Walking back through the narrow and brief alley after visiting a local coffee shop, I saw him standing quietly in the parking lot.
He was probably 6’3″ tall and his tattered jeans and wrinkled blue oxford shirt seem to hang a bit awkwardly on his thin frame. From the shaggy gray beard, I surmised he was in his 60s. I also surmised that he was about to ask me for cash, which I “conveniently” just spent the last of on my coffee.
Sure enough, as I smiled and nodded hello, he slowly asked, “Excuse me buddy, would you buy an old veteran a cup of coffee?”
Well, I thought, that was a bit of a twist on the standard request for money, but never the less, I shared with him my “I’m out of cash” story. He smiled in a surprisingly understanding way and added “No problem. I’ve just been waiting on my check from the VA — they’re slow to say the least,” he grinned.
Something was different about this seemingly homeless man — and it wasn’t the fact that he was carrying a small briefcase, although that added to the odd scenario. Then suddenly, visions of the lessons I had shared with my daughters when they were younger began popping into my mind — lessons on giving.
“You never know what someone’s life has been like”, I would extol them. Yes, it was time to practice what I had preached. “You know, I bet that coffee shop takes credit cards — come on and let’s go grab a cup,” I suggested.
He grinned again.
We walked back through the alley and ended up again at the little coffee shop. As we strolled in together, I could feel what seemed like every head turn and stare at this unlikely pair. We approached the counter and I said to the mid 20-ish barista, “This gentleman is a veteran and I’d like to buy him a cup of coffee.” Still feeling all eyes on us, thankfully she smiled and didn’t miss a beat. “My father is a veteran also,” she beamed. “Thank you for your service.”
He didn’t minimize or take the complement for granted. Instead he looked her squarely in the eyes and softly said “you’re welcome, ma’am.”
I was beginning to feel a great compassion for this veteran, and I wondered if he was hungry. “Pick out whatever you’d like. Lunch is on me,” I said- fully expecting him to place a hearty order. “No thank you. Coffee is just fine,” he replied without hesitation.
I was surprised to say the least.
We stepped outside and sat at a little table and began sipping our coffee and talking. I asked him what war he was in. “Vietnam,” he slowly he said. Not really knowing what to say, I paused and then added, “I guess I can’t even imagine what it was like there.”
He seemed to withdraw a bit, as if he’d heard that many times before, and he firmly replied, “Neither could I. I was 19 — but I learned quickly.”
As the soft spring breeze blew across the patio, it seemed to usher in old memories to him. “I did some things over there that I’m not proud of, but I guess they had to be done. Either way, they’re done now,” he added with a tone of sadness.
His voice seemed to trail off and his blue eyes grew misty. “Both of my grandfathers died at the battle of Normandy, and I remember most of the time in Vietnam I believed I would be the next one to go” he quietly said. The depth of his pain and sadness suddenly became acutely apparent.
We talked a bit more and realized we had quite a few acquaintances and friends in common from our small Georgia hometowns. I couldn’t help but think that this could have just as easily been me, had the hand of fate deemed it.
The spring air suddenly felt colder.
An hour passed like minutes and it was time for me to go on my way. We shook hands, he thanked me for the coffee and I thanked him for what he had done for our country, and I left.
As I reached the corner of the building and turned to walk back to the alley towards my car, I glanced back and saw him opening that small, mysterious briefcase. In it was the sole content which he removed with great care: a beautiful old and well worn Bible that he carefully opened and began reading with a soft smile.
I smiled too, and continued to my car, feeling an empathy and connection with this man which I still can’t describe.
The next veteran you meet — whether they appear homeless or wealthy, or somewhere in between — thank them for their service. Maybe even buy them a cup of coffee. They may be fighting or re-fighting battles you’ll never understand.
For me, I was left feeling grateful — grateful for a chance conversation with a Vet, that I will never, ever forget…