Along The Way
Along the way in our lives, we each meet many different people. Some are forgotten with the passing of time, while others remain part of our memories, even if the meeting was but for a brief moment. Why some are permanent memories and others not may be due to the impact they have on us at the time. Having been around for six decades, a great many people have touched my life. This is the story of one of those people who even after 40 years I still remember each Veterans Day.
I was stationed at a base in the New Mexico desert in the early-1970s. The Air Force base I worked on was divided into two separate areas. One was so secret that you could not even say it was a secret part of the base. The other was a military base like many others during the Vietnam War era. My job was in the dental field at the base clinic. It was not a glorious or heroic military job, but one that needed to be done like many others.
Each morning before my patients came in I would pick up their records and review what dental problems were likely bringing them in for an appointment. I looked at past history and made sure x-rays were up to date. On this particular day one of my patient’s x-rays revealed he had long ago lost his teeth and wore dentures. I could easily see the bones in his jaws had receded to the point where his teeth would be difficult to hold in place. I could also tell his lower face would show the clear signs of long term bone loss. The record revealed he had been in many times over the years for treatment of his gums. By the color coded tags on the outside of his record I knew he was a retired army veteran. The base clinic treated not only active military but retired soldiers also.
When the time came I entered the waiting room to find my patient. I knew the small chunky man sitting next to the front window by his receded jaw line was to be my next patient. He was trying to read a magazine by holding it in the sunlight that was coming through the window as he looked through his bifocals.His record said he was a retired sergeant. So I did what I usually did with a retired military man, I called him by his name and rank. He looked up and smiled, and with a sharp snap stood up with a “yes sir” as he laid down the magazine. I told him I was enlisted and sir was not necessary as we started down the hall way. The man I had never met before patted me on the shoulder and began to tell me of his life.
His walk was slow and I never asked what was wrong with his legs. Our slow pace gave him time to tell me of his life in the military during the war, the big one, World War II. With great detail he told me of his days in the war as part of a tank crew in Africa and Europe. By the time we reached the treatment room he had told me of battles and old friends. His telling of the stories made me smile, even if it was about war. He talked of old friends as if I should have known each of them personally. The sergeant had a way of making you feel he had known you all his life.
In between battles stories I managed to remove his false teeth and examine his swollen red gums, covered in white splotches. I found a couple of places where his dentures needed adjusting to help with the obvious sore spots. The whole time I am checking his mouth and adjusting his dentures he continued to tell me of the war and old friends.I was concerned over the condition of his gums and the white splotches on them. When I questioned him about his gums, he only replied that they had always been like that. He would get a new pair of dentures made and in a few months the white places would be back. He did not complain, I guess he figured dentures did that and no need to complain.
He talked about General George Patton several times during our visit. I was never sure whether he loved or hated him. But, he was glad he and his friends served under Patton. But the one thing I was sure of is that he was proud of his service and the men that he fought alongside of and those that died in that war. He never talked directly about the horrors of his war. Like many who experienced those difficult times he choose to leave those memories behind and remember the men he called friends. Only those men and women who served in combat can ever really know the terribleness of war and the hope no one may have to experience it. But the reality of our world is soldiers die and war is still terrible even today.
He never talked of family and life after the war. He only talked of the one thing that made a difference in his life, the Army.
I told the sergeant that I was going to make an appointment with a doctor to check out the places in his mouth, with hopes of helping him out. As I returned his teeth to him I commented on how clean and white he kept them. He placed them in his month and explained he cleaned them every night before bed and soaked them in Clorox all night. I made him an appointment for new dentures and instructions on how to care for them at night.
A couple of days later the receptionist called my office and asked if I could come to the waiting room, that I had a visitor. As I came up the hallway I could see him standing there as proud as any soldier could be. He wore his faded helmet and an old Eisenhower jacket. On his chest were a dozen ribbons from campaigns fought long ago and forgotten by most. The stripes of rank on his sleeves needed to be restitched before they fell off. On his shoulder was the faded patch I guessed to be George Patton’s outfit. And on his chest hung a single medal, a Purple Heart. I wished that I had asked about the medal, I know it would have been a story worth hearing.
He smiled and held out a worn old picture as he said, “Here are my buddies.” The picture was of three soldiers standing in front of a muddy tank and there alongside the three friends was Patton. In my life I have met many men and women, none more proud of being a veteran than this old tank soldier was. On this Veterans Day shake the hand of a veteran and thank them for their service to our great country. Some served on the front lines while others served in support jobs, but all are proud American veterans. Perhaps someday I will once again meet that sergeant as I look Thru the Lens.