I am participating in a leadership program at work and we have regularly spaced events to attend where we listen to speakers and network with other people in similar roles. Today the event started at a buffet style restaurant and everyone was to report at noon to enjoy lunch before the day’s events began.
There is no formal sitting area or shotgun start to the lunch so as people come in they go through the buffet line and pick a seat. Each person is supposed to pick a seat with people they are unfamiliar with so that the networking is maximized.
I see a gentleman sitting alone at a small table and he looks friendly so I ask, “Do you mind if I join you?”
He replies, “No, by all means have a seat.” He goes from a look of indifference to a happy smile and I sit down across from him. He looks to be in his mid-fifties with a salt and pepper goatee, business casual shirt, and a cast on his left arm that I never actually asked about. I assume that he is with the same group so I don’t start into much of a conversation. After all, we will be here all day and this food looks really yummy.
He says, “You know it is busier here than I thought it would be. I drive through here all the time and for some reason today I thought I would stop and have lunch.”
“Oh so I don’t guess you are part of the leadership group?”
“No, no. Just passing through. That explains all the people I guess.”
We laugh a little at the confusion but strike up a conversation about work, family, and life. He lives in Chattanooga, TN but was originally from San Jose, CA. His wife works for an international group and they both sound like they lead a life of travel and interesting adventure. They have three children who are spread out over the US from California to Texas to Georgia and he enjoys telling me about how their lives have unfolded.
I tell him about my four girls and how they are close in age. The required small talk advances, “How many? Oh man! You have your hands full! Wait until they start dating.” That whole thing. Although I do think it is fun to relate to people about family and kids because it is a subject that at the root, we can all agree on. We may not enjoy our children all the time but they are important and we love them. As we talk I notice a trace of something in his eyes and maybe in his voice. Something with longing and regret or maybe just some bittersweet nostalgia.
The conversation drifts towards how we plan on spending the holidays and how time flies. He is traveling to see his daughter in California. He tells me, “It is good to be able to see her for several days but you know the holidays and family… I’m sure I will be glad to come back home too.” We smile but his eyes give him away. They are misty. Mine probably are too. I empathize very easily and sometimes fifteen minutes with a stranger who is open can make them feel like an old friend. I have always had the gift of connection and people often tell me deeply personal things with little prompting, I don’t know why but they do. My heart aches a little for his feelings and for a small fear that I might experience the same.
We talk about his youngest son who is in the military and enjoys service to our country. He tells me about the danger that he and his wife have worried over when the son was deployed and could only talk once every two or three weeks. We talk about the mental challenges of returning from war and doing things that no men should have to do. Talking a life is a serious thing and even the strongest person can have trouble accepting the duty.
The military has a curious role because on the front end you must train someone to engage, fight, and kill but on the return to society there has to be some transition. He tells me about noticing soldiers having hard times in public spaces, wanting to back into corners so they can see the whole room. After his son returned from the first tour of duty, they went to eat at a pub and had to request a booth away from the crowd. Fireworks in celebration of Independence Day are ironically a problem for recent veterans. This is one of the ugly facts with war and it seems like another burden that is weighing on his mind.
Recently his son has taken a different role but will still be in harm’s way. This time he may only call every six months. He tells me, “I feel proud of what he is doing and his service. Of course we worry but it is his choice. I tried telling him no and that didn’t work out.” Again he smiles and again we both pause while the emotion passes, afraid to trust our voices across the lump in our throats.
“This brownie is really good.”
“Oh is it? I should have some dessert.”
The rest of lunch is over in a few minutes and we fall comfortably back into work-talk. The leadership participants start pushing up their chairs around the room and I decide that I had better join them. I stand up and throw my jacket over my arm and reach out to shake my new friend’s hand. He accepts the gesture.
I tell him, “It was really nice to meet you today. Tell your son if he ever has trouble sleeping at night to remember, most people sleep pretty soundly here and for that we all thank him.”
“Thank you. And take care of those girls. Good to meet you too.”
Forty five minutes accidentally spent at the wrong table and I feel like I learned a little more about life. As a child I actually did that very thing on purpose. I would seek out people I didn’t know and sit at a table with them and just talk. I sought out adults for conversation and probably fit there better than with my peers.
My parents tell me about a horse riding vacation we took to the Buffalo River trail ride. (I promise all this is connected so stick with me) It was a weeklong camp where riders woke, ate at the mess hall, saddled up horses, rode until the afternoon, enjoyed dinner in the mess hall again, and then went to the dance hall to round out the night.
Every morning I woke early and went to breakfast by myself. I sat at every table with every new person that gave me the chance. By the end of the week my family was local celebrity because I had met everyone and told them something about myself. The trail boss asked me to ride at the front of the pack and I loved the independence of building connections with people.
At the dance hall I tried talking to a pretty girl and even though she turned me down because I was around ten and she was probably twenty (I had high hopes), she did teach me the Rebel Stomp line dance. Years later my friends in college talked about a country line dance bar near campus and I decided to go. One of the first songs I heard was played to the Rebel Stomp line dance which I somewhat remembered. It gave me enough confidence to at least try and I enjoyed myself. I became a frequent visitor to the bar and a couple years later, met my wife.
I wonder where that kid inside me went and times like today I remember why I did it. We get burned by people in general; relationships, trust, or even finding out that sometimes our Superman bleeds.
There is something missing with the way we live life in the modern day. We are meant to have family and community. We train ourselves and our children for a picture of success based on where we want to end up in life with little regard for how we can live it together.
I hope my children live close to home. I know that they probably won’t. My wife might joke and say, “Not too close.” I don’t think we will feel that way for long.
My wife and I try to keep up with family and visit regularly. I think back to my new friend and the parallel we share with family. I have a brother-by-another-mother in California, a sister in New Mexico, a brother in the Carolinas and a sister near home. Our loved ones are spread around the state with several scattered across the country and a few around the world. With most of them I can think of a story where we spent some quality time together and formed a bond. With some, lots of stories and quality time.
With all of them, I wish it could be more. For all of you that may read this, I love you guys.
I try to write because life is about stories. Stories are just memories that can’t be forgotten.
To share stories. To share life. Thank is what I am thankful for.
-Underdaddy to the rescue.