I was out tonight, not for long, but long enough. Crowded bar--didn't realize it was a popular sports bar, and with the football game playing on all screens, there was no place to sit except for outside.
My friend and I ordered our drinks--beer and a bourbon for me, Irish coffee for him--and as we waited for our drinks, the guy at the end of the bar began chatting with us. Nothing too important, just talking. Praising my choice of poison, ribbing my friend over his. When the bartender brought our drinks, my friend asked for cream in his drink.
“Cream?” the stranger asked. “Hell, man, why don’t you just get her to put some sugar in there while you’re at it? Why even have a drink at all, if you’re gonna get something like that?”
We laughed along with him, collected our drinks, and went outside.
“‘Why don’t you get sugar in it?’” my friend mimicked as we sat down. “I would’ve, if you hadn’t been giving me so much shit. Son of a bitch.”
“What was with that guy?” I asked. “Was he just giving us shit in a friendly manner, or was he trying to start a fight?”
“Just fucking with me,” he said, laughing, and then took a drink.
“So is that actually, like, hot coffee?”
“Supposed to be. Already cold.”
We drank our drinks and bitched about the cold, and eventually went back inside.
“Back already?” the stranger asked.
“Yep,” I told him. “Little chilly out there.”
“Ha! This? This is nothing. I’m from Wisconsin, the people here don’t even understand cold.”
I had to agree with him. I’m from the Panhandle of Texas, and have spent enough time out in sub-zero weather to consider 40 degrees not so terrible. My friend, on the other hand, grew up in El Paso and California. The hooded sweatshirt he was wearing didn’t do much to keep him warm, and neither did the Irish coffee.
“That explains why you can run around with that bald head and no jacket,” I told the stranger.
“Damn straight. This is nothin’.”
We ordered another round of drinks--just a beer for me this time, and my friend got the same.
“Ask him why he isn’t getting another girly drink,” the stranger said.
“No,” I told him, because I didn’t want to bother thinking up anything clever.
“Ask him if his boyfriend is okay with him getting a beer. Shouldn’t he just be getting a water?”
“I don’t need to ask him,” I said. “He’s standing right here--he can hear you.”
The stranger laughed. "I'm just messing with you, man," he told my friend.
My friend and I went back outside. Break in the game, and the porch area flooded with smokers. The stranger came out and immediately walked over to our table. He held up his cigarette.
“Hope nobody I know sees me.”
“You’re not supposed to smoke if you’re in the military?” my friend asked.
“How’d you know I was in the military?”
My friend shrugged.
“Did someone tell you? Did I tell you?”
I laughed, and the military man laughed and my friend laughed, and nobody was giving anyone shit anymore.
“This is one of those Crush cigarettes. I’m going to smoke it down...six drags, I think. And then I’m gonna crush the little thing, and smoke the rest as a menthol.”
“It’s good that you have a plan,” I told him.
“It’s the Army way.”
“Good to know.”
We talked about whatever mundane bullshit, until he finished his cigarette and went back inside. My friend and I eventually finished our drinks and decided to head out. While waiting by the bar to close out our tab, the stranger once again found us.
“You boys are already getting more drinks?”
“Nah, we’re taking off,” I told him.
“What? No way!”
“Yup. So you’re heading out in June?” I had heard him mention something about it before.
“Yes sir. Afghanistan. Have my own team*, I can’t wait to get over there and kill some people.”
“Hell yeah, man. There’s nothin’ like it. Head shot? Fuck. Two in the chest is all right, too, but not the same.”
“I imagine not.”
He laughed and took a drink of his beer.
“Well,” I said for him. “Thanks for your service.”
“No, thank you. The majority of Texas voted for W. Without him, I wouldn’t even be going.”
“Oh.” The bartender walked up with my tab, so I turned and signed off on the bill and collected my friend. As we left, we passed the stranger.
“So long,” he said.
“Take it easy,” I told him. “And really--thank you.”
He shook my hand and looked at me seriously, no joking for the first time all night, and he nodded.
I left the bar and got home and thought about the guy. Loud, obnoxious, hitting on every chick that walked by--and there were a lot of them, because he was perched at the end of the bar, right next to the restrooms.
And you know what? There’s no one I’d rather have fighting for my country. We live in an age of political correctness and an era of sensitivity, where you have to be careful of what you say and to whom you say it, and how you say it to them.
Just about anything you do, from eating a hamburger to fighting a war, has protesters. People whine and cry and scream and shout and they never solve anything.
And then there guys like the one at the bar. Nobody you’d ever want to sit with at church, granted. But he was confident, strong, and willing. Someone ready to be shipped across the world to kill and possibly die for a country that doesn’t fully appreciate what he’s doing. A country that maybe can’t appreciate what he’s doing.
I’ve been sitting here for the past half hour, thinking of him, thinking of what he is willing to do, what he is willing to sacrifice, and I am in awe of him.
I love my country, and have at various times in my life considered enlisting to fight for it. But considering is as far as I got. For one reason or another, I always stopped short.
The stranger at the bar, he not only followed through, but excelled enough to get his own command position. He is ready to take charge of other men, and lead them into battle on my behalf, because--when you get right down to it--I wasn’t willing to go to battle on my own behalf.
He is ready to die to preserve our way of life.
So to him, and to all of the others who are in the U.S. military, and to all the others before--thank you. You are appreciated, you are loved, and you are admired.
* “team” isn’t the word he used, but I can’t remember what he actually said