I used to frequent a restaurant on Saturday mornings, and there was a group of old men who sat in the corner and drank coffee together. It was usually the same bunch of ten to twelve although occasionally someone new would join and a regular would drop out. The old men liked to sit and solve the world’s problems over steaming cups of black coffee. You wouldn’t find these guys drinking flavors like Irish Mocha or French Vanilla or adding whipped cream to their drinks. These were men with nicotine stained fingers that sometimes bothered to shave the overnight stubble but just as likely would not. Their faces were deeply lined and their skin was leathery from years of hard work in the sun. None of these men had ever paid for a tan. They would discuss politics, religion and every other topic that is forbidden and occasionally the political talk would become heated, but eventually cooler heads would prevail and the local sports teams would become the unifying subject they could all agree on. Some of these men were obviously farmers. They proudly wore caps with the logo of their favorite farm machinery on them, and a couple wore overalls every week. Others had probably been businessmen, factory workers – almost anything.
Over the months I couldn’t help but notice that one of the men was a little quieter than the others. He seemed to have full acceptance within the group, but he caught my attention because he wasn’t as loud and didn’t laugh quite as much as the rest. I eventually learned his name was Pete. One morning the guys got to talking about how annoying their wives were, and they began throwing around the usual stereotypes that crop up when a group of men, who have been married to the same long-suffering woman for decades, feel the need to express their marital frustrations. However, I noticed that Pete didn’t say a word. He just sat silently staring into his coffee cup. It was at that point I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring like the others. After the joking and complaining about the wives subsided one of the men turned to Pete and gently asked, “How long has Louise been gone now?” Pete looked up with an expression that conveyed both weariness and pain and softly answered, “Three years, last month.” The old men sat silently for a time each contemplating what their days would be like if the woman they had shared a lifetime with was no longer by their side.
As I eventually learned, Pete had been a medic in the Korean War, and the horror he witnessed during that conflict affected him for the rest of his life. He had come home in a different mental state, and his outlook on the world had completely changed. He often disagreed with the other old men who always seemed gung-ho to bomb someone somewhere back into the Stone Age, however, he had witnessed so much death that he could no longer stomach the thought of it. But it was the fact that Pete had lost a son in Vietnam that made the others respect his opinions about peace. His boy had been killed by small arms fire just 6 weeks before his tour of duty was over. Pete and Louise had gone to Washington DC one summer to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Like so many others they had found their son’s name and made a tracing of it on a sheet of paper. Pete carried it in his wallet so that he was never without it…But there were also good things in his life. I found out Pete had two beautiful daughters who meant the world to him, and he loved to show off photos of his great-grandchildren. He didn’t travel to see them as much now that Louise was gone, but they still kept in touch and came to visit him whenever possible.
Over the next year or so I slowly learned that after returning home from the army Pete briefly considered using his medical training for some type of civilian work, but his nerves were frayed, and he knew he couldn’t handle anymore human suffering. Instead he took a job at a local manufacturing plant that produced tires for cars and trucks. He spent 46 years at the plant working his way up to management. When he retired, a small party was thrown for him and he was given a few simple gifts and a pat on the back for giving four decades of his life to the company. It was a few months after his retirement when Pete stumbled onto the group of men drinking coffee each morning at the restaurant near his home. Like him, many had been told their services were no longer needed, and they too had been cast aside after it was determined their ongoing usefulness to a particular organization was in doubt. Pete had felt lost without a job to go to each day, but now he discovered he wasn’t alone. It didn’t take long for Pete to become one of the regulars.
Over the next couple of years I had breakfast almost every Saturday morning at the restaurant while I listened to the old timers talk longingly about how things used to be. But my attention was always drawn to Pete. In the beginning I thought he was just another old man, the kind of person you see every day without giving a thought to, but the more I learned about him the more interesting he became. It was an odd thing because it seemed like I knew him fairly well and yet we never spoke. We had seen each other so often that each of us would nod when the other came into the building but that was it – just a quiet acknowledgement of the other’s existence – nothing more.
Finally one Saturday morning I came into the restaurant and noticed the old men sitting quietly. As I ate, I kept wondering when Pete would arrive but soon enough I understood that he was never again going to be part of the group. As I listened to the brief snatches of conversation the picture became clear. Pete had suffered a massive stroke earlier in the week. One of the men had spoken to Pete’s oldest daughter, and she had told him that the doctors said that her father would never recover. It was apparently now just a matter of time until he passed. Several of the men blustered about how they would never want to be kept alive in that condition, but it seemed that no one really had the heart to express their opinion on the pros and cons of extending life. The group soon fell silent as they sipped their coffee lost in their own thoughts.
It was a strange feeling that came over me when I realized I would never see Pete again. I wasn’t sure why I felt so sad. I didn’t even know his last name. But for some reason Pete remained in my thoughts over the next few months. I would think about him when I saw other elderly men. I would wonder if he was still alive, if he could recognize the face of a grandchild. About 6 months later the restaurant was closed and eventually it was torn down, but it had served its purpose. It had been a place of community for a group of men who had lived long hard lives, who had been patriotic with more than just words but also with deeds. These were men who had raised families and did their best to make the world a safe and prosperous place for their children. These were men who were now being passed by as younger generations ignored them and the sacrifices they had made.
I’m sure some of the old men scattered to new places to drink and solve the latest world crisis, while others just stayed home. But for a time they had shared their hopes, dreams and experiences. They had connected in a way that younger people do not. Their shared history of life created a bond that was difficult for someone of a different age to understand. Although their appreciation and sympathy for each other went unspoken, it was clearly understood. Each man valued the worth of the other because they were equals. They were survivors.
Pete had led an anonymous life. How many others were like me and had never bothered to learn his last name? But it would the worst kind of disrespect to say it was not a life of consequence. He had been married to someone he obviously loved deeply. He had brought three children into the world and he had been blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had fought for the country he loved and he had saved many lives in the process. It appeared that he had been a man of character and convictions, and yet he had endured the worst that life has to offer. Pete was just an ordinary man who had done the best he could, in the circumstances he found himself in. What more can anyone do?
How often do we look at older men or women without really seeing them? Do we realize the history that is represented by each of these lives? Many of them made extraordinary sacrifices that I can’t even imagine. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They survived marriages, divorces, the birth and deaths of loved ones. They have had a jobs and careers through the years and possibly lost them both. As they aged they have battled their own health problems and they may be bravely living with a disease or condition right now that will eventually claim their life. Everyone that is my age and younger owes a debt to those who came before us that we will never be able to repay. When you see an older person it is easy to forget that they were once the exact same age as you. When you look at them you are seeing your future. We must treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve because one day we will be in their place.
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll sit in the corner of a restaurant and drink coffee with a group of my contemporaries. Perhaps we will also trade lies, exaggerated stories and mindless conversation to pass the time. And if I do, I’m sure I’ll remember Pete and his friends. I will be fortunate to have what they had.