I’m in the Target parking lot, sitting behind the wheel of my van and scribbling on the back of an old Sierra Pacific bill. My life’s companion, an ever-present oxygen tank, sits upright in the shotgun seat next to me. I hate that sonofabitch tank. I really like breathing, but I really hate that sonofabitch tank. I hate it almost as much as I hate war, everything about war, and every war.
I’m an old guy with a bad leg, a mine-shattered spine, and a damn hose in my nose. I have no choice. The case of emphysema I won for smoking several million cigarettes has moved into its final stage. All life may be terminal, but emphysema writes its own last act.
A few minutes ago I left Target pushing a shopping cart for a walker. Pausing to catch my breath, I happened to glance toward a US Marine standing just outside the doorway. He was wearing dress blues and stood comfortably at Parade Rest next to neatly lettered, “TOYS FOR TOTS” sign. On his chest were a couple of rows of ribbons, but he looked almost too young for the Corps, except for his eyes. They had already seen too much.
Dress Blues is the name of that colorful Marine Corps uniform shown on all those recruiting posters you’ve seen a hundred times. Healthy, smiling young stud-muffins wearing white hats and blue jackets with brass fittings…Semper Fi…
Half a century ago, stumbling through icy mud wearing filthy, blood-spattered fatigues, I remembered that sunny day in front of Hollywood High School when I stopped to study one of those clean, colorful, recruiting posters. The irony of it, the Then and Now, made me grin and spit and curse at a rice paddy. Talk about your lousy timing.
The first moment I locked eyes with the young Marine, he knew.
“May I ask what outfit, Sir?”
I told him. His eyes widened and he started to say something. I stopped him. “No big deal. How many tours, son?”
“Three, Sir, and I’m waiting to ship again, any day now.”
Something I’ll never be able to explain kicked into life and made my mouth move. “I wish I could go with you.” It shocked me and shook me, because it was true.
“Me too,” he said. I studied him. No tells. He wasn’t being polite.
“Me too.” That’s what he said. And he really meant it.
Haven’t started my car yet. I’m still sitting here. My eyes are burning, and I can’t see to drive. I’m scared for the kid. Grown men cry, goddamit.
Mike Price is a long-time newspaper columnist, talk show host, and screenwriter who appears as a standup comedy headliner for top clubs and casinos across the country.