His name was Pete and he was a stranger to us.
Alone, he entered the little corner restaurant where my sister and I were enjoying lunch, paused at our table, and announced, “You girls were waiting for me to come join you, weren’t you?”
Now my sister and I aren’t exactly “girls” anymore, but to this older gentleman, we must have appeared to be young ‘uns. We smiled at him, joked “Sure!” and laughed as he moseyed to the lunch counter and sat down. He ordered from the menu and turned around to speak to us once more.
We chatted a little, then he began telling us a story. We asked him to join us at our table as it was easier for him to converse that way. While he sipped his hot tea and waited for his meal, he talked. And he talked. And he shared some interesting narratives about his life.
He relayed stories of his wife, who died five years ago, a wife he loved dearly, so much so that he still sports his wedding band on his left hand. He shared accounts of their travels to far off places like Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii to name a few.
He made us laugh and when we rewarded him with our laughter, he would say, “Now, you’re not gonna believe this but it’s true. And this one’s really gonna make you laugh!” And he’d treat us to another story or two or three.
We listened to anecdotes about his family, childhood, work, and even bowling accomplishments and dancing. Tales of yore rolled off his tongue in between bites of his hamburger and deep-fried mushrooms.
He was the youngest in a family of eight – the baby of the family. I mentioned that I was the baby of my family too, and he replied, “Well, hello there, baby!” I retorted back, “Hello to you too, baby!”
And we laughed some more – the three of us. But his last story was a serious one, and one that definitely warranted remembering and sharing.
One of his older brothers served as a medic in World War II and that’s where the story began. His brother was with a unit that had been under heavy fire with many wounded. The medics thought they had found everyone who needed medical attention and were preparing to leave. That’s when his brother heard a very faint cry for help.
He rushed to find a badly wounded soldier and carried the man out of harm’s way to a spot where he could be treated and sent to the field hospital. The soldier would have died left alone if not for Pete’s brother. He saved the soldier’s life that day but he never saw the wounded soldier again.
A few years later in the Korean War, Pete also served in the military. He was stationed in the states helping prepare GIs to head to the conflict across the world, but soon he too would be shipped out to that foreign land and face battle.
Pete approached his sergeant and begged him for a three-day pass to go home and see his wife before he left for Korea. The sergeant denied his request saying no one was allowed a three-day pass because the commander so ordered.
Imagine Pete’s surprise when shortly afterward, the sarge told him he wanted to see him. It seems the commanding officer came through and as was his custom, he wanted to see the roster of soldiers. When he came to Pete’s name, the commander told the sergeant, “Give this guy anything he wants.”
Sarge said, “Well, he’d like a three-day pass to go see his wife.”
The commanding officer replied, “Make sure he gets it. And if he can’t make it back in time afterwards, send an airplane to pick him up! Give this man anything he wants.”
Why was Pete granted such special treatment? Because that commanding officer was the man Pete’s brother had saved on the battlefield years before. He never got to meet Pete’s brother, but over the years, he kept searching soldiers’ rosters for Pete’s last name. He wanted to repay the man who had saved his life. When this officer learned that Pete was his rescuer’s own brother, he saw an opportunity to bless that family.
What an endearing story! Pete’s eyes glistened a little as he recalled it for our benefit. “That man was a very good man,” I told Pete.
Pete simply replied, “Yes, yes, he was.”
Time flew by and we needed to leave because I was due for an appointment. Before we bid Pete farewell, he asked us our names and told us how much he appreciated talking with us. He said he hoped we wouldn’t think he was a crazy, old man.
Pete was an old man, that’s true. But crazy, no. Lonely, I think. In need of good company. All he asked for was a listening ear and a chance to share the important stories of his life. And isn’t that what we all need?
Someone to listen. Someone to care. Someone to share a laugh. I once found this Turkish proverb which said, “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.”
Silver-haired Pete shared his silver gift of telling stories with my sister and me that day, and I’d like to think that as we listened, we gave Pete a gift of gold.
I’ll probably never see Pete again. I don’t live in his town nor do I visit the area where he lives. But I’ll never forget him, for Pete’s sake.
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
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