16 August 2007

excuse me, sir.



So what's new, we needed to fill the gas tank.

KD pulled into what once was a service station, now a convenience store. If you want service you'll need to step out prepared to supply your own because the lone clerk is busy inside tearing off lottery tickets and restocking the Camel Ultralights.

Though I do tend to make myself useful when I am driving solo, I have assigned myself a gas station slash convenience store job when she is driving us in her vehicle. I can't stand just sitting there in the passenger seat waiting waiting waiting. It's like one of my childhood nightmares of old ladies wearing a virulent dose of Roses!Roses! come to life when, from my third eye, I see myself sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle, my seatbelt clicked firmly into its slot even after the engine has been turned off. That, my third eye tells me, is the luxury of someone else will do it-ism. Someone else will pump the gasoline. Someone else will check the oil. Someone else will educate my child. Someone else will pay. Someone else will work the sour painful issues out.

So I gave myself a job, a task, a way of contributing to the health and wellbeing and general maintenance of her vehicle and of our non-legal marital happiness. The job I picked -window washing - is easy and fairly quick and frankly, thrilling because aside from building and sustaining relationships, and despite my efforts to thwart worries re: the potential eternal ramifications of my earthly sloth, I really really love clean windows. That helps.

When I set to a task I must have the proper essentials. Must have. Must. I believe that Efficiency begs from all thinking beings simply that we try our best to come prepared or get prepared or at the very least have some inkling of the dots between A and K and what tools will get us from one point to the next to the last with least amount of resistance. When I wash car windows at gas stations slash convenience stores I have to feel assured that I am using an adequate squeegee. I have to have a good feel about the squeegee, that we'll work well together.
I examine the netted sponge side to estimate how long that thing has been sitting in the hanging bin of watered down mosquito souped windshield cleaner, and exactly how nasty brown the sponge surface has been permitted to get by the Two Bics for a Buck clerk who sits inside, unable to feel obligation or to suggest that anyone should have a nice day. I do an eyeball (and occasionally a sniff) check on the sponge side but the rubber strip has to be manually tested for its firmness and squee-ibility. A fully scrubbed and dribbly windshield will simply have to cross its legs if the squeegee blade leaves even one sloppy track, while I walk from island to island swapping out one bent wand for another one that looks very much like mice snacked on the rubber blade between lap swims up in the fluid bucket. I'll trade them like B-Leaguers until I'm convinced that I have the best one for the job.

It was in the midst of my island hopping that I accidentally eavesdropped. I was exactly between islands #2 with the young angry punk who had already serviced his fuel needs and who was headed for the liquor locker inside, and #3, where a Chevy Surburban bearing Oklahoma plates was parked. In the back seat of the monster 'burban I could see the silhouettes of two stubby child car seats, with small bobbing heads flinging themselves back and forth within the spaces between the padded head braces. In the front passenger seat sat a young petite woman with smooth long brown hair. A swarthy 30-something GI Joe-looking military guy wearing the trademark and nearly fashionable brown/tan blend fatigues had just paid for his purchases inside and was returned to the Suburban to rearrange the kids and repack a cooler he accessed from the back door.

I also noticed a man approaching island #3 from - well, I don't know from where. He just appeared. One moment he didn't exist; the next he was walking toward me with his eyes squinting to a place just beyond me. I wondered for a moment if we were about to engage in a race to the squeegee bin hanging there on island #3 and, if so, which method might I use to take him down. Maybe I could temporarily incapacitate him, just long enough for me to get a head start to the squeegee bucket. Dangerous, I can be. But quick? Not so much; any small edge I could find would be a good thing if it came down to a running contest that I was unlikely to win.

Mystery Man came neither at me nor for the squeegee bucket, but instead toward GI Joe and the cooler into which he was distributing a fresh bag of cube ice. I had a disturbing microsecond flash vision of two complete strangers beating one another senseless after Mystery Man makes disparaging comments about GI Joe's ice cubes or something equally stupid. I'm aware it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have such a thought (about complete strangers, no less) but that's the danger of microsecond flashes because they lead a person to leap to a conclusion which may or may not be accurate and there's no real way of prechecking one's assumptions as the action is unfolding itself in real time.

