Thursday, August 27, 2015
Takin' 'Bout That Degeneration
He told me he was born almost nine months to the day when his father returned from Europe following the end of WWII. I looked at him intently, amazed at how youthful he appeared and acted for a man who had to be seventy, or close to it.
Without invitation or encouragement he told me and the bartender, his sole audience in the bar, about his life as a young man on a small farm in Solomon, Kansas, a barely-there town a few miles west of Abilene.
To listen to him talk, life in rural Kansas in the fifties and sixties was idyllic. Solomon was a town full of hardworking, God-fearing, humble yet proud, strongly independent-yet-always-willing-to-lend-a-neighbor-a-hand types with a decidedly progressive bent.
The progressive bent part he explained, was part of the cultural heritage - the town's early settlers were Protestant immigrants from Northeastern Europe, and they had brought with them a belief that not only were all men equal in God's eyes, but that all God's were equal in all men's eyes - except, he said, the God of the Catholics - apparently, the Catholic God did not pass muster.
He told us that it wasn't until he was 17 that he had ventured further from his hometown than the slightly larger town of Abilene. He and a friend had driven out to Junction City after school was out for the summer to see about getting jobs at the sight of a new reservoir being built, Milford Lake.
The two of them found jobs with a contractor who was demolishing a town that was going to be flooded once the reservoir was filled. He said the work was hard, but paid well, and he hoped to earn enough money that summer to buy himself a truck, as the only vehicle available to him was the farm truck his Dad drove.
With a somewhat melodramatic air he recounted how the demolition crew spent their days tearing down dilapidated homes and buildings and stripping them of old pipes - they didn't know if any of the buildings had lead pipes in them, but the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers who were in charge of the project, were not going to fill a reservoir that had a bunch of 100 year-old houses sitting in the deepest area of the basin with potentially lead pipes in them, so every building had to be torn down and every pipe had to be removed and hauled off to a scrap yard.
Then he told us of an incident that he said changed the course of his life. Fridays were payday, and it had become a usual routine for him and his friend to drive to a bar in Junction City that catered to the young enlisted men stationed at nearby Fort Riley. The jukebox played a lot of Rock'n' Roll, which most of the older men on the crew hated, and there were always a lot of girls there. As he and his friend kept their hair cut high and tight and most of the enlisted men wore civvies off base, they blended right in.
One Friday in early August they were sitting in the bar nursing beers when a group of young soldiers walked in and sat at a table that was close enough to theirs to allow them to easily overhear the conversation between the men.
The Army soldiers were solemn and spoke in quiet, serious tones. The group of men, said the old man, had all just returned from Vietnam, and had gathered at the bar to remember fallen comrades and drink to their memory.
Sitting there in that bar and counting the number of fallen comrades that the group toasted had the effect of convincing the old man that he needed to enlist - in the U.S. Navy. He did not want to risk getting drafted and having to serve two years as a combat infantryman in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
He said it was four days after he graduated from high school that he drove with his father all the way to Omaha to join the Navy. He had hopes of seeing the world, and that is exactly what he did - with the exception of Vietnam. The closest he ever got to Vietnam was the Philippines.
He had tested high for mechanical aptitude, so Uncle Sam had sent him to school to learn how to maintain the engines that powered ships. His first enlistment was originally four years, but the Navy kept him on for another year and offered various incentives to re-up for even longer. Five years was all he could handle though, and he figured he had seen enough of the world.
So in late 1969, after being discharged and returning to civilian life following his five-year hitch, he had gone back to the small town of Solomon, Kansas with the intention of marrying his high school sweetheart and taking over the family farm.
Only problem was, he told us, his high school sweetheart, who he had visited at length three times on leave and had been writing regularly for the entire five years he was gone, and who had replied to every letter he had sent with letters of her own, had failed to mention that she had gotten pregnant by a friend of his not long after his last visit with her on leave just a year ago and had married said friend and gave birth to a baby girl.
There was a distinct sadness to his countenance and in his voice as he told us about that part of his life, but then he brightened up and told us that it had all worked out for the best however, as that motivated him to leave the small town life behind and make his way to Denver, where he eventually opened up a truck stop, met the beautiful woman who eventually became his wife, had three wonderful kids with her and saw all of them graduate from college.
He said that with conviction and enthusiasm, but there was something about his demeanor that hinted at a little bit of remorse for a love lost. Whether it was for the high school sweetheart or the small town life, it was apparent that he still thought longingly of a past he left behind when he came to Denver.
It's my belief that anyone who uproots themselves to make a life somewhere other than where they were raised experiences that sentiment eventually. I know I have, and I went to great lengths to put that sentiment to bed. As I sat at the bar looking over at the old man I wondered if he would ever truly make peace with his past, or if he would continue to long for the romanticized version of his youth.