Apropos of nothing…except that I can’t forget it.
Last weekend I was in Trader Joe’s—a confession sure to cheer those certain that my aversion to FoxNews means I’m a closet liberal. (Worse, I bring my own canvas shopping bag. I might as well carry around a copy of Das Kapital while I stock up on fair-trade tea and organic apples.)
This time it was oranges, and the old Asian man crowding me apparently hadn’t gotten the memo: we shop here to feel smug about healthy community but don’t really go in for human contact. He gripped my arm with strength surprising for someone easily 900 years old.
“These are oranges?” he asked.
To him: “They are.” To myself: “What else would they be? Can’t he see I’m in a hurry?”
He wasn’t finished. “What is…?” He held up a grapefruit. I told him, much as one might inform a kindergartener. He swilled the word and kept his hold on my arm. “The Americans ate oranges.”
Indeed we do. Now I’ve really got to…what Americans? “In Vietnam.” The story that followed might have been ripped from the pages of a thriller. Maybe it was. By the end, his younger self had landed his plane—against orders—to pick up the bodies of five Americans left dead on the edge of a jungle. “There were wild animals,” he rasped, his rheumy eyes distant. “And they had mothers.” He spoke of delivering the fallen soldiers to American officers who took his name. His voice cracked. “They never said thank you.”
Now this may be a show he regularly puts on in the produce section. But I was willing to play my part out of regard for his performance, if not respect for his service. “You’re a brave man, and you did an honorable thing. Thank you.”
He bowed his head, turned, and shuffled off with his oranges in tow. I’ve thought of him several times since. A hero? A fabulist? Who cares. What mattered was standing still long enough to hear a story. I don’t do that often enough.