Every bartender and server is familiar with the regulars that frequent their place of employment. As my first job was in an inexpensive Italian restaurant, many of my regulars were elderly. My customers came in for the six dollar lasagna because it came with soup or salad and a complimentary glass of Carlo Rossi.
Breakfast was even cheaper than dinner. And that meant that the majority of my morning customers had been retired for years and were stuck in their ways when it came to food. One lady grew quickly angry when she ordered a Denver omelet (not on the menu) and I didn’t know the ingredients. She marched in the kitchen to instruct the cook. Another old couple came in frequently, and after they ate, they’d count their change out exactly 15 percent of their bill. Their tip never added up to a dollar and often included pennies.
Though I was familiar with the old fuddy duddies and tolerated them with a smile, young customers and generous customers were a breath of fresh air.
As soon as I met Jim I liked him. He was a kind man; clean cut, with his shirt tucked and his hair parted. His order was always simple, he left behind no mess or extra food, and he tipped fair. But still, there was always something about him that was just off…
“Oh, I’m good Anna, norse, how are you?”
“Doing good, doing good. So what can I getcha?”
“I-I’ll have the eggs over easy norse, wheat toast and sausage, thanks.”
I always wondered what “norse” meant. But even though Jim was a regular, he was still a customer, and there was no respectful way for me to ask about his tic. So I treated it like spinach in someone else’s teeth, and pretended it wasn’t there.
It didn’t take long for him to tell me he was a Vietnam Veteran. His stories were usually about how cops let him off with a warning after pulling him over, due to his Purple Heart. He told me that he’d been a prisoner of war for four years, and that he’d been in isolation, but he never gave me details about his experience there. And although I was incredibly curious, I never found it appropriate to ask about ‘Nam while he was enjoying breakfast.
After six months of working at there, I put in my two- weeks’ notice. I was moving to the east side of Miwaukee to start college.
I told my regulars that my days as their server were numbered. Many people showed their appreciation, tipping four dollars instead of three, and telling me I would be missed. Jim gave me a little statue of the Virgin Mary and a key chain with a black and white college photo of him hanging down. His name and home address was on the reverse side. Though I found the gift a little strange, I thanked him as I carried away his breakfast plate.
Days later, I was a freshman all over again.
My history class, that first semester, was on the conflict in Vietnam. Halfway through the semester our teacher assigned an interview with someone who’d been directly affected by the war. Many students interviewed parents who’d participated in protests, or who’d lost a close friend in war. I knew that Jim’s story would be intense, sad and true. And so I wrote to him, asking for an interview.
Within a week, he’d written back.
I would love to see you whenever you desire to do this. Once, twice, or often good friend. Entirely up to you.
I am sure school and east side terrific. It would have been truly nice to be at a school with a nice person like you. Not too many- any– at the US Military Academy a number of years ago.
It would be super to have a photo of you princess. I think of you often. You are one of a kind Anna. I had Terry M. as my date at West Point Army/Navy game. She became Ms. America and Angela B. who became Ms. Wisconsin and then Circuit Judge and Appeals Judge in Madison, but you are the best Dear Friend.
Anna, I look forward to seeing you occasionally Anna.
Love and Peace,
It should not be Anna Sweet but Sweet Anna. Love you.
In the corner he had a photo copied picture of himself strapped onto a stretcher with slightly mangled legs. Beside it he wrote, Stationary from days when I returned stateside. Where were you to greet me Anna?
I was happy that my idea was panning out, so I tried to ignore the red flags I saw. I had reread Jim’s letter several times and couldn’t understand his scattered train of thought. Calling me a friend was fine, and wishing to have known me when he was young was kind of charming. But why tell me about his dates of the past? And asking why I didn’t greet him when he returned from war?
Instead of responding, I procrastinated. I had a month to delay before the last-minute panic would set in.
Jim continued to send me mail.
The first packet included photocopies of all the membership cards he had. This, I reasoned, could be potentially useful information for my report. But below the prints of “Veterans of Foreign Wars” and “Intertel, certifying an IQ of 160” was Jim’s slanted cursive.
Four Sigma Society card from San Francisco cannot be located. A pretty headed group. You belong here Anna.
