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The Old Man and the Soldier: A Short Story
by Homer Page
I hadn’t talked with him for several years, so surprise is the only word I can think of to describe the feeling I had when David called my name in the lobby. We worked together a decade ago on a project training parents of children with disabilities on the then new special education legislation. We worked well together, but he and his wife took jobs in another state, and we lost contact. He taught me a lot about spinal chord injuries, and I was excited to see him again.
“Grab hold,” he said. “Let’s go have a drink.”
“That sounds good to me,” I enthusiastically replied. I just finished making a presentation, and a drink with an old friend was exactly what I needed.
We developed a system of traveling together. I took the back of his wheelchair and walked along behind him as he maneuvered through pedestrians or automobiles. We went many places together in this way. In the past, we actually proved to be a comfortable, effective team.
We worked our way through the crowded lobby and went into the bar. People had just gotten out of their afternoon sessions, and were meeting friends to make plans for dinner and the evening. They seemed tired and mildly confused, and reluctant to move for anyone, even a quadriplegic in an electric wheelchair, and a blind man carrying a white cane. We laughed about running down an unsuspecting old lady. We found a table and ordered a drink. It felt good to be together again, just a couple of middle aged males out drinking and getting reacquainted. It was fun to make a joke about what might be a frustrating situation, and it was fun because we knew that we were successful men who, in spite of our disabilities, were in control of our lives.
“How are things back in Colorado?” David asked.
“We miss you and Alice,” I said with sincerity.
“Our new home has been good to us, but we miss all of you, too. Listen,” he said. “Do you know Isaac Fisher?”
“Yes,” I said. “He died about a year ago. Why do you ask? Did you know him?”
“Yeah, I knew him. You might say he saved my life,” David answered.
The waiter brought our drinks. I took a sip and leaned back. “There must be a story in that,” I remarked.
“Yes,” he said. “I think one might find it interesting. Would you like to hear it?” he asked.
“Of course,” I told him. I always had an interest in Isaac. He grew up in a time with few opportunities, and yet he survived, and in the end, he actually made something of his life. I couldn’t imagine, however, how David had known him, nor could I imagine how he saved David’s life. “Please,” I said. “Tell me how you knew Isaac Fisher.”
“Well,” he said. “I grew up in Grand Junction. I saw him all the time. He walked everywhere with that black lab. He walked so fast. Hardly anyone could keep up with him. I never spoke to him. I knew he lived in the little house on the corner, and we called him, ‘the old blind man’.”
“When I graduated from high school, I joined the Army. Before I knew it, I was in Vietnam. I had an accident and spent the next year and a half in rehabilitation. After that, they discharged me and sent me home. There I was, 21, no education, no friends, nothing to do. I was living with my mother. I was paralyzed, and I wanted to die.”
“Sounds pretty bleak,” I said.
“I thought so,” he replied.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I wanted to kill myself,” he said. “I tried to think of a good way. I had so little control of my life that I couldn’t even think of a way to commit suicide. I didn’t want to cause problems for my mother, so I didn’t want to starve myself. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t think I had a way out. I had hit bottom.”
“There was a phone by my bed that I could use, so I called information and asked for the suicide hotline. The person who answered was Isaac Fisher.”
“It must have been about two a.m. ‘I want to die,’ I said. I could tell he was asleep, but he pulled himself together admirably.”
“‘Okay, son,’ he said. ‘Give me a minute to get alive.’ He was quiet for a minute, and then with a calm, patient voice, he began talking with me. ‘Now son, this is the Grand Junction suicide help line. You have called the right place. I don’t have anything else to do but talk to you, so let’s just take our time and get a hold of this thing. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?’ he encouraged.”
“I guess I needed someone to talk to. It all came tumbling out. He listened and coaxed and I talked.”
“’I broke my neck. I can’t move anymore,’ I said.”
“’When did this happen?’ he asked.”
“’About two years ago,’ I answered.”
“’Where are you now?’ he asked.”
“’I’m at my mother’s,’ I told him. I could tell he was relieved.”
