I was 28 years old when I met Joel. I remember our first meeting well. I was walking home from the bus stop early one morning, after working a graveyard shift.
On top of living in a difficult period of my life, graveyard shift did not suit me. Not only was I physically tired, but I was weary with life. It is sad that a young man such as I was could be so weary. As I neared the house where I rented a room, Joel approached me. He was a tired and obviously homeless man. I could see in his eyes that he knew hardship. He smelled. Bad. Life had not been kind to Joel. It is a look you recognize when you've been there yourself. Yet there was a gentleness about him, and a friendliness that sparked something within me.
He held out his hand and in it was some coins. He counted them out for me. Then he put his other hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye with all the seriousness any man ever possessed, and said: "If I had another 38 cents I could walk over to yonder store (he gestured) and buy me a bottle of wine." I was in no position to be giving money away. I was counting my own spare change just to get by. But here stood in front of me a good man who had been through hell. This much I already knew about him, just by looking in his eyes. Without saying a word I reached in my pocket where I had two quarters and I gave them to him, and then without speaking I started to walk on my way. "Wait...", he said. I had given him more than he needed and he wanted to give me the difference. I didn't want further interaction so I told him to keep the change and walked on.
I didn't think anything more of it until I saw him again a couple weeks later as I was once again walking home from the bus stop after a graveyard shift. He approached me with a smile and greeted me as if we had been lifelong friends. He reached into his pocket, counted out 12 cents, then handed it to me. It was the difference between what he needed and what I gave him the last time we met. He seemed so proud to be able to repay me! I don't know if I was already in a better mood this time, or if his joy spread to me, but this time I smiled back and talked with him. He told me his name. He told me he lived in so-and-so's shed behind their house several blocks over, but don't tell anyone cuz if the neighbors found out he'd have to find somewhere else. His cheerfulness uplifted me, but when I ran out of things to say I started back on my way home.
"Wait...", he said. He reached in his pocket, counted out how much he had, put his other hand on my shoulder, and told me how much more he needed to be able to walk over to yonder store and buy him a bottle of wine. And that's when I realized... Even though Joel was a homeless alcoholic, paying me what he felt he owed me came first to him. Before asking for anything of me he needed to pay his debt to me. This time I reached into my pocket and stuck around while Joel counted out the exact change that was due me. Joel and I became friends that day, and a better friend I have never had.
Over the following weeks and months I ran into Joel many more times. I would sometimes seek him out. I would not only give him what he needed to buy a bottle of wine at "yonder store" but I'd walk down to the park by the lake and hang out with him. And we'd talk. We talked a lot. I was too young, too numb, to talk about the horrors in my life. So Joel told me about his. He pretty much told me everything about his life.
and a rough life it had been. His upbringing wasn't great, yet he managed to keep life together enough to have a job, get married, and have children.
And then came Vietnam. He was drafted, and off he went to do his duty. But like many, war was hell for Joel. And like many, the horrors of war were too much for Joel. He came back a broken man. A shell of a human being. And like many coming home from Vietnam, there was no sympathy. No understanding. No compassion. No support, and precious few resources. Joel was never able to integrate back into "life at home". He eventually lost his wife. Lost his family. Lost... everything. Ended up on the streets, where he remained until his death.
Joel's shell lived on many years after the war. But as sure as I'm typing this... Joel died in that war.
On this day, Memorial Day, when we remember those who were killed in war, I'm reminded that in many cases, those were the lucky ones. For many, like Joel, death took years, and sometimes decades, to finally claim their victim.
War is Hell. I long for the day when we honor those who have fallen by putting an end to it. There is no glory in war. There is no honor to be found in it. There is no patriotic hooplah to be found in it. There is only hell, and hell abundant.
People sometimes joke with me over my use of the word "yonder". I will reference things as "over yonder bridge" or "yonder store" or whatnot... It is my tribute to Joel. Goodbye Joel. You were the best friend that 38 cents ever bought.