One afternoon when I was in college, a friend and I went to a late lunch in Beverly, MA, to talk and catch up. After lunch, we decided to walk from the downtown area to the beach, a few blocks away. Walking past a few bars, two pizza places, three dry cleaners, a skate shop and a Thai restaurant, we came upon an old man who was sitting on the edge of a cement flower box set into the sidewalk.
He was wearing a red baseball cap and khaki shorts. He was fat and scruffy.
My friend and I are both blonde, were both about twenty, and of average beauty level.
He said something as we walked by, and she turned, hesitating slightly. “I’m sorry?” She said, all politeness.
“I said it’s good to see kids like you, out enjoying the town.” He was slurring a little, kind of tough to understand. But I remember he smiled.
My friend stopped completely and struck up a conversation with him, chatting about the weather like she’d been planning this stop on our stroll.
I was braced for a rapid departure if things got dicey, but nothing about this guy made me feel uncomfortable. Except maybe a lack of personal hygiene.
He said that he was on his way home and had to stop and rest for a while. She asked if he had far to go; he said it was “just up the way.” And then he asked us to help him up.
It was kind of one of those things that you are suddenly doing, your hands under this stranger’s arms, before you think that maybe you don’t want to touch him. But you already are touching him, so what does it matter? And then when he was standing, it was immediately evident that he could not remain so on his own, so we continued holding him up, steadying his waving torso.
He started cursing. Although there weren’t many subjects in his sentences, we soon pieced together that his knee was the source of his consternation. My friend asked what was wrong with it.
As he answered, he started limping along the sidewalk, one of us on each side.
Army, Vietnam, and shrapnel are really the only repeatable words from what he told us.
So we’re limping along, wondering how far exactly “just up the way” really is, and my friend asked him if he regretted serving in the army (clearly she was the one of us with better conversational skills. I just kept my head up, watching to make sure we weren’t part of some elaborate con or ambush or something.)
He said, (and it’s really the only clear quote I remember) “No way! I was defending our country. Where else can you find two beautiful girls to help a guy down the street? Look at this! God effing bless America!”
What do you say to that? I think I said, “Yessir.”
We helped him about three blocks before there were some more old men sitting on the curb. He told us to drop him up there with his friends, they’d help him from there. None of them really looked like they were capable of helping him anywhere, but drop him we did.
He thanked us profusely, we said “not a problem, have a good day sir!” and we kept walking. I don’t think we even talked about it much afterwards. There just didn’t seem like much to say.
Other than God bless America.