I walked into the gym and made my way through the crowd to the upper deck. I chose the last row, far away from the crowd. I don’t know why I do this, but I do. My wife believes I don’t like people, but that’s not true. I think it has more to do with being comfortable alone. I like to observe and to think, and from this isolated vantage point I can do both.
My loneliness doesn’t last long, as soon another man joins me. We sat there in silence watching the basketball game. I don’t know who spoke first, nor do I recall how the conversation started. He was there to watch his grandson play and I was there to watch my son. As the game progressed, I found myself in one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had.
It started with scar on his knee, which had either been scoped or replaced. He retired from Goodyear. I informed him that so did my mother. He served in the U.S. Army, as did my father.
“You know they said that Vietnam was fought by poor whites and blacks,” he said. “I graduated in the 60’s, and there was no college in my future. Following graduation I worked a few odd jobs and then I was drafted. Prior to that, I had never been on a plane. Heck I had never left the county. But soon I found myself in a foreign land fighting a war.
“I had two friends they were like family to me. What a lot of people don’t know is that during wartime, you spent so much time together with just your few fellow soldiers. You don’t travel around in too large of a group, because you’d be an easy target if you did. “When we arrived in Vietnam I lost one of my buddies almost instantly. The place where the helicopter dropped us was a hot zone. They sent his body back to Georgia. I lived to fight another day, but I never forgot about him. That left only two of us – James Jones and me. Of course, in the Army, everyone is referred to by his last name.
“One night we were walking a trail. It was dark and the trees were many stories high. We knew that there had been some enemy activity. James said he heard something and told us to be quiet and wait a moment. He retreated down the trail, and moments later we heard the recoil of gun fire. Three quick burst; that’s all there was. Once we heard that, I ran past Red (a fellow soldier) to find James. By the time I got to him he was dead. One of the bullets went directly to his heart. I went back up the trail got Red and together we pulled James’ body out of there.
“They shipped James home to Louisiana. I survived and returned home to Gadsden. I married raised a family and worked at Goodyear for 33 years. Throughout that entire time, I never forgot my fallen friends.
“I made a promise to visit those friends, and the time came for me to fulfill that promise. My first stop was in Georgia; I found my friend’s gravesite in a small, all black-cemetery. I spent some time at his grave and paid my respects. From there, I went to that small town in Louisiana. All I had was a sheet of paper with only a little information about James Jones.
“I knocked on door after door, trying to find a relative or anyone who knew him. I was beginning to give up hope of ever finding him, because there was only one more house left on that entire block. I had come too far to turn back now, so I knocked on the door. A young lady answered. I told her who I was and who I was looking for. I knew she was far too young have actually known James, a fact she later confirmed.
“But perhaps my uncle may know him,” she said. “Wait right here and I will go and get him
“I waited at the partially opened door. I heard the shuffle of feet and the tap of a cane approaching the door. A tall lean man, with hair the color of cotton appeared. I repeated to him the same information I shared with the girl. He looked at my sheet of paper.
“I knew a Harvey Jones,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I taught him. I believe his middle name was James, but around here we called him Harvey.”
“Do you know if James has any relatives in the area,” I asked.
“I believe he has a niece, he replied.
“Could you give me her address?”
“I’ll do better then that; I will take you to her.”
He took me to her and she took me to James. I stood at his gravesite and I talked to him. I often wondered why he didn’t tell us so that we could have all gone down that trail that fateful night. I like to think that a show of greater numbers would have prevented the enemy from killing him. I guess it is just my way of wishing he wasn’t dead. I shared with him everything that had gone on in my life and thanked him for his friendship.
“James I hope you can hear me,” I said. “Goodbye. I promise to return.”
The game concluded. As we shook hands, I thought how ironic that a scar on someone’s knee could lead to a discussion about the scars on someone’s heart.