Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eddie And Shakes

Facility Picture

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.

Respectfully Yours,



Anonymous said...

My Dad was a combat vet, from Korea. The only time he *ever* spoke about his time in Korea was after the TV show M*A*S*H had run the series finale. He stood up, turned off the TV, sat back down, and on that night, for about an hour, he talked about it.

And then never again.

Thanks for reminding us to always see Eddie and Shakes as humans - American patriots who served their country and deserve our respect.

Happy Veterans Day, Eddie and Shakes, and thank you for your service to our country.

Suldog said...

Very nice, my swell friend. I've known the same sorts, and generally met them in the same ways.

To speak to Thimbelle's observation: My Stepfather, Bill, received a bronze star for his World War II service - quite a high decoration - and he never ever speaks of what he did to earn it. When anyone asks him to do so, he specifically refuses. I know he was a prisoner of war, but that's as much as I know. I respect his wish to not speak about it, although some try to prod him to talk. He's a true gentleman - a gentle man - and someone pushing him to speak about his military career is one of the few things about which I've seen him get truly angered. I've just told him "Thanks" once or twice, and even that seems to be more than he would like to hear about it.

I admire that reticence to cast himself as a heroic figure, a lot. Doesn't mean he wasn't (or isn't, for that matter.)

Hilary said...

Another fine piece of writing here. I've known of a couple of vets who refuse to speak of their service too. Thanks for sharing Eddie and Shakes.

CiCi said...

My first husband went to Vietnam and returned a different person. His cousin who was a dear friend of mine was killed there. God bless the Shakes and Eddies roaming our country in search of what they lost.

ds said...

Amen. Both my brother and brother-in-law served in Iraq (BIL has done 2 tours), courtesy of our state's National Guard. Their duties were very different, but neither discusses his service.
For them, for older family members who served in WWII, and now for Eddie and Shakes, I will honor Veterans Day.
It's the least we can do.
Thank you for sharing this story.

Andy said...

Cricket, what the others before me said. I have known ONE combat veteran that spoke often about his service in Europe in WWII.

There were stories after stories of combat, hardships, etc. And ya' know what? I didn't believe a damn word he said. Oh, I'm sure that war is the hell he described, but I am 100% sure he did not experience that himself.

Because I've known dozens of the genuine gentleman (a Southern Ute Indian) was one of those "most decorated" types that we read about. And not any of them opened up about it. At least not with me.

Good post. It's good to remember, and honor the fireman at the ready that doesn't answer a call on his shift.

Cricket said...

Hi Andy -

Eddie and Shakes were Vietnam vets. I don't think I did the best job establishing the setting, I guess. I've tweaked a sentence or two. Thanks.

The photo is the actual VA hospital about a half-mile from where I grew up. In all but the foulest weather, a slowly changing cast of characters could be seen sitting on the stone wall outside. The custom was to honk and wave as you drove by.

Eddie and Shakes were two of these men. I would have been 15 or 16 at the time of the story.

p.s. feel free to repost, link, or otherwise borrow TCF in any way you think would enhance your own Thanksgiving.

Andy said...

Oh no, Cricket. I understood full well that they were Vietnam vets. You set the scene perfectly...there was no doubt in my mind in which campaign they had served.

I just really liked the "fireman" analogy.

Oh, thank you for the permission. Seems that the Thanksgiving post is bringing quite the accolades! As well it should...

This 'un ain't half bad, neither! ;)

Buck said...

I'll not reprise what I said over at Jim's place. Well, mebbe I will.

Bill is not unlike ALL of the guys in the Greatest Generation I've ever known. My father never spoke of his time in the Big One (B-17s over Der Vaterland), either, until the very last time we were together... and he knew he was dying. Then the stories came. I don't have words to describe the experience.

My hat's off to Bill and all the other guys who took fire. There's service, and then there's service.

Coz it fits. I'll just add that I never met a guy like the one Andy speaks about. I guess I'm just lucky. ;-)

lime said...

both my grandfathers were ww2 combat vets. both went when they were already married and fathers. one was drafted, one enlisted. one NEVER spoke of his time in the army. the other spoke of friends in the navy but NEVER of the fighting...until the day after my grandmother died and he was cleaning things out. he found a japanese flag and in my entire life i never saw a man so completely change right before my eyes.

may the eddies and the shakes of the world find the peace that seems to elude them.

Brittany said...

This is a beautiful post.

You have such a great way of wording things. I feel as if I am reading a novel, or listening to you speak.

I didn't realize I wasn't following. I am now :)

Joanna Jenkins said...

Very well said and a beautiful tribute on Veteran's Day. Thank you.

Lori said...

I am very touched by this post. I have known my share of vets and most of them would not talk about their experiences of war. This includes my brother who is my best friend. The only thing he ever said to me was, "You don't want to know."

I had a close friend that was in his 80's, that I spent a great deal of time with, in the last months before dementia totally took his mind. He talked to me in depth about his time in Germany and pulled out things he had saved from that time in his life. With tear filled eyes he told me that he will never forget the little children he seen as he road into a town on a train, shortly after the war ended.

I think sometimes people forget that homeless people or people that live in such poverty, are human beings. I also think that some of the vets I have known couldn't help but lose themselves in drunkeness. I can only imagine what it's been to walk in their shoes.

Thank you...I am truely blessed to have read this.

Happy weekend to you and your.

PS You write very well and I am so thankful to have found your blog.

Bossy Betty said...

A good post, Cricket. Great writing. My dad was in WWII and never mentioned his service to us or my mom. Later in his life he attended Army reunions and I think it was a great relief to him to be with people who had been through the same experiences.

Ananda girl said...

Thank you for the reminder. I am too new here to know any of "our" Eddie or Shakes, but yes, I have certainly known them. I often see men and occasionally women like this and wonder what their stories are.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story, beautifully written. My oldest brother was a quadriplegic.
"You don't blame a fireman if there are no fires on his watch. He was there; he was ready; he served. That counts." Exactly!