It would be hard to imagine a bus shelter that offered less protection against the weather: open to the wind, with only a thin sheet of plexiglas in the center. On a bitter, rainy day, it was almost useless. The wind and rain howled in one door, swirled around, and blew out the other. If you faced into the corner and timed it right, you could usually manage to light a cigarette. With a little luck and care, you could keep it lit. So much for shelter.
You could always tell if Eddie was drunk. If he was sober, he pushed his wheelchair forward with his arms; if not, he kicked it backwards with his one leg. He was sober today.
"What's up, man?""Hey, Eddie. How's it hanging?""Straight down with a fuckin' icicle on it. I'm freezing my nuts off. Ya got a cigarette?""Fuck you, Eddie. I know you've got your own."
I reached into my coat pocket. He flashed me a big grin
"Yeah, but yours are better."
Shakes held up two bony fingers and tapped his lips twice. Presumably, he could speak, though I never heard him do it. He looked at me inquiringly. I nodded, stuck two cigarettes in my mouth, and lit them. I handed one to Shakes. I passed the pack and lighter to Eddie.
"Thanks, man.""No problem."
You never really get to know people like Eddie and Shakes, though everyone seems to know them. You learn their names by osmosis: a part of city lore. We certainly were never introduced. For all I know, his name wasn't even Eddie. For all I know, he just answered to that: Crazy Eddie. I just called him Eddie, though. He never seemed all that crazy to me, just a bit lost.
He was a strange mix of soldier and hippie. The back of his wheelchair was covered with an incongruous assortment of bumper stickers: a pot leaf next to an American eagle next to a POW-MIA next to a Santana logo. One announced that he was firmly pro-tits. A small American flag flew on one side: an orange bicycle flag on the other.
I imagine he was in his thirties, though the years had not been kind. If he was not homeless, he was nearly so. He seemed fairly healthy, though, thanks to the local VA. He never asked for money, only cigarettes and, I guess, a friendly face and a bit of companionship. You never really get to know people like Eddie.
About Shakes I can tell you even less. Tall and painfully thin, he had a constant tremor: sometimes better, sometimes worse, but never absent. He startled easily and never spoke. I sometimes saw Eddie without Shakes but never Shakes without Eddie. I had the clear impression that they knew each other from the hospital, not the service, though I can't say why. Shakes had a searching look in his eye, as if he were forever on the verge of speaking.
One day, I can't say exactly when, was the last time I ever saw them. They were there, then they were gone.
It's an accident of history, I suppose. Most of the veterans I have known served during peacetime. They tell their stories with a smile: of boot camp, war games, and shore leave. It all has the ring of a hunter back from safari. That's all right. You don't blame a fireman if there are no fires on his watch. He was there; he was ready; he served. That counts.
The combat veterans I've known were different. None of them ever told stories about their service. Not to me, anyway. I imagine the actual experience is horrific. The only story I recall is my Uncle Joe telling me of a Christmas Mass celebrated on the hood of a Jeep, somewhere in Germany or France: a tiny bit of heaven in the midst of hell. Other than that, they locked their memories away as best they could.
I suppose some people just can't do that.
If you can get to a parade this year, go. Salute the living; remember the dead. In this season of Thanksgiving, give thanks. But remember, when the parades are over, to say a special prayer for Eddie and Shakes, who made the ultimate sacrifice, too.
Just not all at once.