Four Air Force buddies and their families sat together at a popular local family style restaurant. The wait staff milled about with drink and food orders.
The mood was light with lots of laughter. We weren’t the same brash young men we once were. The camaraderie was unmistakable.
“That’s a new one–I’ve never seen an opossum on a leash before,” Ken said about our trip to a local zoo.
“Could you imagine someone walking an opossum on a leash in a big city like Chicago?” Joe asked.
“People are so jaded, they wouldn’t even notice,” I answered.
“That alligator weighed close to a thousand pounds,” George said. “Nobody’s going to walk it on a leash.”
“With all the beautiful beach babes–today, I saw a naked beach guy,” Ken complained. “Who wants to see that?” Everybody laughed.
A thin, older man stood at the end of our table. As I later learned–his name was Vernon.
“Are you folks on vacation? Vernon asked.
“Yes, we get together every few years, I answered. We served together overseas.”
Vernon wasn’t there to eavesdrop. I sensed there weren’t many opportunities for him to talk about past military experiences. He’d probably said good-bye many times–friends left, never came back.
“Where did you guys get those gray Air Force caps?” Vernon asked.
“Joe visited the Air Force aviation museum recently and bought them for us,” I answered.
“I’d like to have one. Did you by chance see the U2 reconnaissance plane displayed at the museum?” Vernon asked.
“No, I haven’t had the chance to visit. I plan to some day,” I replied.
“I served during the Korean and Vietnam wars,” Vernon said. “I wasn’t in combat–worked on photographic equipment in spy planes. The U2 was unlike any other aircraft. It had quite a broad wing span.”
The gleam in Vernon’s eyes faded. “He’d buried two wives since he moved to Pensacola.” Gloom didn’t stay around long.
“That’s my 94-year-old girlfriend sitting over there,” Vernon’s eyes twinkled. “Ain’t she a looker?”
We all wanted to be like Vernon–gracious, tough, still making good memories. If we were lucky enough to live that long?
“Would you like Joe to send you an Air Force cap? Joe’s niece offered. “What’s your name and address?”
Vernon gave his name and address. “I really enjoyed talking to you guys,” He said.
“If you don’t mind a slightly used cap–you can have mine,” Joe offered.
“Let me pay you for it,” Vernon said.
“No, I want you to have it,” Joe answered. “I can always get another one. You don’t owe me a thing.”
We traded military experiences and listened to Vernon. Like any good friend would do–Vernon invited us to visit.
A chain of brotherhood stretched from the Korean War to the first Gulf War. We’d served our country proudly in time of need.