is Veterans Day.

I’ve long lost track of him and have tried periodically to find him. To date, I haven’t.
But even if I never do, he made an impression on my life.

I hadn’t really known a Vietnam Veteran before and over the course of my brief friendship with Jim he would occasionally open up about his experiences over beers at a bowling alley we would frequent off of Cypress Creek Road.

The bowling alley is long gone but I was told it was once owned by tennis hustler Bobby Riggs. I’m not sure if that was true or just an urban legend. South Florida was different back then. Less built up and we found ourselves driving south for amusement because there was nothing much to do in my new hometown Delray. Jim lived in Sunrise and so Cypress Creek was on his way home.

Jim liked the bowling alley bar because the beer was cold and cheap and the bartender looked like Elvira. Google her if you must. But she was a big name back then.
One day, the Oliver Stone movie “Platoon” was playing over the bar and I could see Jim’s demeanor change.
The color drained from his face, the man who wore sweaters in 90 degree heat started to sweat and slowly he began to tell me more about his experiences in Vietnam.
He was a medic. He saw a lot. Things were never the same for him he said. There were more details and he told me the movie was a very accurate depiction of what life was like in the jungles of Vietnam. He spoke softly and slowly his eyes never leaving the screen. I remember his face looked very pale as if the color was drained from it.

I just sat and listened. I may have thanked him for sharing. It’s hard to know what to say. I was 22 or 23 at the time. I really hadn’t lived much yet, but I remember recalling that Jim had seen a whole lot more when he was my age. What he saw changed him because there is just no way to experience war and not have it change you.

Since then, I have known and talked to several other Vietnam vets, a few World War II vets and a few Korean War veterans. I have also met some brave soldiers, men and women, who went to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I hope you have also had a chance to know and talk to people who have served.

They are special people. We enjoy America because of their service and their sacrifices.
There is no America without them. It’s just that simple.

And yet, how often do we think of those who serve and have served?
How many veterans suffer health and mental issues as a result of their service? How many are homeless?
The statistics are alarming.
My old newsroom neighbor Jim was clearly affected by his service. I learned a lot from him that day. It wouldn’t be long before he left the newspaper for a new life in Denver. We promised to stay in touch but we didn’t. Sometimes that happens. But I will never forget Jim. How he took me under his wing when I was the young guy in the newsroom, how he befriended me and then confided in me.
Today, I will toast my old friend and all the veterans and active duty service members and thank them for keeping us safe and free.
We should honor them each and every day.

Comments

  1. Reeve Bright says:

    Wonderful
    I did not fight in Vietnam but thanks to all who did.
    When I look at the Vietnam Memorial it saddens me
    They died why? God Bless our veterans and our great country

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