More than just breakfast

Some things — plenty of them, actually — are more important than baseball. This is one of them.

The breakfast bar at Frisch’s Big Boy is one of my favorite places. It’s not exactly doctor-approved, however, so I only go there two or three times a year. Today was one of those times. Turns out, I got a lot more than food.

As I sat down, I saw a fellow gray-haired gentleman sitting across the room, by himself, with a VIETNAM hat and a Marines logo. And as the word “Vietnam” always does, it made me sad and angry at the same time, remembering the stupidity and shameful, pointless loss of life from 1959-1975.

I was lucky; I didn’t have to go. My draft lottery number was 181. My relief at not having to go overseas is always tempered with guilt that I didn’t go, and anger that anyone had to go at all.

And of course, we tried to act like Vietnam didn’t happen at all, as soon as we got out and Saigon fell. The vets were largely ignored at a time when they really needed help coping with what they went through over there. I think that’s what leads to many scenes like this morning’s, where a vet has breakfast alone, or with other vets. They seem to seek each other out and share the bond that being “in country” gave them.

So when I see a Vietnam vet these days, I try to quietly go over and thank them for their service, and tell him/her I’m sorry they had to go at all. It isn’t much, but in reality, there’s probably nothing that can truly heal them or make up for their sacrifice.

“At least I can buy him breakfast,” I thought. So I asked the server to give me the man’s check, and after I paid, I approached him.

“Excuse me. Were you “in country?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Thanks for your service; I’m glad you made it back, but I’m even more sorry that you had to go there at all.”

“Don’t be sorry. Actually, I volunteered to go.”

I was flabbergasted. Hardly anyone volunteered for that mess.

Boy, I have just met a real man, I thought. We chatted for a minute or two about how senseless the whole thing was, and what a waste of human life it became. He wasn’t bitter, nor was he upset that he went to Vietnam and I didn’t.

“That’s why politicians don’t fight wars,” he told me.

I thanked him again, and we shook hands. Then I had to leave, because I could feel the tears coming.

And I thought of our two sons, and how I hope they never have to experience anything as pointless and pathetic as Vietnam.

I am not a hawk, nor am I a super-patriot. But I believe in being respectful when the National Anthem is played at ballgames. That means looking at the flag, with hand or cap over the heart, and taking a moment to remember those who sacrificed so much for the rest of us, so we can have our freedoms and have time to go to games.

“An awful lot of people gave it up so that we can be here today,” I have told my sons. “It only takes a minute to respect them and appreciate them. You don’t have to dwell on it, but don’t forget them, either.”

Unfortunately, wars continue to happen, so it seems that each generation has “its” war that it can identify with: World War II; Korea; Vietnam; the various Middle East conflicts; and on and on. I’m sure each generation has its own feelings about what it meant to serve during those times.

For persons of my age, Vietnam was that war. And one of the most moving experiences of my life was a visit to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. As I walked along the wall and saw all the names of those who were killed in action, there were many people with heads bowed and eyes filled with tears.

And there was silence. Total silence. For the length of the memorial. Not one word.

It was as though the grief and anger and sorrow was palpable; it was immersive. I’ll never forget it.

I hope the rest of us never forget it, either.