I decided to start with the wood he already chopped and picked up two pieces. He followed me and grabbed four. Show off.
He set them parallel to the truck, fitting the slices together like a jigsaw puzzle. “If I do this neatly, it make is easier for them to unload.”
I understood. He started towards the wood pile again.
“I’ve got this.” He nodded, took off his outer shirt, tossed it over the back of the truck and picked up the axe. I arced a little farther out of his circle to give him plenty of room to swing. We didn’t talk, just worked, as we both knew what needed to get done, and the afternoon was advancing. After about a half hour of silence, I reached into the back of the truck and pulled out a bottle of water. I waited for him to lower the axe and I offered it to him.
“Thanks.” Before he opened it, he took off his tee shirt. I reached out to take it and laid it next to his other shirt on the truck and got myself a bottle of water. I was tempted to thank him as well for removing his shirt, but reminded myself to be mindful that there was still work waiting.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” It was his turn for an inquiry after all, but I could not imagine what question to expect from him.
“Why aren’t you seeing someone?” I guessed this topic would come up eventually. I needed to be sure to take advantage of those long pauses wherever possible.
A big drink of water will help occupy my mouth so I don’t have to talk right away. It worked. “I just moved here.”
He used the same water technique. “More than a month, though.”
“Please. I’m still trying to empty boxes.”
“So why wasn’t there someone in Texas worth staying for?”
Okay, here we go. I was going to navigate these waters slowly. “There was someone. We parted ways.”
And that was it. I got off easy. That seemed enough, I guess, because he finished his bottle of water. I reached out and took it from him, and he picked up his axe and went back to work.
When he stopped again to wipe his brow with his equally wet arm, I decided he needed something more. Twice he produced paper towels, so there must be a roll in the truck somewhere. I found them behind his seat, grabbed a handful, and another bottle of water.
He poured part of the water over his head, and then drank a big swallow. He then used the towels on his beard, head, face, and neck. Oh how I wanted to help. I kept loading firewood just to keep myself occupied and not stare. When I looked again, he was wetting the towels and wiping down his chest. I decided to at least play a little.
“Need a hand with that?”
“I think I got it under control.”
I reached out to take the towels and he wandered over to the trailer to see how we were progressing. Even with the trailer more than halfway loaded, he was still ahead of me. I added the towels to the trash bag.
“You didn’t thank me.”
“Thank you for the smelly towels.”
“You didn’t thank me for my service.” I stood near the opposite corner of the trailer, and I said nothing. The approached worked for him. If he wanted to ask me something, he needed to ask.
I leaned down and rearranged some of the wood. I was amazed that he used the chainsaw to cut the logs into equal lengths that fit evenly into three sections long so as to be arranged perfectly in his trailer. That was obviously intentional, but still I was impressed.
“When I told you I was a vet, why didn’t you thank me for my service? That’s what people say, you know.”
“I know.” I kept rearranging wood to get the pieces to fit closer. I suppose that was close enough to a question. “Lots of people say it. Some of them even mean it. But not everyone even deserves it. I dated a guy for a while; he’d had his specialty code changed so he didn’t ever have to be deployed, or even go TDY. He’d cluck around like a camouflage peacock accepting, ‘Thank yous for your service,’ right and left, and he wouldn’t even leave Texas in service of his country.”
“You don’t think people are grateful for the service of the men and women in uniform and want to express their appreciation?” He kept an even tone, which I did not have equal ability to do.
“They probably are, but they say it because they can’t think of anything else to say. Maybe they’re thankful that it’s you serving so they don’t have to. Maybe it makes them feel less guilty that you are serving and they aren’t. It’s an easy out. They don’t even have to know how hard it is to live over there.” I didn’t exactly know either, just what I heard and read, but I wanted him to know I understood and his service meant more to me than a cliché.
I kept working as I talked, even if it was just rearranging logs, and I took advantage of his silence to emphasize my position. “They don’t have to experience sand in every crevice of their body. They don’t have to eat a cold MRE in the dark because they’re on a night patrol. They don’t have to worry that an empty can on the side of the road isn’t just a piece of trash. They don’t have to hear about how you saw someone die.”
I was hoping I hadn’t pissed him off, but I’d heard the line said to people who didn’t deserve the thanks, so it didn’t mean anything to me and I didn’t use it, and I wasn’t afraid to tell him that.
“Of course they don’t know, and they don’t want to know. Can you blame them?” He didn’t sound angry, but I didn’t know what it would sound like if he was angry.
“No, I don’t blame them at all.” I paused in my pointless rearranging task. “But I’m not going to thank you and leave it at that.” I actually did want to hear about all those things, but I’d wager he didn’t want to share them.
“People aren’t ready to hear about what war is really like.”
“People or me?” I went for more wood from the pile.
He didn’t answer. Maybe this was the start of what anger looked like on him. If it were anger growing within me, and earlier in the day it was me, I would go quiet, too. That’s what anger likewise did to me.
“Look, I don’t want to force you to talk about anything related to your service if you don’t want to.” I decided this was becoming too personal of a discussion for this distance, so I walked close to him. When I was near enough, I looked him straight in the eyes and spoke matter-of-factly. “But if you want to talk about it with me, I’m not afraid to ask you what it was really like. I want to know about what you remember, and I want to understand what you’d like to forget. I want you to know that everything you experienced from complaining and anger, to fear and vulnerability are fair game. At this moment, I am not thankful for your service. I am thankful you came back alive.”
For the first time all weekend, I felt as though I was on equal footing with him. I wasn’t an inexperienced fisherman or a stupid city girl or an awkward camper or an angry woman who takes out her frustration on a fish. And quite frankly, I was more interested in getting inside his mind than getting inside his pants. Maybe this would have been the time for an epic handshake.
We worked hard the rest of the day without stopping.