Wrote most of this on my phone two weeks ago, just to process the emotion of the day. I didn’t finish it, or post it. I’m compelled to share now, because I think EVERY day has a chance to be the Giving day.
I’m in Millcreek, PA, with Team Rubicon. We’re cleaning up after the class 1 hurricane that hit last week.
Two of us went to buy chainsaw fuel from a Stihl dealer today, and, as we parked, a man ambling through the parking lot caught our eye.
Wordlessly, we each noticed the same thing: his boots looked … off. “That’s not snow.”
“Hi sir, my name is Jennie Haskamp. I’m a U.S. Marine. (I rarely introduce myself that way) We’re here helping the people of Millcreek Township; may I buy you a pair of boots?”
When he got in my warm, brand new rental truck, I handed him the sandwich I’d been eating and the bag of chips and asked if he wanted a bottle of water, or tea; an apple or a banana.
I had each of these. For me. I was struck, immediately, by the abundance I was wallowing in, even 400 miles from home while this old man had … so little.
I started to drive to a local sporting goods store and, in a few short moments, I recognized the mental instability evident in his endless prattle.
Brian, the Logs Section Chief for the operation, and my A-driver, continued to try and have a conversation with our anxious passenger.
He was talking in circles. He sounded not well. He sounded… like my mom. Oh, shit.
I asked a few times what branch of service he’d been in, simply to share with him that Brian was Army and I was a Marine. That we were veterans, like him. He snarled from the back seat, said he has DD214s and the cops took them. They took his eye glasses when he went to jail, too. That’s how they control you; they take your glasses when you go to jail.
You’re not like me. Why are you asking so many questions? I used to get benefits, you know.
Wordlessly, I changed my mind, headed to K-Mart instead; it was closer and I didn’t want to add to the anxiety he was displaying by driving 20 minutes away.
I parked, watched him climb down from the truck and assured him I’d lock it; that his bags were safe.
They don’t let me come inside, you know. They tell me I can’t stay.
“Oh. You can come in, friend. I assure you.”
I have a DD214, you know…
“Yes, I know.”
You don’t know; don’t say you know if you don’t know.
I used to get mail at the church…
I lived in Rhode Island…
I was at Camp Lejeune…
And so it went. I slowed my pace to match his in spite of the cold rain, walked into K-Mart next to him and, defiance in my eyes, dared the security guy at the front door to say a word to us.
Brian, great sport that he is, walked right in with us, despite the absence of a conversation about where we were going. Our guest was a mess in his layered, ill fitted clothes and unkempt hygiene, but neither of us cared. New boots was the mission.
None of the boots at K-Mart fit his swollen, scarred size 12 feet. None of them met his standards.
He sat down, still clutching the half-eaten bag of chili-cheese Fritos I’d given him in the truck, and explained in detail why soft leather was better than hard leather and why he needed ankle support and how the Marines gave him boots but took them away because he didn’t pay child support and how the manager at Arby’s lets him come in for coffee and he puts flip flops in his boots to make them fit and they’re softer that way on his feet and how the family he has in Rhode Island sold his house for taxes and no one asked him about it and he has a DD214 but he doesn’t have a copy and that’s ok because the police read minds anyhow and he used to get mail at the church once a week and then the state stopped his benefits and he’s 72 and he shouldn’t be living on the streets and the MPs in North Carolina were lazy the last time he was there and if he had to pay child support for so long where are those children now when he needs help…
I walked away, ostensibly to find socks for him to try on with boots, but really to catch my breath, staunch the flow of hot tears threatening to erupt.
Poor Brian. I broke contact without a word and he stood there, looking for size 12s, awash in the stranger’s nonsensical words.
I walked back, knelt down, tried to help him into a boot and his frustration increased; was it my proximity?
Was it the boot?
I’m not a child. I’m not an invalid, you know.
“Yes, I know. I understand, I’m sorry.”
None of these fit and I am not supposed to be in K-Mart; they don’t let me come in here. I can’t rush.
“Let’s go to Walmart, instead, friend.”
Walmart has a big selection. That’s fine.
He walked away and I ran back for the abandoned bag of Fritos, caught up with him and Brian as we left the store.
And so we slowly walked out of K-Mart, drove across town to WalMart with a steady, circular narrative interspersed with him giving me driving directions. By now Brian and I had communicated effectively enough to know we were both on the same page re: lets make this as uneventful as possible… for all of us.
As the conversation continued he’d blurt from the backseat, Hey, are you listening to me? Don’t sit there and ignore me; I know what you’re doing. People pretend like they’re listening, but they don’t care. They don’t listen.
We’d both assure him we were listening, repeat part of the conversation and he’d continue.
Each time he blurted driving directions my anxiety heightened; Brian calmly, told our passenger I knew where I was going (I certainly did not but the GPS on the console silently guided me) and so the prattle continued but the navigation stopped. If you’ve ever been in a car with me, you understand the increased anxiety surrounding navigation.
