Some move in a slow shuffle, maybe while slightly stooped over. Others walk with a noticeable limp, if they can walk at all. If not, they’re in wheelchairs or other vehicles designed to help them move around.
Many of them are gray-haired and wrinkled, with crags and fissures surrounding eyes responsible for allowing inside their minds the visions they keep unwillingly as bad memories — memories often revisited as nightmares.
To outsiders, they’re just plain, everyday old people. Young ones with no knowledge may ridicule them. Imitate the shuffles and strained speech. Dismiss those elderly as nothing worthy of any other type of notice.
Man. If they only knew.
I’m ashamed to admit to behaving the same way when I was younger. I once mocked an old man for his “weirdness.” The guy could hardly carry on a normal conversation. He looked at least 100 years old. He had the whole “old people” package, complete with the lurching gait, the silver hair and the same appearance as the town wino. He walked around mumbling to himself. I could mimic his mumble perfectly.
Not until my dad caught me did I receive my correction.
That old “derelict,” Dad informed me, was a genuine war hero. He’d earned numerous awards for valor in combat, and in his time was considered a bad, bad dude.
“That old guy?” I asked incredulously. “A war hero?” He didn’t look as if he could tie his own shoes.
Even more confusing for me was learning the man was about the same age as my father at the time. What the man had done and witnessed didn’t stay behind on the battlefield when he came home. No, those memories pounded bad dreams and visions into his brain like artillery strikes, and as the years accumulated, his mind and body finally succumbed to the damage.
No, he didn’t look like much. But at one time, he’d been something special.
Later, as a teenager, I met an elderly woman whose home I was helping remodel as part of my construction job. She didn’t seem like anything special. Just another “old lady” with paper-thin skin and silver hair, as far as I knew.
But as she guided me through her house, I noticed black-and-white photos on walls and mantels. A beautiful young woman in an Army uniform, and the same woman in photos while dressed in fatigues.
She’d served in the Army Nurse Corps in World War II. She’d been in several combat zones, and she’d seen more real carnage than most of us will ever witness. She’d saved some lives while standing over the last breaths of others. She, too, was a real hero.
Getting old for a veteran is a minor issue. It beats the alternative, right? We have our aches and pains, and we remember the cause of every one. We veterans don’t eat Rice Krispies. We get all the “snap, crackle and pop!” we can stand just climbing out of bed in the mornings.
The damage we (and the military) inflicted on our bodies is hard enough.
What could be harder?
Having people look at us now — at my old, boring self — without understanding that at one time, I led an exciting life. The way I looked at the old man and woman and failed to see what they’d been when younger.
I sure get it now. Man, the cool things I did throughout my career in the Marine Corps. I got to fly in helicopters and in the back seats of fighter and attack craft. I’ve trained on weaponry guaranteed to fuel a massive adrenaline rush. (That .50-caliber M2 eliminates all need for testosterone supplements.) I’ve been lifted via SPIE (Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction) rigging. That’s basically when a helicopter drops a cable down and goes back up with Marines hanging below it. (For the record, I did it for fun. It wasn’t part of my specialty.)
I’ve gone scuba diving in WWII wreckage in the Pacific. Strolled down from the barracks with my dive gear on Sunday mornings and went lobster picking with a pair of tongs and a burlap sack. Got back in time to grill lobster before the football games kicked off. Who gets to do that?
I’ve hitched rides on Hueys (helicopters). Had the crew drop me off on a nearby island for a couple of days of camping and diving. Uber, my butt. That’s a car. Who hitches rides on Hueys?
I’ve marched in many a parade, strutting right along in my dress blues. I carried those colors or my rifle with a ton of pride.
I’ve visited other countries and experienced their cultures. Hung out with people who didn’t understand a word I said — nor did I understand them — and partied like I belonged there.
All those incredible experiences were, naturally, pretty much wasted on my youth. I had no idea at the time I was experiencing the amazing. When we’re 20-somethings, we just assume what we’re doing is what we’ll always do. We haven’t yet learned how quickly our youth passes. How soon we’ll be back to a “normal” life, driving trucks instead of riding helicopters and wearing jeans instead of those snazzy uniforms.
We think the bodies we worked and trained so hard to build will always look that good. (They won’t.)
Mostly, we think the looks we get from passersby while we’re in uniform will be the same looks we’ll always get. (We won’t.)
Sadly, all of it passes. Once we re-enter the civilian world, we melt right back into the same life everyone around us is living. We grow older, slower and grayer. Whatever we did back then doesn’t mean anything to anyone but other veterans. We can talk about it, but if they weren’t there, they won’t understand. I don’t think any of my students even know what a Huey is.
We become the old men and women the young ridicule the way I did so long ago.
I’ve been out long enough now that I’ve adjusted. I work with young people every day, and their teasing doesn’t bother me at all now. They’ll pick on me about my gray hair and beard, my wrinkles, my old-man stroll. They’ll ask me what it was like to be a classmate with Moses, or how I survived the Ice Age. I tell them my high school diploma was chiseled on a stone tablet. It’s all in fun.
But sometimes, I can’t resist letting my pride get the best of me. I think of all the older veterans I know and have known, and I like to think I’m speaking for them when I pop off with my now-standard response.
I simply smile and nod, and then I tell those young pups:
“Son, I’ve done the things you rent video games and movies to see.”