Mystery Man thrust his hand outward. It wasn't a fist he had formed, though. His hand was extended palm open and up. Friend. Peace. Calm. He cleared his throat then called out, "Excuse me, sir?". I was now standing next to a nearby gas pump able to hear them like anyone who might be standing around outside next to fuel pumps, but I suppose with slightly more interest than the young punk, for instance, who appeared to ignore them in favor of attending to the six pack of glass bottles clinking against one another on the seat next to him.

"Excuse me, sir?"

Suddenly aware of the fact that he was the sir being addressed, GI Joe turned around. His hand tentatively raised to meet Mystery Man's hand. As they shook right hands they each automatically reached with their left hands to embrace forearms . I love that gesture. It reminds me of the smell of Aqua Velva; of my paternal grandfather gussying up in that uncomfortable sweat-inducing dark blue polyester suit for Sunday church services. It reminds me of gentlemanly integrity, a quality of being I fear might be slipping away in younger generations when the method of greeting consists far more regularly of elbow toasts and shoulder bumps and mumbled 'aight's. The forearm grip and the firm handshake combination might be one of the reasons I'm unashamedly drawn to men's forearms, to the muscles and shape and density of them, to the difference between theirs and mine. When men shake hands like this I feel confident and safe, like no bad will happen after the handshake; like they've both sealed some invisible contract, an agreement that they're both watching, that both will take care to do what is right, to have one another's backs. Like maybe they'll look out for me, too.

Their hands remained clenched while Mystery Man continued,
"Thank you. I just wanted to tell you thank you. I don't know where you've been or what you've had to do but I want to tell you that I'm grateful for your service and well, just thanks man."

I don't think GI Joe from Oklahoma had been expecting this sudden and somewhat surprising outpouring from a stranger at a gas station slash convenience store in Wisconsin. He nodded his head and replied in an equally Aqua Velva-y way, "No problem. Glad to help".

It's no surprise to any who know me that I do not support war. I do not value bullying. I don't believe in killing or oppressing others to be the best, whatever that means, and I don't support my government's seeming inability to get a grip on the facts and figures of the messes we've inextricably involved ourselves in, and in places we have no business policing. I do, however, support the individuals making the effort toward peace. Our soldiers. Their soldiers. I don't want harm to come to any of them, not one, not on either side. I want their mothers to step in with arm jerks and hissed insistent cautions that they each apologize to the other right this minute for not sharing the swingset like the good friends she knows they can be.

There were myriads of moments to learn from after the Viet Nam war ended, but one of the biggies for me was about accepting the person despite the action. I was a small child during that conflict and have only vague memories of evening news reports on my parents clunky television in Davenport, Iowa, but I remember seeing jostled bumpy footage of hippie protesters and the old Brillcremed men with their stern matter-of-fact tones and their wide ugly ties, who refused to listen. In social terms, we erroneously placed our faith in the Brill boys while keeping one nervous collective eye on the hippie protesters because well, you just never know what those free-thinking dope smokers might do. When our GIs returned from Viet Nam we didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for them. We treated them poorly, we ignored them, we abandoned them when they most needed our support -every one of us, whether we agreed with the war or felt duped or hated every bloody moment of it. They needed us and we responded by abandoning them.

Reaching a destination sometimes consists of a hundred tiny steps in the right direction. The perfect solution for peaceful coexistence might not be self-evident in every situation, but the ethical and moral sensibilities that can lead us toward that place are. In teasing out the one or two Very Important Lessons to learn from wars gone by, I would suggest that respect will never be too high a price to pay someone else for their service on behalf of me and my country. Do I like to think about how he may have ended someone's life? No, not so much. But if he did actually take someone else's life I don't imagine it was a thrilling event for him either.

Like garbage collectors, our soldiers get the smelly hot difficult shit work that nobody else wants to do. Sure, the army television ads make military service look like a scene out of an adventure movie but even Indiana Jones got to sleep in a real bed away from the sandstorms and snakes; our military personnel don't have that made-for-TV luxury. I needed that reminder. I needed that check. McBeth, you don't need to agree with the action but you do need to respect the person.

My heart squeezed achingly while I watched the exchange between these two men at gas station slash convenience store island #3, as each revealed the real and powerful good in himself and in one another.

I heard a chuckle. It was the universe laughing at me, along with me, as I breathed a quiet sigh of relief for not having to cap that nice Mystery Man's knees in a race to the squeegee bucket, after all.

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