Written by Tara Clark
He’s bald with a small tuft of white hair on each side of his head and stands about 5 foot 6, though it’s tough to tell by the way he’s stooped over. His skin looks worn, leathery, and very wrinkled, reminiscent of paper after it’s been tightly balled up and reopened. He continuously wears brown pants with black suspenders, a red plaid shirt, and white leather-soled shoes like it’s the only outfit he owns. You could set your watch by that little old man climbing out of that beat-up antique Chevy. He shows up every Thursday at 1 p.m. on the dot, no matter the weather, ambles across the field of the Monroe County airport, and just stands there, alone, silently staring at the landing strip like a sentinel. After an hour, he shuffles back to the old pickup, gets in, and leaves. After watching this cycle week after week for months, I just couldn’t stand the curiosity anymore. I had determined that today was the day I would talk to him, no matter what.
I skipped lunch and rushed outside to await the unmistakable rumble of his truck anxiously. When it pulled up, I waited for him to limp up to his self-appointed “spot,” then haltingly made my way up to him. “Nice day, isn’t it?” I asked. He didn’t seem to notice me. He had a strange, far away look on his face, like his mind was in another universe. I cleared my throat. “I’m Sam,” I tried again. He blinked hard as he had just been jolted out of a trance. “Sam,” he repeated slowly as if he was rolling the name around on his tongue. He turned toward me, gently reaching toward my face, tears welling in his eyes before blinking again. Suddenly, a strange clarity crossed his face as his hand fell limply against his side. He shook his head, glanced back toward the runway, then drug himself back toward his truck and left. I stood there watching his vehicle disappear down the road, wondering what had happened.
What did I say or do to make him run off like that? Had I offended him in some way? I spent the next week wracking my brain, trying to figure it out, and vowing to make things right. The following Thursday, I again waited for him to show up. Just like clockwork, he arrived and made his way over to his perch. I stood there debating if I should try again, then meandered over. “Sir,” I mumbled. He again had that distant look on his face. I stood there silently, waiting to see if he noticed me. Eventually, he turned toward me, held out his hand, and simply said, “Henry.” I smiled as I shook his hand, feeling like I had just won the lottery.
We stood there in the quiet for a while, seemingly looking at nothing. Eventually, he told me to have a good day and left. This quickly became routine for me as, week after week, I spent my lunch hour standing beside Henry, keeping an old man company as he stood there with a heartbreaking, and often-times preoccupied, expression on his face. Sometimes we talked, though it was never more than a few sentences, mostly we just enjoyed the quiet. On Thursday, in late October, Henry didn’t show up. I hadn’t realized just how attached I had become to that strange old man until that day. I paced in “our” spot the entire hour, then went in and clocked out for the rest of the afternoon. He never arrived. I couldn’t imagine what would make such a stickler of time late, but I didn’t want to miss him.
I resumed skipping my lunches to continue his weekly vigils in hopes he would return one day. Like Henry, the weather – regardless of what it was – no longer bothered me as I stood guard over his beloved, yet vacated, the patch of grass and pondered over the mysterious outcome of my unlikely friend. It was a Thursday in mid-January when I was speculating for the millionth time as to why this location was so special to Henry when I heard an unmistakable sound in the distance. My heart skipped at the almost forgotten yet unforgettable sound. I quickly turned my head as that old Chevy pulled into Henry’s parking space. The fierce feelings that welled up in me took me by surprise. I had never felt so much joy and relief in my entire life, and the desire to run up and give him a huge hug was almost unbearable. I impatiently waited for the door to open, and when it did, the legs at the bottom of the door were shapely and adorned with black heels instead of the familiar baggy brown pants and white shoes. My heart sank. The lovely, middle-aged woman that emerged from the truck smiled as she shut the door and started her way over to me. “You must be Sam.” She extended her hand to me. I shook it but said nothing. “I want to thank you, but before I do, I want to show you something.” She handed me an old, yellowed, well-worn envelope. The date was so faded it was hard to read but still barely legible. August 8, 1965. I looked at her in confusion. She smiled again and patted my arm. “I’ll be by the truck when you’re done,” she said. I didn’t know what was going on, and this whole situation made me uncomfortable, but I opened the letter.
It’s another hot day here in Swamp Country. Charlie seems to appear out of nowhere constantly. We do our best to push them back, but it’s like a game of tug-of-war. We gain ground, then give it back. It seems like a never-ending fight for a single piece of dirt that, to me, isn’t worth the blood of the grunts that soaks it. Do you remember my best friend, Howard? He died in my arms last week trying to me, Dad. I didn’t even see that Commie bastard sneak up behind me, but Howard did. My best friend died, saving my life. I’m enclosing the last letter he wrote to his mom. Would you please give it to her when you see her at church on Sunday? I promised him you would. I’m sure gonna miss him, and please tell his parents how sorry I am. Time for weapons check. I’ll pick this up when I get back. I have some news, Dad. I’m coming home! I have one last hop tomorrow, and then I’m on the first Freedom Bird out! I figure I should be home by 1 p.m. on Thursday, August 26. I can’t wait to see you, Mom and Ruth again. Please give them my love.
I stood there in shock, staring at the letter. The memory of Henry reaching up to me when I first said my name flooded back and punched me in the gut like a prizefighter. I turned and looked at the lady patiently standing by the truck, and when our eyes met, she smiled and nodded. I took my time walking back to her. “Ruth?” I asked as I handed the letter back. She patted my arm again as she gingerly placed the letter in the front seat of the pickup. “I don’t understand.” “That letter you just read was from my brother, Sam. About two years ago, my father was diagnosed with Dementia and forgot that Sam went on that last mission and never returned. Dad could recall that he was supposed to come back to us on Thursday at 1 p.m. The month, day, and year were lost to him. I followed him every week, back and forth, to make sure he was ok. Then I saw you that first day you stood with him. When we got home, I asked about you, but he just repeatedly said, “Sam.” He did this every week until I figured out he talked about you and not my brother. Eventually, he was just too far gone, and I had no choice but to put him in a home. He died last week…Thursday to be exact…at 1 p.m. My dad was going through a hard time toward the end, and I want you to know that your kindness, friendship, and companionship were appreciated by both of us…more than you could ever possibly know. Thank you so much.” She reached up and gave me a tight hug. My heart completely broke. As she stepped back, I reached out and gently touched her hand. “Ruth?” “Yes?” she sniffed, wiping her eyes. “Could I take you to dinner tonight? I would like to hear more about you and your family.” “I would love that,” she smiled.