Waiting for a Ride
A close encounter with a hero
Jimmy, some of it’s magic,
some of it’s tragic
But I had a good life all the way.
— From “He Went to Paris” by Jimmy Buffett
By Tom Bryant
The morning of June 24 was as promised by the folks at the Weather Channel. It was gonna be hot and humid. But after all, it was the first week of summer, and the way they talked, we should get ready for more of the same.
I was leaning against the fender of the old Bronco waiting for Sam to come out of the bank. Not knowing how long Sam’s business would take, I prudently grabbed a shady spot next to an old Ford pickup. He said he wouldn’t be long, but I took no chances.
He had called me the week before.
“Bryant, need a favor. Could you give me a lift to the VA up in Durham? Got to have an operation on my carotid artery. They say it needs to be reamed out.”
“Absolutely,” I replied. “When you gotta go?”
“Next Wednesday. You can drop me off, and the bride will pick me up when it’s time. I sure appreciate it.”
So, that’s how I ended up waiting outside the bank on the first Wednesday of summer. It would prove to be an interesting day.
Sam came out shading his eyes and ambled toward the truck. “I hope you left some money in there for me,” I said, chuckling.
Sam’s a medium size guy, losing weight to aging, but he always has a gleam in in his eye, ready for what’s next. On this morning, I noticed he walked a little slower than usual. I commented, “Hey boy, you slowing down in your old age?”
“Not on your life, Bryant. I’ve learned to walk around it rather than run over it. I thought I’d learned you that valuable lesson.” We laughed and climbed in the ancient truck and headed to Durham, where the VA hospital is located.
Sam and I go way back to the days before society became so transient. We met probably in the third grade and continued our friendship, always staying in touch over any length of time or distance. Age and circumstances weighed on us both, but more healthwise for Sam than me.
The old truck isn’t conducive to conversation when you’re roaring down the road at a blistering 55 miles an hour, but Sam and I were used to it. We carried on, shouting a bit when the wind noise threatened to shut us down.
“You gonna come outta this?” I asked, using the black humor we sported back and forth to one another all our lives. “If not, I hope you made the proper arrangements with your lawyer. I’m not driving you up here for nothing.”
“Don’t worry, Bryant, I’ll see you get a tank o’ gas out the deal. Find us a quick food joint and let’s get some lunch. I’m not hankering for hospital food for supper.”
I stopped at a Wendy’s right outside of town. There were a couple of picnic tables shaded under an oak tree, and we decided to eat outside away from the lunch crowd.
“What’re y’all doing on the Fourth?” he inquired.
“We always go up to Burlington. A group of friends get together every year to celebrate. It’s a good summer outing with folks we’ve known forever. What are y’all gonna do?”
“Don’t know yet. Depends on how this trip turns out.”
I could tell that Sam was feeling his age and also a little mortal. Who wouldn’t, going to a strange hospital for an operation that is supposedly routine but could always turn out not to be?
“Come on, Sam. This operation will be fine. You’ve got the best doctors in the country. The Duke docs run the show at the VA, I understand.”
“I know, but at my age, anything can happen. I’m not ready to get on that bus, you know, just in case they’re getting up a load,” he said.
The burgers were good, and we stowed our trash in the waste can next to the table and were on our way. In a short drive, I pulled up in front of the massive VA hospital, found a parking place again in the shade, and we got out of the Bronco.
“Thanks for the ride, partner. You don’t have to come in. I can handle all the paperwork.”
“Nah, I want to see the place just in case I have to come up here someday.”
And it was something to see. The building was huge, with large halls stretching from here to yonder. After a bit of searching, as directed by the lady at the front desk, we found where Sam was supposed to bunk. It was a ward, really, with six or eight beds in the room. He was the only one there.
“You don’t reckon they might lose you back here?” I asked, smiling as I was getting ready to leave.
“I hope not. But you better have your compass so you can find your way back to the Bronco.”
“All right, sport. You take it easy. Good luck in the morning. I’ll touch base with you tomorrow.”
I stepped out into the hall to find my way back to the entrance. Sam was right, I did need a compass. I immediately got turned around and wandered the halls right and left, totally lost. The amazing thing was there were no people. I walked past empty rooms, vacant corridors, nobody. Finally, I met a lady heading my way. She was looking lost, too.
“Ma’am, I’m trying to find the front door to this place. Can you point me in the right direction?”
“I think it’s down this hall,” she said, pointing to a long passageway to my right. “I’m new here myself, from the Duke hospital across the road, and I’m trying to find the floor nurse.”
“Good luck,” I said, and she walked away in the opposite direction.
Around the corner, down the hall, I saw a door opening outside. There was a parking area all right, but not the one where I had parked. A fellow was sitting on a bench right next to the sidewalk. He looked like he had been there for a while, so I thought I’d get directions from him.
When I walked up, he looked over at me, grinned and said, “You lost?”
“No, sir, but my truck is.”
“You came out the wrong door, Bubba. This is the back entrance. You probably parked around front.”
The man was of an indeterminate age, with iron-gray hair cut in a military brush style. He had on a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and a faded Marine Corps insignia on the front. He wore crisp, ironed khakis and sandals. A cane was propped on the bench. His color had a yellow cast to it, and his breathing was short, as if he had to concentrate on it. A small tattoo showing the stripes of a master sergeant was on his right arm.
“Business inside?” he asked.
“My friend. I gave him a lift up here. He has an operation scheduled tomorrow. Marine Corps?”
“Yep, 28 years, retired. You?”
“Same. Short timer. Let me guess. Gunnery sergeant?”
“Good guess. Vietnam?”
“Same era. You?”
“Good grief. Couldn’t get enough of the good times, I guess.”
“There in the beginning, helping the ARVN build firebases. Sort of an observer. Second tour, more a participant. The Southern regulars weren’t up to the task. Meant well, but would scatter like a busted covey of quail at the first shots. Third time, realized it was a politicians’ war and a wasted effort.”
He looked out at the traffic slowly driving by, lost in his thoughts.
“You a patient inside?” I asked.
“Yeah, sort of a regular. They tell me I’m about done, though. Waiting on my ride. My niece is picking me up.”
I didn’t ask what he meant by “about done.”
“Here she is now.” He pointed to a pickup that stopped at the curb. “Good talking with you.”
He slowly got up from the bench, and with the help of his cane, shuffled down the sidewalk.
“Hey, Gunny,” I said as he neared the vehicle. “Have a great Fourth. Semper Fi.”
He stuck up his thumb in the universal gesture for “everything is OK” and slowly climbed in the truck. I watched as they drove away, and as I walked around the building to find the Bronco, I couldn’t help but think about the hero I had just met. He deserved better than a bench sitting in back of an almost empty VA hospital. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.