Love and Peace,
In this package he included another copy of his graduation photo from West Point Military Academy, the same one that was connected to the key chain he’d given me. There was also a classic picture of four soldiers raising the U.S. flag during World War II. Jim wrote: I was not a part of it. Just in case I didn’t know.
The following week more mail came. In an envelope labeled “Pretty Anna” he’d enclosed a small cheap stretchy bracelet with fake diamonds all around. There was also a photocopy from an article in Parade Magazine from 2003. “Hot Colleges,” was the title. Jim had underlined a little section with a red pencil. “The hardest school to get into is not in the Ivy League but instead the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.” Major alumni pride.
Part of me couldn’t help feeling bad for him. The poor man was clearly lonely but had no one to share his past with.
As I reshuffled through the collection of papers he’d mailed me, I wondered if I’d spend as much time interviewing him and writing the assignment as he had spent locating his history and photocopying it for me.
I knew I had to quit stalling and call him.
Then I received a series of newspaper clippings. I flipped from one to the next, my eyes widening in horror the more I looked.
Each clipping had his now-familiar script on the picture. The first clipping was a full length Brittney Spears holding a football, wearing a small shirt and flirty smile. Anna Sweet is far prettier. I’ll be privileged to be in your company Anna.
Next was a bridal gown blowout sale advertisement with a blonde model in a strapless wedding dress. Anna would be even prettier.
Last was a close up picture of a couple. They were both smiling and leaning towards each other, as if they were about to kiss. A glittery red heart was stuck into one corner, and below it he wrote: Now you won’t see me!
I quietly gathered up the photos and bracelet and set them with the other mailings from Jim. I debated what to do. I wanted to show my roommates and tell my family, and I wanted to throw it all away as well.
Most of all, I found myself wishing that the creepy mailings hadn’t happened until after our interview. His story was bound to be more interesting than anyone else that I knew, but I had no desire to meet him for coffee to ask him questions that could bring back painful memories.
I decided to call him and interview him over the phone.
The phone rang, and I took a deep breath after he answered.
“Hi Jim, this is Anna calling. For the interview?”
“Oh hi Anna, norse, I was wondering when you would call. And I hope you weren’t too upset about those pictures and things I mailed you norse.” He kind of laughed and I did too, awkwardly.
“Yeah that’s okay. I was wondering if you have time for the interview now?”
And so I began.
He spoke for a while about West Point Military Academy, and how he volunteered to go to Vietnam, though he served beside men who were drafted. When it was time for him to return to the States, he reenlisted and stayed in Vietnam.
It was during this time that he was captured, and taken as a prisoner of war.
“I was their hostage for four years,” he said. “But I spent two and a half years in isolation.”
“Why did they isolate you? Did they do that to everyone?”
“Well you know, sometimes enemy soldiers could be bullies and I didn’t like that norse. So I shouted, you know, ‘HEY STOP THAT!’ and things. I stood up for the other prisoners. So the guards hated me and wanted me kept away from everyone else. They didn’t want us united.”
I was shocked, mostly thinking of the length of time he’d been alone. My discomfort with his unusual mailings disappeared and pity seeped into its place. I wasn’t sure if I should apologize for his experience. I also didn’t know if asking more about it was appropriate. Instead I just said, “Wow.”
“I was so skinny when I finally got out. I couldn’t even walk. I reentered the USA on a stretcher, and I couldn’t eat solid food. The Vietnamese had to feed us enough to keep us alive, norse, so every day I ate what I called grass soup. It was just a bowl filled with water and something that looked like grass floating on top.
“You know, after my experience norse I can say I believe that the military is no place for women. Things can go horribly wrong, and you can’t trust your enemies to treat you fair. I slept on the ground for those years, eating grass soup and waiting to either get out or die. It’s no place for women to be.”
Though I was a bit of a blooming feminist, I had nothing to say to counter him. He’d been through hell and I hadn’t. I had no frame of reference to argue with him.
I thanked him and hung up the phone. I was surrounded by notes and ready to write my paper, but all I could do was think.
For someone who spent over two years alone as a POW, Jim actually turned out okay.