“’Go on,’ he said. ’Tell me about it.’”
“’I was in ‘Nam,’ I began. ’I had a good job. I was assigned to an office in Saigon that kept records on all the soldiers who were there. I thought if any job would be safe, it would be this one. I was so wrong.’”
“‘I worked for Sgt. Joe Washington. He was a black guy from Ohio, a career man. We got along good. One day after work, he asked me if I would like to go to a party with him that evening. I heard rumors about his parties, so I was interested in checking one out.’”
“‘He had access to a jeep, so we were going in style. When we turned a corner, I saw a gang of kids; I learned that Sgt. Washington was killed, and I honestly thought he was the lucky one. I was there about two months while they stabilized me enough to move. Then they brought me back to the states for long-term rehabilitation. But what’s the use?’”
“‘I came back here at the end of September. The weather was nice, so they put me in my wheelchair and we went for a drive in the country. It was the first time I was out of the house since the Army ambulance brought me home. The VA gave me money to buy an accessible van, and the dealer taught my mother to operate it. So we went for a drive in the country.’”
“‘My father left when I was four. I don’t really remember him. Through the years, I was mom’s life. Now, she wants to care for me. She is willing to spend the rest of her life looking after me. But I don’t want to live. I want her to do more with her life than care for me.’”
“‘But, I was telling you about our drive. The sky was clear and the fruit in the orchards was ripe. You could smell the sweet juice of the peaches. I remembered how I made money picking fruit in those orchards. ‘Take me home’, I ordered my mother. I couldn’t stand to be out there in those fields where all the things that I could never do, or enjoy again became clear.’”
“’Alright,’ she said, and I haven’t been out since. Mom tries to get me to go out of the house, but I don’t want to be reminded of the way things were, and I don’t want to see the pity in the eyes of the people that we meet. I don’t know if I hate the pity for me or for my mom the most.’”
“’I know what you mean,’ the voice on the other end of the line said with obvious pain.”
“’How could you know, and who are you, anyhow?’ I demanded.”
“’I’m Isaac Fisher,’ he said. ‘And I’ve been through several things like you are describing.’”
“’Yep, son, that’s me,’ he confirmed.”
“‘What happened to you?’ I asked with some curiosity.”
“’We was out grubbin’ stumps when I got blowed up,’ he said. ‘We was usin’ dynamite to loosen ‘em up, and I got too close. It liked to kilt me. It blowed off all my fingers except for a thumb on one hand, and a finger on the other one, and it made me blind. Losin’ the fingers is worse than bein’ blind,’ he said.”
“’How did you get along?’ I asked.”
’Poorly, son, poorly, for a very long time,’ he responded. ‘But I’ve done a lot better for some time. I’ve done a lot better.’”
“’I know we’re supposed to be talking about me, but I’d like to hear how you survived,’ I said.”
“’Alright,’ he said. ‘If that’s what you want, I’ll tell you some of my story,’ he offered.”
“’That’s what I want,’ I told him.”
“’After I was blowed up,’ he began, ‘I come home. There wasn’t much to do, but I tried to get out and around. My daddy cut me a stick off’n a tree limb and I used it like a cane to walk around the place. My older brother had an old car. He would take me places. We got to drinkin’ bootleg liquor. I was sixteen when the accident happened, I lived at home with my mama and daddy and brother for the next 14 years, and we drank.’”
“‘When I was thirty, my brother and me was in a car wreck, and he got killed. I didn’t get hurt bad, but I lost my drinkin’ partner. I was on the farm, and I couldn’t go nowhere. I couldn’t get liquor, and I almost went crazy. That was an awful time. I lived like that for three years. I was just like you. I wanted to kill myself. Mama and Daddy were worried about me, but they didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t easy to be around, and I didn’t seem to be able to do anythin’ about it. I lived for the time when one of my old buddies would come by with a bottle. That didn’t happen often, since I didn’t have no money.’”