In we went to Walmart. I stopped and introduced myself, us really, to the greeter. His lapel pins and his name tag (all that flair) told me he was an Army Vietnam Veteran named Richard–I told him we were taking our Marine friend to buy a pair of new boots and he said, “I’ve seen Team Rubicon on TV every night; I didn’t know you guys took care of homeless veterans, too.”
“Well, sir, we’re here to help, and our friend needed help.” He saluted with his blue ball-cap.
As we made our way back to the shoe department our friend’s agitation visibly increased and I was nauseous, looking at all of the excess.
I thought talking would help. *My mom’s been dead 7 years; I’d forgotten talking TO her while she was talking AT me was like spritzing gas on a fire*
You should just give me a gift card and leave me alone. This is happening too fast. I can’t be rushed. I have a DD214, and the cops know it. Louder now. They took my glasses; they take your glasses away when you go to jail, you know, so you can’t see what they are doing to you.
Brian endured; I went looking for socks. Again.
They need to be cotton; those are slippery. Too much nylon. The nylon socks have trackers in them. I know this. I don’t like being tracked. I have bad circulation; can’t wear tracking socks.
I returned with acceptable cotton socks and implored him to put a pair on.
I half listened, and asked Brian to go find a backpack, thinking we’d fill a backpack with essentials.
I can’t put clean socks on; my feet are dirty. I got some soap yesterday, and I can’t just put clean socks on. What is wrong with you? This is too much; it’s too fast. I just need a gift card.
By the time Brian returned, (and I snapped at him for his choice of backpack; sorry, dude) I realized the best thing to do was buy the boots he had on, buy a gift card and take him back to parking lot we’d essentially abducted him from. I was emotionally exhausted and all of this took less than 45 minutes.
And so. Boots, inserts, socks and a gift card. I asked Brian to take our friend to the truck while I checked out and I couldn’t even function effectively enough to use the self-check station.
Thanks to Richard, who walked over and helped me process the purchase, I made it out of the store.
Earlier, I’d stopped at the firehouse we were living at for the week and grabbed my snowboard jacket and pants, planning to give them to him as a layer against the elements.
As we drove to the Arby’s he wanted to go to, I suggested he try the jacket on.
Yeah, this is nice. This will block the rain. I had a jacket, you know, and they took it. They took all of my stuff. That’s what the cops do, you know, they take your stuff.
“Take the pants, too, sir. They will help with the rain.”
I ain’t taking these. These are huge. Who wears pants these big, anyways. No way I’m taking these. Are they nylon? I don’t want anything that they can track me with… Are you listening to me? I can tell when you’re not listening, you know? People pretend to listen, but they don’t.
“Yes, I’m listening. They were mine; they’re big but they’re flannel lined and water proof and you can cinch them… might be better than no winter pants–“
These aren’t even pants, really, they’re so big. I’ll take them, though. I can use them as a sleeping bag, as long as they aren’t nylon…
Brian and I exchanged sideways glances, both holding back laughter at the way he went on and on and on about these big big fat pants and Brian handed him cash as we helped him carry his things into Arby’s, implored him to get a hot meal. He asked for my red Team Rubicon sweatshirt. I said no.
We drove away. Brian started to speak; I cut him off. I simply couldn’t process more in that moment.
We returned to the chainsaw dealer; with a few dtrangled words I begged off the shopping mission, stayed in the truck.
Brian, saint that he is, walked in to shop. I turned up the volume on my radio and O.A.R’s Home was playing. Louder. And louder. The words washed over me and the tears came. Of all the damn songs…
Home is reality,
And all I need something real
Home is reality,
And all I need something real
I feel home.
The thing I’m still trying to define in my own life, the the thing I essentially have everywhere I look, at the table of friends, is the one thing that old man doesn’t have.
I thought buying him boots and a backpack would make a difference. Home…
Radio still too loud for polite consumption, I bailed out of the truck and walked into the alley behind the Stihl dealership. I vomited all over the side of the building. Fritos, half a sammich and all the veggies I’d layered on it… right there in the alley.
When I walked back to the truck, Brian was standing outside in the rain, pointed to his ears and grinned, sheepishly. I slid in and shut the radio off.
I don’t remember if we talked on the way back to the FOB, and I don’t remember what else we did that afternoon. I know we shared the details with the Millcreek Office of Emergency Management on the off chance they’d find him, and get him off the street.
That night, at the daily debrief, Dodds asked for a story and Brian, tough retired Army officer that he is, sobbed as he tried to recount the story. Something about learning humility seeing kindness that day.
I laughed at him; because I’m an asshole and laughter is how I cope, and the group moved to another story. When he was composed, and I was able, I shared the wave tops of the story with the group.
Not for me, but for Brian.
I ended the story with us laughing about those fat, fat pants, but my heart broke for that old man. For his situation. For his lost DD214. For the kids he doesn’t know. For the glasses he doesn’t have.
As it so often does, my heart broke, anew, for my mom. For her lost years. For the kids she didn’t know. For her incessant rambling. For the bins full or diaries and prison letters and court papers I took from her trailer after she died. For the very items that validated so many of her unbelievable, oft repeated stories.
I feel home. With my FRamily, and my TRibe. With people who give; people who get me. I feel home.