My dog has fleas. Not only fleas but an allergy to fleas. So I take her to the vet, and we're sitting there when I notice a young dog, golden-furred and skinny as could be. Poor thing looked half starved to death.
"Looks like I did when I came home from the war," a voice said and I turned and saw a tall hefty white man in his early 70s, a Bills cap perched on his head.
"When I came back in 1946, I weighed 115 pounds," he said and paused for effect. "Gained 35 pounds the month I got back." He had an air of pleasant boasting about him and I murmured appreciatively. "Didn't like the Navy food," he went on.
I asked where he served and he said: "Mostly in the Pacific. Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. . . . I was in China. Chinese are very nice people. Very nice. I couldn't begin to tell you how nice they were. . . . I wanted to stay there. Can you believe it? I actually wanted to stay in China after the war. But Uncle Sam shipped me back. . . ." He shrugged. "Whaddaya gonna do. But I'll tell ya, the Chinese people are the nicest people you ever wanna meet. Though they certainly are different from us, that's for sure. They have their strange ways. . . "
"Like what?" I asked, curious, and he smiled, remembering: "Oh, you'll be walking down the street and see a man riding a bicycle. . .with a half a cow strapped to it."
"He was probably the butcher."
"And sometimes. . . ," he said and from the way he smiled, glanced around to check for eavesdroppers and leaned forward, I knew he was going to say something improper. "They relieve themselves in the streets. One night I'm walking down the street and I see this woman. . . . I swear to God. She steps to the side, looks around, lifts her dress and goes just like that. In the street."
I smiled. "There probably wasn't a public restroom around. And maybe she was far from home. And ya' know what they say: 'Whey ya' gotta go, ya' gotta go.'"
"So they have their strange ways, but they're the nicest people you ever wanna meet." He leaned even farther forward and I knew he was going to say something really improper. "You know all that stuff they said about the Chinese? I think it was propaganda. And the Russians! Remember how they used to talk about the Russians?" He leaned back and threw up his hands. "They were supposed to be the devil, and come to find out they're people -- just like us."
Then he bent forward so abruptly his forehead almost bonked mine. "You know what I think? I think Uncle Sam was. . .'communist sick.'" He'd hissed the phrase, sat back and peered at me to see if I understood his meaning. "You couldn't say the word 'communist' without. . . ." He sighed and shook his head, frustrated at being unable to describe the witch hunt atmosphere in America during the Cold War.
But I, a so-called Red Diaper Baby, childhood victim of the Cold War, knew exactly what he meant, and I told him how our family was wrongfully accused, we had to leave our hometown and I was ripped away from my extended family. I could see, however, that he was more interested in talking than listening so I fell silent; and as he went on I wondered what he'd been like in the '50s. Had he been part of a silent majority who let it happen? Or maybe he'd been one of the good neighbors who quietly helped out. Whatever he'd been then, I could see that now he was grateful for my attention, for he kept on talking without a stop, working his way at last toward contemporary history.
He was talking about the gulf crisis.
"There's no need for war!" he cried, impassioned. "Veterans Day, I hear on the radio that the majority of veterans think war is unavoidable." He gave a snort of disgust. "They didn't ask me. . . . They should ask me. I'd tell 'em." Then he leaned forward for the final time; and I, taking the cue, cocked my ear.
"You know what I think?" he whispered. "I think they're trying to keep our minds off Bush's son. We're all caught up in worrying about this so-called gulf crisis, this war Bush is gonna start, and we forget about the S&L scandals." He shook his head in frustration and disgust. "I heard the S&L scandal is gonna cost the American people $500 billion. . . . Not to mention what sending all those troops over there is costing. Can't we find something better to do with the money?"
I opened my mouth to answer, but noticed that his wife and daughter were standing there, waiting to leave. His daughter, a woman about my age, kept giving him looks like: Come on, let's go. Let's get a move on. "Pop. . . ." she said at last. He turned to her; and as he did, she gave me a curious glance, and I imagined her asking in the car later on, "What were you talking about with that woman?" I wondered what he'd say.
Meanwhile, he'd stood up to go, and I felt a strange urgency, not wanting to lose contact with this interesting Buffalonian. I asked his name; he glanced back over his shoulder and told me. "Nice to meet ya'," I murmured and reached out my hand, wanting to touch him. But it was too late, he was gone.
RUTH GELLER writes from Buffalo.