By Robin J. Steinweg
On Poppy Day Tom and I grocery shopped. We passed a
vet in the entryway, poppies and an ice cream bucket with a slot cut in the lid on a card table. He was busy talking to some folks, so our poppy would have to wait. Viet Nam
On our way out, I shifted my grocery bags to dig in my purse for a donation. Tom took most of the food out to the car. The vet paused his talk with a lady to thank me, and I met his eyes as I responded, “Thank you.” As I did, the woman made an odd sound and nearly ran off. That was the last time I’m aware of that the vet stopped to breathe.
Our family has high esteem for war vets. Tom’s dad was wounded when in the
and again on Okanawa, and my folks lost a couple of brothers-in-law to Hitler’s forces. I gave this man my respectful attention as he told of being stationed in Philippines Iceland ( Greenland?), where the temperature was minus seventy-five degrees on a good day. He continued with a description of the vehicles that broke down and named all the mechanical parts it took to fix them.
I spotted Tom out in the car. The vet mapped out the terrain for a fifty mile circumference. Ten minutes and several SOS prayers it took before Tom got out of the car. I waved at him. He was coming to rescue me! I heard the automatic doors open behind me. The vet’s voice droned on. I turned to greet my hero, and he walked right past me to the community bulletin board. I sighed and nodded as the vet didn’t miss a beat. It took Tom five minutes to read every poster and ad. He came back toward me and this time I was ready for him. As he passed behind me I grabbed a fistful of jacket and refused to let go. He murmured, “We have frozen food, you know.” I whispered, “Help me,” but he didn’t hear me as the vet imitated an explosion. Tom took a step backward and my hand tightened its grip on his jacket. Something about an ice cave so dark it made your eyeballs ache. We both backed up a step, then two. Other people came and went. “An ordinary flashlight—Harriet, want to buy a poppy?—(Harriet flew out the door, calling, “Not today…”)—“Oh, tomorrow then, does she think I’m here every day, do you know what kind of flashlight we had to use?” Tom and I reached the door, which stood open because of the sensors. The recitation continued. My fingers had gone numb from clutching Tom’s jacket. I raised my voice, “We have frozen food melting.” No acknowledgment. We backed through the doors. Tom attempted, “Thank you, we need to go now.” We were several feet beyond the door now. “…the cavern was featured in a magazine…” “Thank you for serving our country,” I said, but he never hesitated. He was kind enough to speak louder so we could hear him right up until we started the engine.
Later I wondered how he could talk like that without stopping for breath. Maybe he’d learned circular breathing from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. But more than that, how could someone be so completely insensitive to others as to talk them half to death? Then I recalled a neighbor lady from my childhood, and realized there is an opposite form of torture.
I was a young teen when I answered her phone call. Mom had told me to man the phone, as she’d been interrupted too many times that day. When I told her who it was, she shook her head rather wildly, whispered, “Tell her I went for a walk,” and abandoned me for the first and only time in my life. I picked up the phone and said, “I’m sorry, she was just going out the door.” Mrs. Schweigen said—nothing! I waited. Dead air. I looked at the phone and tapped it. “Are you there?” “Mm-hm.” Silence. “Um, I could have Mom call you back later, Ok?” “Mm-hm.” The quiet unnerved me. What should I do? I watched the kitchen clock. One minute. Two minutes. I’d been trained to respect my elders too thoroughly to hang up on her. I cast about desperately for another question to ask. I prayed Mom would return and rescue me from this deadly silence. I vaguely remember finally saying, “I’m sorry. I have to hang up now, I’m not allowed to stay on the phone this long. I’m so sorry, I’m hanging up now. Sorry. ’Bye.”
These incidents remind me of Goldilocks (except I could never be so rude as to walk into a stranger’s house uninvited!). Anyway, she found Papa Bear’s stuff too big, too hard, too hot, just too Too. Like the
vet. Too many words. Mama Bear’s stuff was also too much—too big, too soft, too cold, too Too. Like Mrs. Schweigen’s too-few words. But Baby Bear’s things were just right. Viet Nam
That’s what I hope and pray my conversation will be. Not too much, not too little. Seasoned with the most satisfying amount of salt, the perfect mix of speaking, listening, sensitivity, caring for others. I want to be like Baby Bear! Just right.