He was sitting in a wheelchair when we walked into the room, a burly man who looked younger than his years. His right hand had a slight tremble. An attendant had her back to us and must have sensed us standing there. She turned around and smiled.
“Are we interrupting you?”
“No,” she said.
I looked at the man and asked if he was Mr. …? He nodded yes.
The attendant said she would be back in a bit and left the room.
That left the three of us. Strangers. The man looked at us quizzically.
I explained that he, along with a number of other veterans at the Hanson center, had filled out cards with a Christmas wish on them. As he does every year, a friend had collected the cards and taken them out to the Elks Lodge where some of us chose a card.
I had to repeat myself. The man’s hearing wasn’t perfect. He got the gist of what I was saying the second time around.
I handed him an envelope with a Christmas card and his Christmas wish inside — a Walmart gift card. It wasn’t much. In fact none of the vets had asked for much. Some wanted socks, others sweat pants. Simple items.
The room was brightly lit. His name was printed on paper on the wall above his bed. A small TV extended on an arm from the wall. A newspaper lay on the bed. The second bed in the room was unoccupied. His roommate may have been in the meal room we had passed through having his lunch.
He looked at my 17-year-old daughter and said, “That’s a pretty girl you’ve got there.”
My friend had told me that the veteran we visited with would be happy to see us even though he didn’t know us. He was right. Some of the vets rarely have visitors, and when they do, they like to talk.
I asked our veteran when he had served. He was a tail gunner on a bomber in World War II.
We had gone in expecting to spend about 10 minutes with him, but he told us stories and we lost track of time.
He talked about working for Morrison-Knudsen on the huge St. Lawrence Seaway project after the war. He talked about being in Afghanistan and about a severely injured man there who he’d helped recover from his injuries.
He talked, and we listened.
He talked about his son who can fix anything. There was a lot of pride in the story. He talked about the veterans center and how there couldn’t be a finer place.
He said he likes to sit outside the center in the sun. He talks to visitors as they are leaving and tries to cheer them up if they need it.
And then it was time to go. I leaned over and placed my hand on his shoulder and thanked him for his service and wished him a merry Christmas. My daughter then stepped forward, and he began to raise his right hand to shake hands with her.
“No,” she said. “I want to give you a hug.”
She leaned down and hugged him. He hugged her back, a smile breaking out on his face.
We said our good-byes and left the room. As we walked out the door, I looked back and saw he was watching us leave, the envelope still unopened lying in his lap.
We walked down the glistening hallway, and I thought about the man and what he had seen and experienced. I thought about my daughter who will leave our home and head out into the world next year. I had taken her with me, because I wanted her to understand that these people who live in veterans centers matter. That they did things for all us. Important things. That they shouldn’t spend the remainder of their lives as forgotten people. That a few minutes of our lives can mean so much to them.
As we neared the entrance to the building, my daughter glanced over at me.
“That was good,” she said.
She got it.
Don Perryman is The Messenger’s managing editor.