I recently waited on a couple who are now my favorite customers to date. I was working a lunch shift when this old black dude and his wife were put in my station. I was in the back when they were sat so I didn't see them until they were already in the booth. He was in his mid-eighties, she a bit younger. As I approached the table, I liked them immediately; they were laughing and joking with each other like two teenagers in love. He was wearing a Marine Corps/ Korea cap, so I asked if I could shake his hand. It's something I do with every veteran or military person who walks in the door. I'm like a stalker that way; just have to thank them for risking their lives for people they'll never meet, that sort of thing. He had a firm grip, friendly and steady. "Yeah, I lost both my legs in that war," he said. When he said that, his expression flickered for a moment, remembering, and the smile slipped.
"You got those Bionic Man computer legs or the old-fashioned prosthetics?" I asked, smiling. His face lit up with a giant grin again and he replied, "No, no, no, I don't want nothing to do with those computer legs! With my luck, some smart ass kid would figure out a way to tap into them with his game controller and I'd suddenly start running when I wanted to stay put!" I laughed and pretended to press buttons. "Yeah, let's mess with this old dude," I said. He and his wife cackled as I pretended to be jerked sideways with legs gone crazy.
That broke the ice and they told me their stories. I love that, when people share their tales with me. He lost his legs in 1952, one above the knee, one below, and spent the rest of that year in a military hospital learning how to walk again. I told him about my aunt, the one who was paralyzed by polio, and how she was so bitter and angry before a hilarious and irreverent old priest got ahold of her and told her to stop feeling so sorry for herself. "Yeah, I went through that," he told me. "I was lying on my bed, looking at the stumps that used to be my legs, and was just...pissed off. Really bitter, really hating what had happened to me. A nurse came in and told me to quit my bellyaching and get my ass down to the burn unit. I went just to shut her up; got in my wheelchair and just went. Hon, I saw men there without noses or lips, hands and feet burned off, no ears, no hair, eyes gone, some without faces at all."
I teared up a bit at that. "Johnny Got His Gun," I said, and he nodded. "Dozens of 'em. I stopped feeling sorry for myself after that and just thanked God I had such a little thing happen to me. A little nothing that got me home." He pointed at his wife. "Home to her." She reached across the table and held his hand. "How long you been married?" I asked. "Since 1954," she answered. "I married him after he came home."
"Did you know him before?"
"Did you know him before?"
"Oh, yes. Loved him then too."
"Did you ever see The Best Years of Our Lives?" (I always have to make a movie reference)
"It was just like that," he replied. "She wouldn't leave me alone."
"Not until he married me," she said. "I wanted him. He was always whole to me."
"Did you ever see any of the returning vets with those weird curved legs, like grasshoppers?"
He nodded. "That's where we just come from right now. I was being fitted for new legs. Those boys get those legs on and jump right up to the ceiling. I don't want none of that! Let them have that kind of fun. Just leave me my old legs. I'm good with those."
"Remember your first set?" his wife asked. He laughed.
"They were white. They didn't make negro legs back in 1952. I had to wear white legs for about ten years. My mom laughed; told me she always knew I was half white! And heavy! Those things were solid wood."
We talked for another half an hour. I shamelessly neglected my other tables who, it turns out, didn't mind. They were all listening to this extraordinary couple tell their extraordinary stories. I learned how them met, how tough it was to learn how to walk with those heavy ass legs, what a joy life was for them, how every minute was precious, even the bad ones. "There's always somebody worse off than you," he said. "Always. You think any differently, you got a world of trouble inside your head."
Bob Dylan wrote, "There are people that you don't forget, even though you only seen 'em one time or two." That was what happened with the Gilberts. Al and Melissa, married fifty-seven years and loving each other every minute of it. I will never forget them and I will always love them. What a lucky day for me, to have them come and sit in my station. You never know who you're going to meet, day to day, in all walks of life. You can wade through a sea of faces, all in a dull sepia tint or a soft, dull grey, passing you by without your noticing any of them. I've been both; dull grey and light bulb bright to others, depending on the times and whether I'm noticed or not. Then there are the shining moments, those brief sojourns into a stranger's life, that give you something to think about. With a grin.
Take care, all of you shining moments out there. Remember to grin.