The Instructor and the Grizzled Men
One autumn afternoon, I was sitting in my car parked along the border of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, just waiting for someone. Old Dominion does have ROTC classes, which I remembered when I noticed a uniformed officer walking toward me, coming from the residential neighborhood next to campus. He was young, maybe in his early thirties; no doubt he was an instructor and on his way in to teach a class.
He was on the other side of the street from me, as was a somewhat neglected house in the early stages of refurbishment. Outside the house, in the front yard, were three late middle-aged men, apparently employed with the dirty work of the house repair. Beside their clothes being dirty, dusty, and splotched with paint, it was obvious that their clothes were rather worn, even for work clothes. They all could have used a haircut or at least a trim, and they all looked a little tired, not tired from the day’s labor but tired from the labor of life. I had the feeling that these were not the best days these men had had. They were taking a break, sitting on the front steps with cigarettes and beers.
They also noticed the young officer approaching, coming down the sidewalk on their side of the street. I saw the guy in the middle give a little elbow nudge to the bigger guy on his left, and then he turned his head and quietly said something to the guy on his right. Separately, nonchalantly, they put down their beers and dropped their cigarettes on the brick porchway. Separately, nonchalantly, they stood up.
As the officer walked on the sidewalk in front of “their” yard, the guy in the middle said, “Tennnn-hut!” The officer ever so slightly flinched in his walking and sharply glanced at them, maybe thinking they were a bit old to be teasing passersby. But they weren’t harassing him. All three had snapped to attention, in perfect form. “Haaand . . . sa-lute!” All three struck and held textbook salutes, not John Wayne waves but perfect salutes with the bicep horizontal to the ground, wrist straight, hand flat, fingers pointing to the corner of the right eye. Clearly, these men had been soldiers, or sailors, or Marines, or airmen. And they probably had been good at it, judging from the way their military bearing just welled up from somewhere deep inside their shabby clothes and from behind their tired faces.
The officer must have recognized this immediately also. He returned their salute, nodded, and I thought I heard him say a quick, “Thank you.” He walked on his way, the man in the middle commanded, “Readdy . . . to!” and they brought down their salutes, in unison. The men picked up their beers and cigarettes, and I continued to sit in my car, smiling to myself because I knew I had just witnessed something special. I had done a hitch in the service, so I knew, I felt what had just happened. Military service becomes a part of you, and even if it doesn’t cross your mind much as the years go by, it is always there. It is a never-ending fraternity.