I have a number of books on my sagging shelves that I may never read. One of them is titled, appropriately enough, “Overcoming Procrastination.” Another is called “The Pleasures of Age,” which I once thought should have been subtitled, “And other lies that may amuse you.”
Maybe I don’t need that book. I have discovered on my own some of the “pleasures of age.” For one thing, retirement, or at least semi-retirement, usually accompanies old age. That means when younger people are at work, we elderly can spend a pleasant spring or summer morning on a park bench enjoying the scenery, including whatever pretty girls might pass by. And if no one who passes by is pretty, you can look at the trees.
Now trees might seem like a poor substitute for the glance of a pretty miss, but with a little thought you can begin to appreciate how some people can be beguiled into the sin of idolatry of which the Apostle Paul wrote when he warned against worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. It was a pitfall neatly avoided by the poet Joyce Kilmer, who wrote, “Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.” The more worldly-minded editors of Mad magazine once published a parody that ended, “Poems are made by fools, I fear/But only Schlitz can make good beer.”
So on Friday last I was sitting in Manchester’s Bronstein Park, enjoying the beautiful weather, including warm sunshine, a gentle breeze and a cloudless blue sky. Eventually a young man came along wearing a camouflage shirt and sporting a backpack. He sat down on a bench opposite mine.
“You look like you’re ready to join the Army,” I observed.
“I already did,” he replied.
“Where did they send you?” I asked. Well, he started to tell me about Fort Dix and Fort This and Fort That when I asked if he had served overseas. He had.
“Iraq or Afghanistan?” I asked.
“Iraq twice,” he answered. He appeared to be all in one piece so I told him I was glad about that. I asked if he had been wounded at all. No, he said, but there had been a couple of close calls. Recalling the damage done by various incendiary explosive devices, I was glad again that he was all in one piece. But now he is homeless, I learned.
“Have you tried staying at the homeless shelter?” I asked.
“It’s shut down,” he reminded me. Oh, yes. Nearly everything had been shut down because of the coronavirus.
“Where are you sleeping?” I asked.
“Here in the park.”
“On the grass?”
“Yeah.” That figures. The park benches made tolerable substitutes for beds when they were made of wood, but these were metal slats. It isn’t even comfortable to sit on them for very long.
“The police don’t hassle you?”
“What do you do when it rains?”
“I find shelter in a doorway or something.” Then he asked if I had any change.
“I’m trying to get a cup of coffee,” he explained.
Well, I’m no Mother Teresa or anything, but when I can buy a homeless soul a cup of coffee I usually ante up. And it happened at the time I had a load of coins weighing heavily in a pocket. I sorted through the pennies and nickels and came up with four quarters and a dime — enough at the nearby convenience store to buy a 99 cent cup of coffee plus eight or nine cents to pay the state of New Hampshire for the privilege of buying a cup of coffee in the “Live Free or Die” state. I handed it all over to him.
“Thanks,” he said. “Watch my gear fro me?” he added as he gestured toward the backpack he had left on the bench.
“Sure, But don’t be long.”
“I won’t,” he assured me.
While he was gone, I glanced at an ad in my folded up newspaper. It was for a house on something-or-other hill that my coffee drinking friend or I could have for a mere $499,900.” I wondered if it was an appreciably better house than the two-story, three-bedroom, two bathrooms, basement and attic house my father had built for us for around $6,000 back in 19—well, never mind.
The Iraq War veteran returned after a while with his coffee in hand and we talked some more as he sat and drank it. Then he asked if I had another dollar. I hadn’t, so he grabbed his backpack and went back to the convenience store.
“I’ll go see if I can panhandle another dollar.”
So, I thought, that’s the reward for going halfway across the world to fight for your country in a distant war. You get to sleep in a park and you get to panhandle for a cup of coffee. And if the city passes an ordinance against panhandling, you may call on the American Civil Liberties Union to wage legal war against it and get the ordinance declared unconstitutional. And if you are not as fortunate as my panhandling friend, you may lose an eye or a limb and get a medal for bravery — or foolishness, if you have come to believe the war is a waste of dollars and human bloodshed.
Another man came by and asked if I had a dollar to spare, I told him truthfully that I had just given away my last dollar. He said that was a nice thing to do.
Yes, I thought, it’s a great country.
Happy Memorial Day
Jack Kenny is a freelance writer from Manchester and Vietnam-era veteran.