Monday, October 29, 2007

For a Friend on Veteran's Day...

Almost Home . . .

I recall the first time I saw Petie. It was about eight years ago this coming week. As a disabled veteran, I go to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital for treatment of my service-connected disabilities. I had just moved back to Kentucky and needed to renew my prescriptions, so I took the bus downtown to the VA Medical Center. I chose the bus instead of driving due to a big snow the night before and I didn’t want to drive in it. Let somebody else wreck his or her vehicle I reasoned. Besides it was cheaper than driving. I walked the half of a mile to the main road and caught the bus. I shuffled about half way back and took a seat. As the bus pulled away, I pulled my coat tight and tried to get warm again. I looked around as I settled in, to see who else might be on here with me.

There were a couple of kids, maybe in their mid-teens, sitting together a few seats up from me and across the aisle. Just behind the front door sat a little old woman with stockings rolled half way up her legs. I could see her pursing and chewing her lips with toothless gums. Turning her scarf-covered head from one side to the other, she rode in silence, looking out the windows. Her old weathered hands clutched a rather large satchel of a purse and a worn, old umbrella. I felt my eyes twinkle a little as I thought about how little old women all around the world looked the same.

Across the aisle from her, right behind the driver, sat another passenger. He was a slight man; mid-fifties, I would say. He might go 140 pounds soaking wet with his pockets full of change. Like the old woman across the aisle from him, he was missing most of his teeth. He was wearing a pair of pants several sizes too large for him and a dingy old sweatshirt. His faded army field jacket had seen better days and pulled down over his head was a lint-speckled black watch cap. His gaunt features seemed to center around his pale blue eyes and hawk-like nose. I could see his reflection in the large mirror in front of the driver’s head. He never shut up as he leaned across the rail behind the driver’s seat. Her eyes met mine on several occasions with the look of ‘please, God, let him get off at the next stop’.

Well, he didn’t. We rode all the way downtown before he got off to catch the transfer to the VA hospital, the same as me. We smoked as we waited. Assuming familiarity with me, he continued his lecture as I prayed for the arrival of the bus. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something just wasn’t quite right about this guy. I nodded from time to time and smoked in silence. The bus arrived right on time and he scuttled up the steps in a hurried gait. I hung back a bit to allow a buffer of passengers to board behind him and ahead of me.

The seats were all taken and we were standing in the aisles, clutching the overhead rails for balance as we pulled back into traffic. I could hear him continuing his chatter to my rear, somewhat muffled by the other sounds on the bus. "Hell," I thought to myself, "He’s kind of annoying but he ain’t hurting anything." I mentally let his voice drone into the other sounds around me. When we got to the hospital, I was off and quickly headed to my destination and forgot all about him.

When I had finished my business, I hurried through the revolving doors at the main entrance. Checking the bus schedule posted on the board there, I lit a smoke and shrugged up under my coat. Turning my back to the cold wind and snow flurries, I noticed a glass-enclosed waiting area off to the side of the bus stop and quickly made my way over to it and stepped inside. My eyes immediately began to burn from the fog of cigarette smoke and hot air blowing out of an over-head heating duct. But it was still better than being outside. There were about a dozen people there, standing around in small groups of two’s or three’s and quietly talking amongst themselves. Hearing a familiar voice, I looked past a group of guys standing there and saw the little man from the bus earlier. He was sitting alone on the long wooden bench against the back wall talking to no one in particular. One of the guys standing beside me leaned over in my direction and whispered in my ear, "Don’t mind Petie, he’s OK".


Over the next several years, I saw Petie almost every time I came to the VA. Familiarity breeds friendship and over the course of time we developed an odd but comfortable relationship. I found myself half-looking for him each time I came to the hospital, knowing he was around somewhere. I would engage him or him me, as we waited for the bus. I sometimes waited for the bus with him, even on those days that I had driven, just to pass the time with him. There was more than one occasion when several buses would come and go, only to find us sitting under the trees at one of the picnic tables there, sharing stories, thoughts and the occasional joke. Petie loved to fish, he said. And you could have filled the bed of a pick-up truck with all of the whoppers he told me about. The day came when we were both late getting out of appointments and the buses were two hours apart. I offered to run Petie home. He told me where he lived and we pulled out.

He directed me off the expressway and onto the side streets around East Market where we found a parking place. I was going to let him out, but he insisted that I come up and see his place before I left. We locked the truck and started up the sidewalk towards Main. We passed the homeless shelter; with its annex for battered women. Several people standing outside called Petie by name and he acknowledged them with a hello as we walked on. Crossing the street, we came to a little second-hand store and Petie said, "Let’s go inside for a minute." He found the couple who ran the place, told them he was home and we left. I asked about that and he told me that they rented him a room above the old abandoned store we were now in front of. We turned down a narrow alley that led to the rear of the building.