“‘I think I would have killed myself, except for the visit from the rehab man. He told me that the folks in town was worried about me. He said my parents was getting’ old, and they couldn’t take care of me much longer, and that I ought to do somethin’ with myself.’”
“‘I told him I couldn’t agree more with him, but what?’”
“‘He said, ‘You can move to town. We have a job that you can do and you can live on your own.’”
“‘Well, I thought, that would be great. My parents wanted to sell the farm and move close to my sister. So, they did. They give me the money for this house, and I’ve lived here ever since.’”
“‘The rehab people set me up with a little stand in the courthouse, where I sold cigarettes and candy and newspapers. I was there twenty-one years. Durin’ that time, I had a girlfriend over in Denver. I used to take the bus over to see her. I wanted to marry her, but she said since we was both blind, she didn’t think it would work, and she didn’t like my drinkin’; which was really it. Finally, she said she didn’t want me to come over anymore. I didn’t try women again after that.’”
“‘Well, my drinkin’ come to a crisis point in 1959. They told me I couldn’t work at the courthouse no more. They said that I should go to AA. They put me in a hospital for a month and sent me home. I did stop drinkin’, and I started goin’ to AA. By that time, I could get Social Security, so I was doin’ all right, but it wasn’t enough. I was almost sixty years old, but I thought I could make somethin’ out of myself. It was about then that they got that war on poverty goin’, and I went back to school. First, I got my GED, and then I went up here to the college and studied about bein’ a substance abuse counselor, which I knew a lot about. I got a certificate. Then there was a job at the veteran’s hospital to counsel the boys comin’ back from Vietnam and I saw some of the older ones, too. I been doin’ that now for over five years. I’m seventy, and I’m doin’ more than I ever did before. Twice a month I take my turn with the suicide help line, and that’s how you got me tonight.’”
“’I don’t really want to kill myself,’ I told him.”
“’I knew that from the beginnin’. You was feelin’ sorry for yourself,’ he said. ‘It’s a hell of a way to live.’”
“’Isaac,’ I said. ‘’There is something that is really bothering me. I want to ask for your opinion. A chaplain told me that this is God’s will. He said that God has a purpose for me, and I need to accept God’s will. If this is God’s will, I don’t want any part of him. They always said in church when I was a kid, that God is love. If God is love, why did he do this to me? What do you believe?’”
“The old man was quiet for a moment, but when he started talking, his words came fast. I have thought about them ever since.
“‘I don’t believe that,’ he said. ‘That’s just somebody tryin’ to explain somethin’ when there is no answer. That chaplain feller was afraid of your pain. He gave it to you to make him feel better. Now, if you just accept everythin’, he done a great job. He don’t need to worry, you’re happy, all is right. I don’t believe that.”’
“I pushed him some more. ’What is the purpose of my disability?’ I insisted.”
“‘Listen, son,’ he said. ‘Your disability has no purpose. Just you can have a purpose. You have the same purpose now that you did before you got hurt. The only difference is you got a bad disability. Nobody has purpose to begin with. They gotta find it or maybe make it. The only purpose you’ve got is what you make and you can’t know all of that until after you’re dead, and you won’t know anythin’ then, so you gotta stop lookin’ for those big answers and just start doin’. It might come to you that way. If there is a God, he pulls you toward your future, and you got to make that future. You may be bad hurt, but you still gotta set your own course.’”
“‘Son,’ he said. ‘I’m about wore out from talkin’. Are you all right?’”
“’Yes,’ I said. ’I’ll be fine.’”
David sipped his drink and took a deep breath. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I went to sleep,” David said. “And when I woke up, I called the VA. I told them that I wanted to go to school and make something out of my life. They helped me and here I am.”
“Isaac really did help you, didn’t he?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “And I never told him. Like he said, you may be dead before the purpose of your life is fully known.”
“You asked about him,” I said. “Was there any particular reason for that?”
“Actually, there is,” he said. “My wife died last summer. Her disability finally took its toll. I have been thinking about Isaac. I thought about trying to talk with him again. I guess I’ll just have to remember what he said that night.”