I darted glances at the bent frame of the angry seventy-two year old man shuffling by my side to the ultrasound exam room. His snow white hair and wrinkles gave the appearance of great age, but he vibrated with a barely suppressed fury that seemed more appropriate for someone much younger.
My hectic schedule had caused me to be an hour behind for his appointment, but his anger seemed out of proportion to my being late. Others might tremble in the face of such wrath, but I’d faced down other tough characters during my career. I unleashed the considerable charm I’d inherited from my father, determined to draw this guy from his ugly mood if only for a moment. But, my preliminary instructions for the exam, which usually brought a smile to most patients, fell flat.
I inquired about his work prior to retirement. He gave minimal answers. Even my cheerful inquiry of “What do you do when you’re not hanging out in hospitals having tests done?” brought a curt reply of “nothing.”
Silence hung in the darkened exam room like an oppressive fog. On edge and uncomfortable, I found it difficult to breathe.
He rejected my attempts to draw him out, but inexplicably, I felt an intense need to connect with him. I refused to relinquish verbal contact, so when a faded marking on his arm caught my attention, I changed tactics. “There’s always an interesting story behind a tattoo. Can I ask how you got that?”
He turned his bleak, lifeless eyes towards me. “I got that when I was young and foolish during World War II,” he explained in a dull voice. Instinctively, I understood the silent words he telegraphed, ‘when I was young and still alive!’
The implied message discomforted me, but I pressed for details anyway. “What did you do during the war?”
His nostrils flared as he exhaled deeply. The quiet noise punctured the leaden silence in the room. “I was a lieutenant in the infantry,” he said, his low voice rough with emotion.
I suddenly realized I’d reached the limits of decency in questioning the old man, so I squeezed his arm. “If this is too difficult, we don’t have to talk about it.”
Another deep sigh punched me in the chest. He whispered, “I know…but I’d like to tell you.” With flashes of controlled emotion, he told me about his job as a group leader in the first wave of the invasion on D-day. Their landing craft took fire. Most of his men died instantly. The gentleman’s voice shook with regret. “I was so much older than those boys,” he said. “None of them knew combat. I couldn’t help them.”
“How old were you?”
“Twenty-three,” he mumbled.
“You were just a youngster. You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
He ignored my comment. “I was ancient compared with those seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year olds. It was such a waste…such a huge waste…” His voice trailed off. In the semi-darkness of the exam room, I saw faces of young men long dead reflected in his eyes.
I felt like a heel for bringing up long suppressed memories, yet somehow the old man seemed more alive. I vowed to listen as long as he wished to talk; I didn’t care if it made me even later than I already was for my next appointment.
“They assigned me a new group of men. We went inland to take more ground.”
Details were sketchy and hesitantly presented, but I didn’t press for more than he wished to give. Deep down, I recognized this was a subject he rarely spoke about.
He shook his head and stared intently at my face. “I don’t know why I survived. No family, no sweetheart. Those guys who died lost everything. I had nothing to lose.”
The bitter emotion strangling his voice touched me to the core. With the utter conviction of someone who’s never faced death before, I uttered the senseless platitude, “There must have been a reason for you to survive.”
A sardonic chuckle startled me. “Well, it's been over fifty years, and I’ve never figured it out. If you were to ask me when the war ended, I'd tell you it ended two weeks ago. I never got over what I saw or the bad things I did.
“My life became better after a Colonel chose me as his aide. No responsibility for anyone but myself. I was in danger at the front lines gathering information, but always got out safely even though artillery fire destroyed my jeep once. Luckily, I had sense enough to run when a series of explosions hit the road ahead of me. I exited the vehicle seconds before it blew up.”
“Oh my God!” I grabbed the old man’s arm.
“You know,” he continued, “I married a couple of times after the war, but the marriages didn’t last. Never had children. Couldn’t hold a steady job either.” His face dropped. “Why am I still here?”
By this time, I had completed his test. He fell silent, but this time, the quiet felt less oppressive.
I left the room to finish my paperwork and came back to walk Mr. Martin to the exit. He ambled along in companionable silence, a real change from his attitude just a short time ago. When we reached the door, he said goodbye and turned to leave.
I called him back. “Sir, can I shake your hand?”
He searched my face with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “I guess so, but why?” he demanded as he stuck out his hand.
“I just want to thank you for all you’ve done.”
He blinked rapidly and whispered, “Thank you.” His firm grip expressed the emotions I saw warring on his face. He turned and left without another word.
With tears in my eyes, I watched an amazing metamorphosis. As Mr. Martin walked away, his slumped shoulders unfurled like a flag catching a sudden stiff breeze. Even the shuffling gate of the old man became more sure and confident. In my mind’s eye, I saw the ghost of a young man, ripe with potential, before the demons of war had ravaged his soul.
Inside, I was saluting.