We went up a set of crude steps and to the door of his little place. The landing there overlooked a postage stamp yard of overgrown weeds, dead lawnmowers and an old willow tree with a park bench under it sitting along the fence. We passed through the door into a small hallway created by a stove, fridge and kitchen sink on the left side and a closet and shower stall on the right. The hallway opened up into the only room in the apartment. It was empty except for two plastic milk crates, on one of which rested an old black and white television. He offered the other to me as a seat and he sat down on the single mattress pushed up against the wall.

He said he had only lived here for a short while. The couple we spoke to downstairs are his guardians and handle all of his VA checks. They saw to it that he had a place to stay, something to eat and cigarettes. If he needed anything else, he just told them and they would see to it that he got it. He opened the bag of White Castles we had picked up on the way here. He offered one to me but I declined. He said he had to eat, he was diabetic. I nodded and told him to go on and eat then. He explained to me that was the reason he went to VA every day, for his insulin shot. He could bring it here, but sometimes he forgot to take it. Besides, he enjoyed the trip and the other people at the VA.

We started talking about the service and where all we had been and what all we had done. My record paled in comparison. Petie had been in Vietnam and had been a prisoner of war for almost seven years. He opened a cigar box he kept by the bed there and showed me the things that he had left from his service days; most notable of which was the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart and the Combat Infantry Badge. His eyes glazed with a faraway look as he told me of his ordeals there. He said the Purple Heart was for wounds he received when the helicopter he was in was shot down and he was captured. I wondered at the wounds that Petie had endured that no one will ever see or know about. From time to time as he spoke, he would cant his head to the side and listen to the voices he heard as they pointed out details in the stories that he had overlooked or perhaps forgotten. The voices were always there to remind him and keep his vision of Hell alive and vivid in his mind.


Over the course of time I got to know Petie fairly well through our short sporadic visits. I had bought a little farm in the mean time and was in the process of moving there. I had some old furniture and stuff I was going to give away. I asked Petie if he wanted any of it and told him what I had.

I loaded up a love seat, a big stuffed chair, an end table, a battered old coffee table, a lamp and several other small items he said he wanted or I knew he could use. I told him when I would be there and drove down the alley behind his place until I got to the gate at the rear of the property. There Petie stood waiting on me, a small pile of smashed cigarette butts at his feet. We unloaded the truck and carried the stuff up the awkward stairs and placed it around the room. The whole time Petie talked with excitement, telling me that he too had been a farmer, back before the war. He had grown up on a small farm down in Hart County, not too far from the lake. He said he had tried to go back there after he returned from overseas, but he was not the same man that had left those little hollows and just didn’t fit in there anymore. He knew he was different. He said, "It’s a pretty funny feeling when you don’t even fit in at home anymore." So, scorned by some, pitied by others, he hitchhiked to Louisville and took to the streets. And that is where he had been for almost the last twenty years. Drifting from the streets to the shelters to the halfway houses and back to the streets again. He had struggled with life at its most basic level. He had been locked up, beaten up, robbed and shunned. He finally made it to the VA and they helped him get this little place, a small pension every month and some medical care. He told me that he went to the VA hospital everyday, not so much for the insulin shot, but to be there with those who understood him best; to be there with his family.

I had to go to the VA last February for an appointment, and as always, I looked for Petie. I couldn’t find him anywhere. I waited and watched several buses come and go after I had taken care of my business. Thinking I had missed him, I went inside where he always went to get his insulin and asked about him. Standing there with a little bag holding two flannel shirts I had brought for him, the nurse told me Petie was gone. Gone where? Moved? No, he was gone, dead, I was told. She went on to explain that during the big freeze we had back around Christmas, that Petie had been found sitting on the little bench behind his house frozen to death. Clutched in his hands, on his lap, was a little cigar box with his medals and effects in it.

I had a hard time finding the door through the tears I was fighting back. I went outside and found one of the picnic tables off to the side of the building and just sat down there on the frosted bench in stunned disbelief. It was bitter cold but I didn’t even notice. I wondered if Petie just got tired of being Petie or if he had just drifted off into a dream and gone fishin’.

"Don’t catch ‘em all before I get there, Petie! I’ll soon be comin’ along."

Copyright © 2007 Mike Lawson

1 comment:

Tipper said...

Loved the post.My Dad goes to the VA in Asheville.There are some real "characters" (as my Dad would say) there too. I always wonder- as Veterans where have they been and what have they seen? Glad I stumbled onto this site.