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  • Kim Idol

Cars, Ducks, Sharks and the A-bomb

I had to take my car to the repair shop for an estimate. So I slogged down Rancho Blvd. through this hideous wall of heat that encases Las Vegas four months out of every year to the repair shop recommended by USAA, my insurance company.

Two guys were sitting behind the counter. Both were on the phone. The younger man gestured to me to take a piece of candy from a jar on the counter and take a seat. I cannot just sit and I had taken a picture of myself naked just this morning in which I looked good, so I ignored the candy and wandered around the lobby, annoyed that they didn’t have anything more interesting to read than Covid safety tips. But before long, the older man, an older, big guy with that grey stubbly beard that works on some guys and on others just looks dirty, waved me over.

“They really got you,” he said while taking pictures of my bent front fender.

Never a good thing to hear from a carpenter, doctor, or mechanic.

“What branch?” he asked as we walked back towards the shop.

“I’m a legacy. USAA comes from my grandfather’s service. He was in the Army,” I said.

“Which one?” I don’t know why I knew he meant which war.

“WWII,” I replied. “He worked in supply in the Army. The perfect place for him. No one could order people around and organize like my grandfather.”

The guy fell silent, but once he sat down behind the counter, he began to talk again.

“I was in the Marines,” he said.

He also told me that he’d been a sniper, which is a whole other kind of human being. After listing the best war movies we both liked and discussing a shared inclination to wake up before sunrise, he told me this story. He said he had grown up in a small town in Illinois on a farm. He saw his life in sections, almost as if they were separate lives. One of his sisters, the family historian, wrote about his life in three sections. Section one was about a farm boy raising rabbits, cows, and pigs whose grandfather had taught him to shoot.

That recollection reminded me of tromping through high wet grass after my grandfather hunting ducks.

“Aim small, miss small, my grandfather taught me,” he said, which bothered me a little because I’d heard Mel Gibson say that to his on-screen son in a movie.

Then he told me how his grandfather taught him to hunt and shoot with rifles instead of shotguns. He learned more about shooting in the Marines and bruised his eye on the sight of a rifle, and never forgot that lesson which reminded me of how I learned to hold a shotgun tight to my shoulder and cheek because I, too, have a story about a bruised cheek and a wrenched shoulder.

“My grandfather was born in the late 1800s,” he said. “He was 17 when WWI started, so he passed all the exams and certifications, and once they accepted him, he asked his mother to sign the final paperwork.”

Then he said he’d spent decades in the Marines and told me about all the languages he knew a little about. He’d seen action in the Middle East. He’d been to the Philippines, Europe, and Japan. His sister wrote as much as she could about his military service, this second section of his life.

“I know how to say, “Don’t move,” “Get down,” and “Hands up” in Arabic,” he laughed. “I’ve seen action, and I’ve got red in my books,” he said, “but I’ve learned to live with it.”

Another line from a movie that made me wonder if the scriptwriter got it from someone in the service or if this guy had seen the same movies I had.

“My great-grandfather served in the American Civil War,” he said, raising four fingers to denote four generations of family members dedicated to military service.“My father and both my uncles enlisted, each in a different branch of the military. One brother went into the Army and worked on the A-bomb in New Mexico. Another brother became a Marine and helped deliver it [bomb components] to San Diego. The third one, my favorite uncle, went into the Navy and served on the Indianapolis when it delivered its unknown cargo to an air base in the western Pacific.”

“No way,” I said. These guys never tell their stories. I shifted the jar of candy aside so I could pay complete attention. Sugar is my drug of choice.

“He only told the story about the three and a half days he spent in the ocean with the sharks three times.” He touched his fingers as he listed them. “Once when they debriefed him after the rescue, once when he was debriefed after returning to his home base, and one time for us. He’s one of the sailors interviewed at the end of that Nicholas Cage movie, and he only talks about how he was proud of joining the Navy and how he wouldn’t have made any other choice. For the rest of his life, he refused to enter any body of water deeper than ankle depth and took baths in an old-style tub too small for him to sink into. I used to call him every Veterans day.”

The man held back tears.

“He died a while back.”

“And now, Veterans is the day you can’t call him,” I said, knowing what that’s like.

He nodded.

The third part of his life started after he got home. He moved to Las Vegas, and his family followed him.

“My sister typed it all up,” he replied when I asked if the journals she left behind were readable.

I don’t know how long we talked, but we got all my paperwork done and wished each other well, and I am reminded once more about the stories of our lives we need to keep telling each other so that those who matter to us are remembered.

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